Reading a page on the McKinsey site called Clouds, big data, and smart assets: Ten tech-enabled business trends to watch, I came across something that resonated with an obsession of mine over the past three decades of my involvement in high tech: the synergistic convergence of multiple disruptive information technologies. I firmly believe that this is the driving force behind the massive and increasingly rapid changes in modern society and culture.
Starting around the turn of the century, I wrote a series of scenario planning papers called Rogue Wave in which I first published my thoughts on this concept. I felt the metaphor of the rogue wave was especially apropos. Here's how I introduced the metaphor in my papers:
Rogue waves have been the bane of seafarers (and the joy of surfers) since time immemorial. Rogue waves happen when the crests of two or more wave patterns happen to synchronize, momentarily producing a much larger wave than any of the participating wave patterns could have produced alone. Rogue waves are the bane of seafarers because their energies can be tremendous, and therefore potentially very destructive to a ship holding to a particular course—detrimental not just to the ship’s ability to hold the course, but to the very ship itself. The inertial energy of the vessel’s mass interacts with the momentum of the wave patterns, stressing the vessel in unexpected and massive ways.
But to surfers, a rogue wave is a dream come true. Rogue waves can take you farther and faster than any normal wave, providing a much wilder, longer, and more satisfying ride, but only if you are ready to ride when the moment comes to catch the wave.
Contrary to our perceptions, ocean waves of all kinds, including rogue waves, are created not by the movement of water, but by the flow of energy. It is the energy flows that create the rogue wave, inundating the sailor’s vessel and providing the surfer’s wild ride. There are wave patterns in society as well—energies that move through our existence, and sometimes turning the status quo on its head. Technological evolution, religious and ideological movements, population bulges and dips, economic boom and recession, all are examples of the wave patterns buffeting human society.
The recently trending term Black Swan is a metaphor that characterizes the effects of Rogue Wave phenomena.
Disruptive technology is a concept introduced by Clayton Christensen in his book the Innovator's Dilemma. He contrasts them with sustaining technologies, which reinforce the status quo in the course of deriving maximum value from it. On the other hand, disruptive technologies threaten and ultimately overturn the status quo. They are game-changing by nature.
Discovery-based planning, another concept introduced by Christensen, is based on the premise that disruptive technologies require learning strategies as opposed to the execution strategies that work well with sustaining technologies.
…in disruptive situations, action must be taken before careful plans are made. Because much less can be known about what markets need or how large they can become, plans must serve a very different purpose: They must be plans for learning rather than plans for implementation. By approaching a disruptive business with the mindset that they can’t know where the market is, managers would identify what critical information about new markets is most necessary and in what sequence that information is needed. Project and business plans would mirror those priorities, so that key pieces of information would be created, or important uncertainties would be resolved, before expensive commitments of capital, time, and money were required. [italics added]
Information is the critical element in learning strategies. Information technologies are critical tools for deriving value from information. Such technologies facilitate the capture, storage, search and retrieval, analytics, and many other aspects of information processing, and thus are critical drivers of learning strategies.
Moreover, new information technologies themselves are often disruptive by their very nature, changing the learning strategy game even as they facilitated by it. And information technologies, just like all others, are beneficiaries of their own disruptive effects and those of other new information technologies. In a world where multiple new disruptive information technologies have been emerging in parallel for at least the past five decades, four of them paced by Moore's Law, the disruptive effects are synergistic, increasingly so over time.
The 2002 edition of the Rogue Wave paper set forth the Theorem of the Disruptive Value of Information, aka DVI Theorem:
Di = 1 / ( (Tu - Ta) * Ca )
The disruptive effect (Di) of a unit of relevant information is inversely proportional to the temporal distance between its moment of access (Ta) and the moment of its use (Tu) multiplied by the cost of its accessibility (Ca).
Simply put, the theorem states that relevant information is most disruptive when it is instantly accessible for zero cost. The value produced by the formula is a real number between zero and infinity. A value of zero means the information has no disruptive effect on the technological status quo; infinity means it has infinite disruptive effect. Since information always costs something to obtain and always takes some time to access, Di will never reach infinity, but lower cost and more immediate access greatly increase the disruptive effect of relevant information. At the other end of the spectrum, information that costs too much or takes too much time to obtain has little disruptive effect in spite of its relevance.
The DVI Theorem is the key to leveraging discovery-based planning. Entrepreneurial genius is involved in developing the disruptive technology and in identifying the key pieces of information that must be acquired, but the DVI Theorem sets a limit on how effectively the planning strategy can be carried out. Learning too late or too expensively is equivalent to not learning at all.
I'm going to revisit the Rogue Wave concept and the DVI Theorem in future posts and try to refresh and enrich it with things I've learned in the meantime.