It might seem obvious that the Internet, social media and cloud computing will have an impact 10 years from now, but how specifically will that affect your company – or your future company?

That’s the question that Bob Johansen this week encouraged Des Moines business leaders to talk about. 

Johansen is a distinguished fellow and former CEO and president at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research organization that looks at external forces that could present threats and opportunities for business in the next 10 years. Johansen also wrote the book “Leaders Make the Future,” in which he uses that research to talk about the skills business leaders will need in the coming decade.

“The purpose isn’t to predict. It’s to provoke insight,” he said. “And then it’s up to (leaders) to figure out what to do with it.”

Johansen was in Des Moines on Tuesday to speak and lead a workshop held by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The Business Record interviewed him in advance of that workshop.


1. If you are behind now, you might be ahead

One of the two big “disruptions” of the future will be how much the digital world “overlays” the physical world, Johansen said. In other words, today we think of the digital world in terms of computer and smartphone screens. Tomorrow, it might be about Internet-capable glasses or “other kinds of immersive tools.” 

“We’re arguing that with the shift here, it’s basically too late to catch up,” he said. “But it’s a great time to leapfrog. So what we’re trying to teach is this is the time to look for leapfrogs. Don’t try to catch up. If you are behind today, that’s actually a competitive advantage.”


2. Today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s workers

The other major disruption is that “digital natives,” which Johansen defines as people who are 17 or younger in 2013, will be the first generation to enter the workforce having become adults in the age of social media and cloud computing. 

Digital natives will have characteristics that neuroscientists and psychologists are just beginning to understand. For example, that generation will have the ability to better concentrate while multitasking, a characteristic dubbed as “continuous partial attention.” 

“The Baby Boomers call that multitasking, but we don’t get it,” said Johansen. “And the research suggests that the more tasks you work on, the less you can concentrate. That may not be true of the digital natives.” 


3. Technology is relative

Similarly, digital natives will look at technology in a very different way than previous generations. Asking digital natives a question such as “how much do you use technology” is missing the point, Johansen says. They use technology all the time but don’t really think about it as technology. 

The generational dynamic is one shift in the way leaders of the future will have to think about technology. Another is the way they strategize about technology in their organization.

“It’s too late to have a digital strategy,” Johansen said. “What you need now is a strategy that includes digital, and that’s the shift that we’re going through. So basically, digital has become too important to delegate to the IT department. 


4. Leadership skills will have to include the virtual world

People skills will become more important in the future, but they will increasingly involve navigating between the real world and the virtual world. 

“One of the people skills is trying to choose when to meet in person and when to meet virtually, and choosing which medium is good for what,” Johansen said. 

Analytic skills will also change. The big question future leaders will have to ask themselves is when they can quantify and analyze something and when they can’t. That involves understanding the capabilities of big data and the “Internet of Things” – the idea that many things people use in everyday life besides a computer or smartphone are connected to the Internet.


5. Strong and humble personalities – not rock stars – will win

This tip, Johansen said, should sit well with Iowans. The leader of the future will have the most success by doing the right thing, being transparent about it, and then trusting that someone else will notice without the leader needing to self-promote.

“And in this world, they almost certainly will (notice),” Johansen said.

The “rock star” leader – the one who constantly self-promotes – will become a target for criticism. It might not be fair, but it will be reality, he said.