Why Business Needs To Sharpen Its Peripheral Vision

Why Business Needs To Sharpen Its Peripheral Vision

Duleesha Kulasooriya, Head of Strategy for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, shared his insights on future-proofing businesses with PSFK

Isabella Alimonti
  • 9 november 2017

Duleesha Kulasooriya has an eye for minor movements. His years of tracking changes in the ways companies do business have led him to understand how today’s fringe communities will be the center of things tomorrow.

As Head of Strategy for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, Kulasooriya practices a nontraditional form of fieldwork called embedded research: rather than observing an environment from the outside, he participates in it. His work brings him to Burning Man, makerspaces and all manner of haunts in California’s Bay Area, where he lives. Later this month, on November 20, it will bring him to Dubai to deliver a keynote speech at LaFutura’s annual innovation event.

So what can we expect in the evolution of work and business? Before he shares his insights with the audience at LaFutura, we caught up with Kulasooriya to learn about his approach to ‘future-ready’ thinking.

It sounds like you have the coolest job—though not everyone would have the knack for it. How do you approach embedded research?

Embedded research is essentially a long-term engagement with the client or industry that you are advising and researching. It’s similar to ethnographic research, except that you aren’t a passive observer; you are an active advisor and therefore have an impact on the client or industry that you are working with or within. I don’t know that you need a ‘knack for it;’ rather, the autonomy to be engaged with a client or industry for a long period of time.

There’s a back and forth [with the client] where you’re fully embedded in everything they’re doing. You’re influencing them and helping them but at the same point you’re also learning from what they’re doing on the ground, side by side with them. That’s the fundamental difference between the ethnographic work, where you’re observing but not participating—here you’re observing but also very actively participating and even shaping the outcome.

Is there an overarching principle or piece of advice you would give to large companies to help them be ‘future-ready’? Would you suggest anything different for startups?

Large companies are usually anchored to their own past success. Even under threat of disruption, they, understandably, look to their historical strengths to pull them up—they start from the past and extend out. Instead, if your industry is being fundamentally disrupted, it may be more relevant to ‘zoom out’ 10 to 20 years into the future, explore the potential scenarios and develop a directional vision for where your industry is headed, and work back from that future.

Startups don’t have the burden of the past that large companies do (nor do they have the benefit that that past may have accrued in assets), so they can, and should, firmly anchor on the future and build to that future from the onset.

What technology do you think will cause the next big shift in the way we work?

I think the way we work will shift in many ways, but my interest has been more anchored around what we will be doing as ‘work’ rather than what technologies we will use to do work. In that context some of the fundamental computing technologies—like artificial intelligence and machine learning, but also computing power, storage and connectivity—would have the greatest impact on what we as humans would do vs. robots.

The fundamental tenets of technology are shifting so fast, computers will be able to do a lot more of what humans do today. As a result, a lot of work that we do today will no longer be relevant, but it will also mean that new work will appear where you’re working with the machines—where you can do a lot more because you have the power of the machines behind you.

A lot of the routine paths will be taken over by automation, by computers and everything else. It’s in the non-routine tasks that we will need more humans to get involved. With the non-routine tasks you need skills that are more human—being able to understand context, being able to deal with exceptions to the process, being able to deal with the human elements of emotion, being able to use humor, sarcasm and other mechanisms to manage interactions. All of the things that make us more human are the things that are going to be more relevant.

You often note the relevance of ‘edges,’ meaning fringe ideas or communities that wind up having an influence well beyond themselves. Can you share one or two recent finds that we might be seeing on a larger scale?

I think the maker movement and sharing economy are examples of two ‘edges’ that are evolving to be more ubiquitous. When we refer to ‘edges’ they can include the edges of technology (emerging exponential technologies, etc.), society (millennials, Gen Xers, etc.), geographies (emerging giants China and India, and tiny powerhouses like Singapore, Israel and Estonia, etc.) and the edges of a firm working on transformation. Our core thesis at the Center for the Edge is that disruptive shifts emerge from the ‘edge’ not the core, and focusing on and embedding ourselves and researching these ‘edges’ allow us to gain insights on fundamental nature of emerging disruptions.

With trends like the maker movement and sharing economy, there’s a sense of reinventing our past—people used to make things by hand, and communities have always shared tools and resources. What are some of the patterns you’ve noticed around the edges, and how does technology help (or hinder) them once they’re reframed by the ‘core’?

The core digital infrastructure of computing power, storage and connectivity, and the internet and other exponential technologies built upon that digital infrastructure, is what made the maker movement and the sharing economy into ‘edges.’ The core digital infrastructure (that has emerged in the past few decades) is what drove the pace of change and scale that moved these movements from making things by hand and sharing tools into transformative societal shifts. Over time these edges do become the core—that is the cycle of transformational disruption.

The corporate world can seem like a fortress, but it of course has broader implications because it speaks to what people want to do and buy, and what their values are. How do you think the rising generation of consumers will shape businesses in the next few years?

Consumers are gaining more power. They now have more information and choices than ever before. With lowered cost of production, distribution and reaching consumers, small startups can now compete in markets previously owned by large corporates. Consumers are favoring small startups that are more attuned to addressing their needs and are becoming increasingly disloyal to brands of large corporates that are slow to adapt.

This trend is forcing large corporates to build new capabilities to better understand the end consumers of their products (most brands are B2B2C and don’t have much direct connection with their end consumers) and becoming more agile to meet their needs. Large corporations are going to have to fundamentally rethink their positioning and role in the value chain as consumers gain more power in the relationship.

To close in the spirit of LaFutura, could you sum up in just a few sentences what you imagine (realistic or idealistic) for our future?

The future is going to be full of paradoxes. “Yes, and…”—a key transition phase that you would learn from any Intro to Improv class will become more prevalent in real life. For example we will see greater inequality driven by exponential technologies, while at the same time seeing greater access to information for the masses. We will see a few large corporations get even larger, while at the same time a proliferation of small businesses addressing niche demand. We will see large number of ‘workers that can’t find jobs’ at the same time as large number of ‘jobs that can’t find workers.’ This list of apparent contradictions will be long and pervasive. Our role may be to build the capacity to see, acknowledge and know how to work with and within this paradoxical world to come.

Duleesha Kulasooriya | LaFutura

Duleesha Kulasooriya has an eye for minor movements. His years of tracking changes in the ways companies do business have led him to understand how today’s fringe communities will be the center of things tomorrow.

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