Unfiltered talks to Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at GE, about how the digital information flow is changing our day-to-day and why we’re living in an asymmetrical world.
What does it mean to be living in an asymmetric world?
There’s a confluence of changes that we’re all dealing with right now. We’ve got the same dynamics driving change that we’ve always had, like geography, culture, and politics, but we’ve got this flow of digital information disrupting and accelerating it. Periods of widespread change like this have traditionally favored asymmetric forces. When the rules are in flux, the people who change first and fastest tend to have a huge advantage.
Any specific examples?
The big picture example is the huge success of Silicon Valley in the last few decades. New companies that understood how digital information was going to reorganize assets, and took advantage of that before anybody else, have reaped huge rewards. In business, it’s easy to become so immersed in the vocabulary of Silicon Valley that you forget how new and strange it all is. And the changes we’ve seen so far are actually just the tip of the iceberg. Highly visible industries, like media and banking, have gone digital. But a lot of businesses are still on the cusp of transformation. Something like 80 percent of the U.S. economy, for example, hasn’t fully digitized yet.
So where is the next big asymmetric disruption coming from?
If you take a look at the technological and business landscape, there are a number of interesting developments that are still small in relation to their potential to transform everything.
A.I. is the one that is getting the most attention right now. One thing it’s set to do is transform hardware—everything from the appliances in your kitchen to the huge physical systems that power our cities and our industries.
You’re already getting a fridge that can tell you when to order groceries, but now you’re getting a jet engine that will tell you when it needs to be serviced before there are any issues. As those tasks become the responsibility of trusted, intelligent machines, that means a lot of mental and physical energy will be freed up. The companies that understand how to use the leftover brainpower when those tasks get automated are going to have an edge.
That’s an asymmetric situation, by the way. Because these changes seem small. They’re on the horizon. But before you know it, they’ll be huge.
What about in the workplace? Is that becoming a more asymmetrical place, too?
The digital information flow is definitely changing our day-to-day. As our information moves faster, we’re all moving faster. And that can literally disrupt your day. How many of us start out every morning with this great to do list, and then by 11 a.m. it’s been totally undone by our email and our collaboration tools, etc.
All this change is tough, but it also means that we have the potential to shape our jobs, to make them bigger as needed, or as we envision them. Every time we have to adapt, we can turn it into an opportunity to grow and change. To me, that’s the essence of being an asymmetrical thinker. The world can seem big and we can sometimes feel small in comparison. But every time we take the opportunity to drive as much change as we can, we get bigger in comparison to the problems we have to solve.