Along with 180,000+ other people, I attended the Consumer Electronics Tradeshow this January.  I was fortunate to be part of a curated group through the NACD CES Experience, providing dynamic conversation with like-minded directors looking to identify future trends. 

 During the show , it became clear there was not any one big announcement or ground-breaking new technology to report on (though the Bell Helicopter big passenger drone prototype was fun to see), but rather continued improvements upon what we are coming to expect as consumers. The promise of a better, faster internet experience when 5G becomes the reality could be the pre-requisite to the next big thing in consumer electronics.   Network connectivity and speed will radically change the digital experience and we need to continue to prepare for that to come and impact how we execute on strategies in our businesses. 

 Artificial Intelligence connected to everything (IOT or the internet of things) is moving into our most private of spaces – the bathroom.  Kohler has developed mirrors that allow you to talk to Alexa or other digital concierge services.  “Alexa, Alexa on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”  Is that the idea? Bath tubs that can respond to your voice to fill the tub to just the right level.  Toilets that can do almost everything for you and respond to your voice.  Outside of the bathroom, the kitchen is filled with devices and tools to making cooking easier, guided step by step with a digital concierge and security systems improve the ability to manage your home via whichever digital voice service you prefer. 

Cars continue to get smarter moving toward full autonomy.  And, televisions get bigger, bolder, clearer and more flexible than the static flat screen on the wall.  Virtual reality is a fun idea, but still leaves most feeling queasy so more emphasis will be placed on augmented reality to improve visualization without impacting the vestibular system of the humans using all of these new technologies. 

What was more striking to me at CES this year was the realization that none of what we saw really surprised any of us in our group.  We have all come to a point of acceptance that technology and connectivity weaves in and out of our life at points we used to believe to be private or disconnected.  We simply accept this new reality as individual consumers.  So for me, the takeaways for c-suite executives and boards is less about the technology and more about how you are preparing the culture in your organization to adopt and adjust as these technologies fully make their way into our lives as consumers and throughout all facets of your organization. 

 Shaping the Culture of Your Company

The old saying by many company leaders that “we’re not a technology company, we are a fill in the blank company,” just won’t cut it any more.  Be prepared for shifts in how you sell your products and services.  Whether you are in manufacturing, professional services and b2b or serve the end consumer, humans buy your products and services and we, humans, have all come to live, think and be persuaded differently as a result of these technological shifts. Mapping your customer experience and how they interact with you through technology is critical to understanding the future needs in your business.  Researching and studying how your competitors are adapting is not a one and done exercise, but a continual requirement to stay ahead.

Likewise, your work forces will continue to change.  It’s not just robotics with AI and how that could replace humans, it’s how the humans you have working for you will also change and how the skills you need to attract, retain and motivate them will evolve.  How are you preparing for these shifts?  This is a big takeaway from CES – consumers accept this new reality, but HR and leadership to create the right culture inside most companies are still sticking to the mantra “we’re not a technology company.” 

 The Digital Divide:  not just the have and have nots but also urban living versus everybody else

Another observation from CES was the realization that there is a real divide developing in how people will need and use technology in the large urban areas versus suburban and rural areas.  It’s estimated that half of the world now lives in urban areas so the emphasis is on solving urban problems as a priority. 

In urban areas people live in high-rise buildings and use public transportation to get where they are going.  They need to address the growing number of people in confined spaces and the need for clean food, energy, air, water and transportation safely to and from the places humans need to go.  Driverless cars won’t solve a gridlock problem if everyone still wants to sit by themselves in a car.  Many exhibitors at CES envision multi-person vehicles (like mini-buses) and self-driving delivery trucks providing access to fresh food and services.

 Out in suburbia and rural environments, however, the demand and needs are much different.  It’s going to take a lot longer for people used to living with sprawling homes, big back yards and two or three car garages to give up their personal car.  Certainly, they may take advantage of autonomy on a work commute to read or catch up on emails, but the needs of consumers living outside of urban environments will seek different experiences and have different needs. 

The digital divide will also impact the  haves and the have-nots.  In urban areas, those who can’t afford these services and devices may be left behind in more ways than one.  If they don’t adapt, they may not be able to build the skills they need in the future workforce and find themselves trapped in an urban technology hole. 

Additionally, in rural areas, if connectivity and speed do not reach them soon enough, they too, will lose out on the benefits of the new consumer technologies.  Even today, many rural environments do not yet have high speed access to the type of internet browsing most of us take for granted.  This could leave them behind and further divide poor rural areas from more affluent suburban environments. 

 Laws, privacy and regulation have not caught up

 For all of the promises and benefits of much of this technology (i.e. driverless cars, a bathroom that cleans itself and you, avatar like drone passenger helicopters), laws and regulation will be needed to ensure public safety and corral the companies collecting all this data on us.  The biggest danger:  who will exploit all that data, how could it be used against us, who will make money from it?

While the driverless car technology will certainly work to near perfection, our roadways are not currently set up to manage humans driving along side computer based automobiles.  Computers can only do what they are programmed to do and what they have learned to do through machine based learning.  They can’t react the same way humans will if it has not been baked into their operating system.  This creates many flaws when confronted with unpredictable human behavior.  Different roads may be needed along with sensors to help the cars.  Likewise, cars will need to be tested in difficult weather conditions. Most driverless cars are being tested in Los Angeles and Arizona, not exactly the same as Boston in winter.  They have also been tested in more suburban environments rather than NYC’s gridlock or winding or intersecting roads. 

 As our toilet and bathroom appliances begin to know more about us, how is that information shared?  How do we maintain our most private moments when the convenience and attraction of these new technologies draws us in?

 While we are still watching and observing the impact of GDPR in Europe, in the aftermath of Facebook’s continued revelations about how they manipulated users to gather data about even non-Facebook subscribers and sold it for pure profit, privacy laws and regulation are surely on the horizon in the U.S.  Privacy laws will have a profound impact on the financial performance of these big tech companies when faced with additional costs and could awaken people to curb their behavior. When they face increased costs, how will they pass that on to consumers?  These are all questions that impact how technology will evolve and be deployed in the future. 

 Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook

One of the most concerning observations was the further realization of the power of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and China.    Almost every booth was tapping into technology deployed by Google, Apple and Facebook – promising interconnectivity, which also means sharing of data and further dominance by these few companies. It may be easier, faster and cheaper to leverage Amazon’s Alexa voice concierge, but have you made a deal with the devil when they can change the rules on you, leverage your data or limit your ability to pull away when your clients no longer trust Alexa? 

 I was happy to see new start ups trying to offer alternatives to companies that want to load up on AI or voice technology.  This is something many companies may want to consider. Cyber security threats will become larger as more companies build off of the open source code used by Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

 In the C-suite

 Whatever company you lead, creating a culture and leadership tone that embraces continual change and adaptivity in this new age is essential.  Innovation does not begin with ignorance, but with a deep understanding of what’s coming to make smarter and more informed decisions.  Too often, in the work I do, I see people a layer or two in the organization filtering out what information is presented up wards in the organization.  C-suite executives need to gather objective information directly, understand what’s happening and ensure that knowledge is being shared in order to be prepared and respond.

 In the Boardroom

 In the boardroom, directors are responsible for oversight of the company.  They owe a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, to the employees and to all of the stakeholders.  Today, that means understanding risks of a changing work force and customer base and how the company is preparing for this future.  While the board does not need to develop a strategy or execute on it, they do need to be sure the company has a strong strategy by asking tough questions of the CEO and senior management.  The only way you could possibly ask good, informed questions to know if there is any risk to the organization is by doing your own homework.

Both senior executives and boards can benefit by obtaining objective assessments of competitors’ deployment of technology and future trends impacting the workforce and customer base to ensure the company is preparing for the future.  I leverage patent analytics and research tools to help boards and executives get an objective and fresh look at these issues along with attending events where the latest is on display, always trying to look behind the curtain to spot the real issues and not just what’s on display. 

 If you haven’t attended NACD’s CES experience, it’s a great place to connected with like-minded individuals with facilitated conversations and curated tours of an overwhelming place to identify what could be most important to you. 

Jennifer Wolfe advises boards and c-suite executives on digital disruption and cyber security oversight. She has served as the CEO of Dot Brand 360 and has served as Managing Partner of prominent intellectual property and technology law firm, Wolfe, Sadler, Breen, Morasch & Colby. She is an NACD Governance Fellow, Certified in Cybersecurity Oversight, a Direct Women Institute and Stanford Director's College graduate. Her latest book, Blockchain in the Boardroom is a practical guide for directors and c-suite executives.