Executive Exchange: Leading in the era of hyper connectivity with Thomas Koulopoulus

header_text_exec_1170“Expunge IT from our vocabulary. It is not separate from the business,” said author and Red Hat Executive Exchange speaker, Thomas Koulopoulus. “It is the business, damn it.”

That’s the way Koulopoulus ended his talk with executives attending the one-day conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. Everything that came before built the case for us to completely rethink our approach to IT.

He doesn’t subscribe to the notion that everything that can be invented has been invented. “We’re not even close,” Koulopoulus said. “But we behave as though the best stuff has already been invented.” And we create generational chasms to help justify why we aren’t keeping up. Generation X. Millennials. Baby boomers. He believes these titles were created as a way for us to excuse ourselves from adapting to a rapidly changing world.


So, if you had to choose a word that best defines our ability to reshape society, technology, and business over the past 200 years, war would it be? Attendees guessed “information,” “democracy,” “capitalism,” and the Internet. And what is the word that defines the greatest CHALLENGE to innovation? Guesses included ubiquity, focus, communication, intelligence. Koulopoulus suggested that 1 word works for both: connections.

“This is what makes us different that Socrates and Plato,” he said. “[Connections] are fundamentally what has changed the human experience more than anything else.” So how are we connecting, and how will our connections change us in the future? No one can predict the future (except sci-fi writers), he said. (See this AT&T ad for proof.) But the velocity at which we’re creating new technology, and the sheer amount of people on the planet (who are living longer) means we are on a path of imminent change.

How are we connecting?

  • In 1800, the global population reached 1 billion people for the first time
  • We are projected to have 10 billion people at 2080
  • It is estimated that by 2020 we will have 2.8 trillion machine (or computer-based) connections

The confluence of machine, data, and human connections is creating a new form of intelligence. Cloud is becoming an intelligent organism. And we’re surrounded by sensors in our cars, home, in stores, and in cities. A virtual tsunami of information is coming at us. “The number of grains of sand in the world is less than 1% of the data we will have in 2100,” Koulopoulus said.


It’s only natural that we have a hard time processing big numbers like this. And in his upcoming book <<http://www.tkspeaks.com/>>, The Gen Z Effect: How the Hyperconnected Generation is Changing Business Forever, he explores how younger folks will look at business entirely differently than we do. For example, to them, IT isn’t a separate department from the business—it IS the business. Kids don’t get “aloneness,” he said. They are always connected to their friends in different ways. As his son told him when Koulopoulos told him to go outside and play instead of playing video games: “Dad, this [game] is my cup-de-sac.”

But blaming behaviors on a title like “millennial” is a mistake. “You have a set of behaviors that define what it means to be a part of a new society,” he said. “If you do adopt these behaviors then you become a functioning member of the new society. If you don’t, you’re disconnected. ‘Gen Z’ is just a set of behaviors we decide to take on.” If you’ve read Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, you know that our interactions with technology are at an early stage, and we have control over our future—if we choose to take it.


So how to we boldly go into the future knowing what we know is waiting for is this chaotic and overwhelming? Koulopoulus suggests that we can’t try and go directly into the future, rather we can take the techie path—a twisty, windy path with many diversions and turns. Or we can skip some steps like our grandparents did with iPads. They didn’t dabble on Commodore computers with us. They used typewriters, then slingshotted to an iPad and they’re texting us.

The connections we talked about earlier are shaping tomorrow’s trends. “We will invent highly personalized communities that are hyper local and hyper global at the same time,” he said. And we’ll trade on behavior. We’ll have deep, predictive knowledge of immensely complex systems.

Another prediction is that transparency will apply to business and government. Transparency creates an understanding of behavior, and so do technology and data. So the threat is to live with transparency while providing security. Your reaction times are shortened, and the amount of data you have access to is radically bigger. “The threat is never where you look for it,” he said.


Those in IT and marketing are swimming in the rip currents, Koulopoulos said. And the frustration we feel as CIOs and leaders of IT is that we’re treading water. Just don’t get stuck

“You can’t use the patterns of the past to navigate the future,” he said. “Our role is as leaders—not just a catalyst. Business people won’t truly understand the power available or the quagmire. You are the leaders. Your job is to get a seat at the table. If you can’t, you’ll get commoditized.”

Find any model and any business where the innovation hasn’t been foundational for that industry and has been built and supported on the bedrock of IT.

“You are the innovators,” he said. “If you’re still thinking, ‘But I’m not,’ that has to be your mission. If you don’t do it, data scientists will. They are not IT they’re business folks. That’s a huge threat.”

  • Move from product ownership to strategy and service organization
  • We are missing the predictive view. Operations looks at dashboards, and business analysts look through the rear-view mirror, he said. So who’s looking through the windshield? It should do that. Change the way things are done and choose the behaviors you want to adopt.
  • What is IT? That’s the question.

As for Koulopoulos, “I look forward to that day when I say, ‘I want to get off the train.’ The world will look different to me then. Completely unrecognizable.”


Event: Red Hat Executive Exchange
Date: Tue, April 15, 2014