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The Future of the Future: The power of online learning systems

This article appears in the issue July/August 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 7]


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With the onset of a knowledge economy, accelerating advances in information systems are driving a technological revolution that is transforming life. The decoding of the human genome, for instance, was only possible by using a dozen supercomputers to decipher the 3 billion bits of information stored in DNA. For the first time in history, knowledge--the very heart of scientific progress--is being harnessed systematically on a massive scale. The result is that breakthroughs are appearing everywhere. We can now realistically envision replacing oil with wind, sunlight, biomass and other energy sources; medical control over the genetic process of life itself; computer power becoming cheap and infinite; mobile communications at lighting speeds; robots serving as helpers and caregivers; and much, much more to come. The TechCast Project Most organizations sense the world is passing through this technological revolution, but they lack convenient, reliable information to guide decisions.

The TechCast Project

The TechCast Project, conducted at George Washington University's Institute for Knowledge & Innovation (gwu.edu/~iki), fills that need by gathering background information and pooling the knowledge of 100 experts working online around the globe to forecast breakthroughs in all fields. Results are automatically aggregated and distributed over the site to corporations, governments, scientists and the public--anywhere in the world, on any prominent technology, in real time.

Results have been published in scientific journals, widely reported in the media and used by organizations around the globe. The site reaches 1 million hits per year, and we have worked with corporations, governments and other organizations. We find this approach to be very powerful. It can forecast any issue in any field, results are replicable within +/- 3 years and the forecasting process itself enhances understanding. Our clients tell us that there is nothing else like it.

Typical results are organized in bubble charts that illustrate three types of forecasts: the most likely year each breakthrough will enter the mainstream, the expected size of the economic market, and the confidence of our experts in the forecast. The chart on this page illustrates the results for selected technologies that are considered especially strategic because they have big impacts. Similar charts organize forecasts in seven technical fields covering the entire spectrum of science and technology.

The obvious question raised by forecasts of this type is, "How accurate are the results?" TechCast has been using the method for 15 years on a variety of projects, and results show variation among forecasts averages +/- 3 years, with standard deviations averaging 4.3 years. We have also recorded "arrivals" of several technologies, all roughly within the likely error band of +/- 3 years. Those results are compelling because the expert panel changed over that time, as did the prospects for various technologies and other general conditions. Results also hold up well compared to parallel studies conducted for other purposes.

Knowledge management concepts offer a useful perspective for understanding the rationale underlying the methodology. From a KM view, the approach can be understood as a learning system, conducted by a community of practice to continually improve results. The process of gathering background information, organizing it into a coherent analysis, surveying experts and using results to improve the system allows the experts to continually learn and thereby approach a scientific consensus. That consensus can be in error, of course. But it represents a synthesis of the best available background information and authoritative knowledge to produce the best possible answer to a tough question. And experts may have their own bias, naturally, but it is usually distributed normally, washing out in the aggregate results.

If the present uncertainty is defined as 100 percent, we have found through experience that the process reduces uncertainty to about 20 percent to 30 percent. That outcome can be seen as good enough to get decision-makers into the right ballpark.

Recommendations

Almost all organizations need technology forecasts to conduct their strategic planning because the technology revolution is transforming products, services and entire industries; it changes the way organizations work and alters the world itself. That is especially true of IT, publishing, entertainment, banking, healthcare, media, defense and other fields changing constantly and facing upheavals. Online learning systems are productive because understanding the coming wave of disruptive technologies is essential for organizational survival. For instance, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is poised to move telephone calls to the Internet en masse, threatening traditional telecoms. Approached in a creative way, however, telecoms are learning to co-opt VOIP by introducing their own versions.

Apart from technology forecasting, online learning systems hold great promise for pooling the organization's best minds for any purpose. All organizations contain unplumbed tacit knowledge that is vastly underemployed, and online learning systems can tap into that resource for marketing forecasts, customer insights, environmental scanning and strategic planning, to name a few applications. The Web hosts a variety of services for conducting surveys; wikis are proving great for that purpose, and lots of sites are experimenting with survey formats, such as the Technology Review (technologyreview.com) site of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There's no better way to develop a consensus on critical issues, frame scenarios, evaluate strategic alternatives and manage almost any type of decision.

Whatever the method and purpose, all organizations need to develop some type of well-thought plan to forecast and adapt to the wave of technological change that is upon us. There may be uncertainty about specific breakthroughs, but there is very little uncertainty that we are going to see plenty of technological change over the planning horizon.


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