The story of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s evolution from guitar god in such big name bands as Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers to high-priced Pentagon consultant, expert in anti-missile and counter-terrorism technology and chairman of the government’s Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense is one of the more amazing tales ever of technology convergence.
And the way things are going, there soon could be lots of new Skunk Baxters out there as experts in various technologies cross pollinate their thinking to come up with wild new applications and opportunities that no one ever thought of before.
At least that’s the assessment of recent report from Gartner – Digital Business Will Compete and Seek Opportunity in the Span of a Moment. The report takes the position that in the very near future, the hallmark of digital business will be the ability to spot opportunities that could span a matter of just seconds. Gartner calls this a “business moment” and defines it as “a transient opportunity that is exploited dynamically.”
How ‘Skunk Baxter’ Represents Opportunity
To understand what that means in English, let’s look at how Baxter, now 68, went from internationally acclaimed rocker in the ‘70s and ‘80s to internationally acclaimed expert on national defense technologies in the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s.
As an electric guitarist, he sought both ways to get new sounds out of his ax in performances and ways to capture, manipulate, bend, compress, and more accurately reproduce electronic sound signals through analogue (and later digital) recording equipment. That got him to wondering about hardware and software originally developed for the military, such as data-compression algorithms and large capacity storage devices. How might such technology be used in the recording studio?
Conversations on that subject with his next-door neighbor, a retired engineer who’d played a key role in developing the Sidewinder missile for the Air Force, led to a growing interest in defense technology.
Baxter eventually authored a paper that proposed developing the Aegis ship-born anti-aircraft missile into a full missile defense system. He gave his paper to his friend, influential California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher not only took it seriously but shared it with his defense department contacts, who went on to develop the system Baxter envisioned.
One thing led to another, and Baxter found himself a remarkable second career showing the Pentagon and defense contractors how to look at existing technologies to see what new ways they could be used, often in conjunction with other new, seemingly unrelated technologies. That, he explained, happens all the time in the music industry and, it so happens, also is what terrorists are really good at.
“We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles,” Baxter told World Scientific magazine in 2007.
Today’s Businesses Need to Spot Opportunity the Same Way
So now, according to Gartner, digital technologies are expanding so rapidly that “traditional barriers between industry segments” are breaking down. And that, says Gartner analyst Jorge Lopez, will lead to the creation of “completely new value chains and new business opportunities that may not be filled by incumbent players. It will also challenge existing industry boundaries and challenge the dominance of leading players in an industry and cause them to rethink the businesses they are in.”
Lopez further cautions businesses against viewing the increased use of digital technologies in business as simply more efficient, faster replacement processes for older, manual or analogue business processes and practices. Rather, business leaders – in companies big, small and in between – need to digitize and rethink the value of their business models in the fast-changing world.
They need to look for what he calls “business moments,” which he defines as specific (but transient) examples that illustrate how people, businesses and Big Data actually interact. Those business moments represent untapped opportunities that can rapidly change the dynamics across whole industries.
He provided an example: an “intelligent” rain gutter system that senses that a gutter is clogged (threatening water damage to the structure) and then access the Internet to research local service companies to do price and reputation comparisons before presenting several options to the homeowner along with the notice that the gutter is clogged.
Far-fetched? Actually, the best answer to the question is “Maybe not.” But companies, including small and midsize companies, won’t be able to compete in such a world unless they are committed to the use of the most advanced business technology that makes operational and financial sense given their line of business and budget.
But because many such companies can’t afford to have the kind of deeply experienced technologists on staff to lead them to the right systems that can pave the way, it’s important that they engage outside advisors. Such technology consulting experts can help them understand how systems and software can position their companies to see and capitalize on Lopez’s “business moments” in the future.