When a ship carrying Syrian refugees sank off the coast of Lesbos on October 28, 2015, the world saw a global human need and overwhelming sadness and tragedy. It was a mounting geopolitical crisis – and, if the many thousands of volunteers were any indicator, the world wanted to help.
Lesbos is a symbol of the opportunity and challenge in front of us today. On one hand, thanks to new media, people became immediately aware of the crisis unfolding, and many were spurred to action. On the other hand, not all of that potential help was realized. Government and NGO resources weren’t activated to their full capacity, people’s skills weren’t adequately deployed, and the crisis continues to mount.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, often called Industry 4.0, is imminent. We are living through a pace of technology advancements like never before, and in this new era, contextual machines and materials, powered by software that is interconnected by application programming interfaces (APIs), will drive change at an unprecedented level.
For a moment, let’s consider a world in which all of that breakthrough technology is maximized. Where the skills of our diverse global population are effectively utilized. And where governments operate without friction.
In that world, the Lesbos of tomorrow becomes a case study for how society can spring to action quickly and effectively, and yield results using all available resources efficiently.
The agile mindset that is changing software today also provides a transformational path to become that kind of society: an agile society.
The path to agility
By definition, “being agile” means being able to move and understand quickly and easily. It’s a phrase that is particularly meaningful in the software development world, describing a culture of self-direction, cross-functional collaboration, continuous improvement and delivery of value and quality. The original “Agile Manifesto” presents a vision for work that is built around “early and continuous delivery”, “motivated individuals”, and, ultimately, an output that is sustainable.
As technology changes at an unprecedented rate, society must reflect these agile principles in order to discern what is most important and take action quickly.
This means critically evaluating how organizations and institutions are run. Eschewing rules in favor of outcomes; responding to change over following a rigid and static plan; and encouraging participation and self-direction over imposing command-and-control with an outdated hierarchy.
These shifts are not going to be easy, nor are they going to come overnight. As leaders of public and private organizations, it is our responsibility to lead the charge; we must begin taking steps to set in motion this shift to an agile society. I would recommend we start by examining and acting on three areas of critical importance: 1) How we govern; 2) How we unlock the potential of our people; and 3) How we maximize our use of technology.
Cut the red tape
Governing bodies are challenged to operate with agility. To adapt with speed and poise to the evolving needs of their citizens. To provide civic services to their constituents without undue friction or bureaucracy – thereby engendering trust, social welfare and economic growth.
Often governments and governing institutions are regarded as slow to innovate when compared with their private sector counterparts. But those that embrace the concepts of agility, emphasize outcomes over bureaucratic process, and reward self-direction and merit – as opposed to time served – are seeing tremendous gains in engagement of their teams and the public they serve.
One example in the United States is a nonprofit called Code for America. It’s an organization committed to modernizing municipal government IT programs and making working in government fun and creative. One of their most compelling projects is empowering cities to develop an open-source web application to solve a citizen-selected civic problem. That application can then be used or adapted by any city government, and the results have been remarkable – simultaneously, officials and citizens have addressed local problems while also reducing public IT costs by enabling code sharing among government entities.
Empower a diverse workforce
The success of organizations of all types is directly proportionate to the empowerment and engagement of its people. Central to that is building an inclusive workforce that reflects the global population and draws upon a variety of skills, backgrounds and perspectives.
As the CEO of a global company, I look at this in two ways.
First, it’s about ensuring the workforce you have feel comfortable expressing themselves both personally and professionally, and have access to a safe and secure work environment. It has to be about the ideas that drive innovation and rejection of any kind of discrimination, whether on the basis of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, appearance or anything else. Such discrimination will lead to an environment that is closed and not creative. Good ideas and hard work are not the exclusive domain of one type of person. In my experience, more diversity constructively drives more robust solutions.
Second, it’s about attracting future employees and one place that does not get enough attention in technology is gender equality. According to No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, the percentage of women in the global workforce has stagnated at about 55 percent, and new barriers continue to rise – for example, in developing countries, 200 million fewer women than men have access to online technology.
I am passionate about increasing the number of women in the global workforce – specifically in tech – beginning by introducing girls to STEM education at a young age. In order to make a material impact in tech, we need to ensure that young women feel empowered in the sciences at a much earlier age. The number of young women entering sciences from high school is a proxy for building a more diverse technical workforce and we are not seeing nearly as many women as men in these programs. Early high school needs to be the battle ground for recruitment of future female technical superstars.
Unleash the power of tech
Software is the single most transformative force in today’s global economy. According to a November 2015 global survey of 250 business leaders by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, two-thirds (66 percent) say that their company’s future depends on the quality of their software. This is as important for business as it is for society.
Thousands of systems that protect us are enabled by software. Think about the earthquake warning systems miles off the coasts of many major cities. The software connects each buoy, ensures that each is functioning properly, protects the data they collect and compiles it in dashboards that paint a real-time, actionable picture of the threat.
Software is also fueling Industry 4.0 and is at the heart of production built around individuals. As Industry 4.0 evolves, APIs will take center stage, linking devices and production systems to one another and ushering in an incredible era of customization – for instance, allowing your failing mobile phone to alert the factory that a replacement is needed, outfitted with all of the custom settings you need, at precisely the moment you need it.
The key to rapid advancement will be to make technology more open and secure. For example, think about that same earthquake warning system in our reimagined society. It could be built on open source technologies, which would enable other governments to use the same code base and modify it to their own needs. The data would be open, allowing other agencies to analyze trends and create data models to apply to their own locales. And commercial interests could build applications with that data, using APIs and adhering to heightened levels of quality and security.
Ever since the US Census made its data publicly available, thousands of businesses have accessed the rich demographic data for their own use. This had led to much better business decisions – from countless companies accessing the data to explore a potential market to new start-ups that are data laboratories intent on delivering insight from data mining.
The time is now
We’re living in a remarkable time: in an application economy, where people are connected with brands and one another like never before; on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where customization will be key and where software will link the Internet of Things with Industry 4.0.
But we will only be able to maximize this technology if we prepare as a society. This needs to start with an overhaul of the way we govern, empower people and use the technology we’re creating and consuming.
Let’s take advantage of this remarkable time to transform ourselves into a truly agile society.