Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

June 6, 2017


Andrew Bergen

The Relevance Question

In 1973, Steven Sasson began working for Kodak. Within two years, he had created some devices that acted as the first digital cameras. They were quite inefficient – particularly by today’s standards of digital photography – taking as much as 23 seconds to record the captured image to tape, and a further 30 seconds to post that picture to a screen. His direct supervisors were not impressed and, according to Sasson, told him, “No one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set.”

By 1989, Sasson and his colleague Robert Hills made the first DSLR camera – effectively the first digital camera of the modern era. Though they did patent it, Kodak continued to refuse to embrace this technology, firmly believing that their corner hold on the photo paper market would continue to remain in place. After all, everyone prints their pictures and Kodak arguably produced the best paper for doing so.

In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. They couldn’t compete any longer in a world that was embracing digital over analog technology.

To me, this is a stunning turn of events. The company that patented the first real digital camera could not compete in the digital photography world. It strikes me as an ethical failure marked primarily by a lack of future focus thinking. (No pun intended.)  Kodak, a giant in the industry, became irrelevant.

The boards of our modern organizations should be taking note of this. Is your organization remaining relevant? Will it continue to be relevant in the long-term future? Most often, our future thinking is simply an extrapolation of our current state. We easily assume that we can track what has been happening in our organization for the past 10 years and draw a straight line into the future to predict where we will be. This is faulty thinking.

We exist in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Forces of change and growth in one industry have remarkable impacts on others. Boards of any organization must be diligent to examine these forces and engage in deliberate dialogue about what this might mean for the future of their enterprise.

For example, it is easy to picture health care in a very traditional way. When I feel unwell, I go to the health care facility or my doctor’s office, I am seen by a series of professionals, blood is drawn on site, I wait for lab work, etc. More remote communities must be served by physical staff onsite; this creates challenges of accessibility, recruitment, availability of equipment and huge costs that must be overcome. However, technological advances are now making it possible for remote healthcare service. Robots (yes, robots) can now collect much of the needed input for clinical assessment. Virtual connections with physicians in different cities – even different countries – are possible so that patients can connect with a healthcare professional and have a dialogue about their care. The physician can also remotely review the data that the robot already collected and analyzed on its own. Then a care plan can be made – potentially without the need for anyone to travel to a brick and mortar facility. This is a radical development for board of healthcare organizations. How will healthcare organizations remain relevant in this world?

Education faces similar forces of change. We picture schools as teacher led, brick and mortar facilities where students show up, engage in learning, and go home. Yet trends are clearly showing that learning is becoming far more student driven. Young people have access to all the content they need without entering a physical school. How will schools remain relevant? It’s certainly not by being the creators and deliverers of content. How will educational institutions create value for students if they are not content experts?

These are difficult questions without easy or clear answers. Boards that aren’t  wrestling with them risk becoming irrelevant.

Engage in the difficult questions. Be willing to re-create the future of your organization.

P.S.  Check out the June 2017  issue of the REALBoard Advisor.  It’s chock full of articles that will help your board create and maintain a focus on the future.



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