How to predict the future of Web 2.0?

When you’re faced with a challenge at work, in your personal life or are helping someone you know problem solve, what process do you follow? If you’re someone considering (or building) the next great Web 2.0 application or product, what are you looking at to decide if you should even bother to build it?

Right this minute I’m involved in several initiatives that are blazing trails. Doing things that have kinda, sorta been done before but not fully, not efficiently or in a particular way. So to be truly innovative, gain attention and create something new, it’s important to look behind you at what’s been done, what worked and what didn’t. Then gain a sense of where things are at right now…and only then make decisions on next steps.

I’m a bit of a Clayton Christenson devotee (he’s a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS)). I’ve read several of his books and listened to him speak (and, by the way, I delight in his discussions surrounding open source). One of his many observations and challenges to Harvard is surrounding their case study method. It’s basis is rooted in looking back at what worked, dissecting it within the context of the time it happened and the macro and micro economic environment, and figure out what were the key elements that defined best practices and success criteria.

The problem is that their case study method is historical in nature and not focused on the future.

I’m well aware that it’s extremely important to examine the lessons of the past and learn from them.  Taking into consideration the past, examining the present and then coupling those lessons and information with possible future scenarios — and then betting on which ones are most likely to take place — is how smart entrepreneurs build great companies.

Christenson has clearly stated this backward-looking dilemma and it appears that HBS is trying to figure out what *is* an appropriate teaching method for the business leadership of tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see what they end up doing.

Wayne Gretzky famously said (when asked why he was such a great hockey player), “I don’t skate to where the puck is…I skate to where the buck is going to be.” What is non-obvious to most people about this statement, however, is that Gretzky learned all the lessons of the past — playing, playing and playing thus going through hundreds of scenarios — so that he was able to get into a mindset and place where he was adept at predicting where the puck was going to be.

Smart entrepreneurs and businesspeople often intuitively perform scenario planning when looking at opportunities. “Trust your gut” seems to be the mantra but then other people wrestle with how to create a methodology that they can follow, replicate or extend. Oh….if it were only so simple!

Wikipedia describes scenario planning thusly:

The basic method is that a group of analysts generate simulation games for policy makers. The games combine known facts about the future, such as demographics, geography, military, political and industrial information, and mineral reserves, with particular possible social, technical and political trends which can be defined as driving forces.

Scenario planning can include elements that are difficult to formalize, such as subjective interpretations of facts, shifts in values, new regulations or inventions.

These combinations of fact and possible social changes are called “scenarios.” The scenarios usually include plausible, but unexpectedly important situations and problems that exist in some small form in the present day.

As one example of the importance of getting smart people in a room to articulate and agree upon plausible scenarios, I wrote about one former Microsoft executive’s company in February of last year. Nathan Myhrvold at Intellectual Ventures is certainly using scenario planning to try to corner the market on intellectual property in certain areas (by filing patents that can later be used for licensing purposes). As a creator of Web 2.0 applications and hosted offerings, how do you predict the future of Web 2.0? What elements do you look at?  What do you do when you think about inventing the future?

The magic sauce to scenario planning is what people don’t see and cannot anticipate. The disruptive technology, processes or use of enablers (like the internet itself) that to some people provides obvious opportunities to which they can build products and offer services — are simply non-obvious to so many others.

Find people that think strategically and also see the big picture. Don’t try to do stuff in a vacuum or too narrowly if you’re a linear, serial process thinker. Make sure that you connect with people that see the dots that other people don’t see (and people that really “get it” and see the opportunity too) to make sure that you have the information you need to take your leap and build the next great Web 2.0 app.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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