Will Your Industry Disappear?

In a wired, “flat” world, global change is faster than ever.

Thomas Freundlich, 31.01.2013

Some predict that in a few years, your cell phone will outperform the average doctor in making routine diagnoses. How do companies and leaders survive – let alone thrive – in this shifting landscape? And what are the risks of not adapting?

Silicon Valley investor and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla made waves in the medical community last autumn by predicting that in a few years technology would replace 80% of doctors. According to Khosla, machines, powered by unprecedented processing capacity and feeding on vast data sets, would be not only cheaper but also more accurate than human doctors. 

In a recent article for TechCrunch, Khosla writes, “Eventually, we won’t need the average doctor and will have much better and cheaper care for 90–99% of our medical needs. We will still need to leverage the top 10 or 20% of doctors (at least for the next two decades) to help that bionic software get better at diagnosis.”

Khosla says that eventually our priority will be to produce “doctors like Gregory House (from the TV show “House”) who solve biomedical puzzles beyond our best input ability.” Thanks to the tireless help of Dr. Algorithm (Khosla’s catchy term for technologically assisted diagnosis), he envisions these top practitioners having more time for the uniquely human aspects of patient care.

Khosla sees transformative innovation in the health care sector coming from entrepreneurs outside the industry, but it is not a view shared by all. Some feel this scenario is outlandish, while others see it as obvious to the point one wonders why it took so long to come up with the idea. Certainly the risks to the industry itself are a real possibility and need to be considered.

Examples of this change include AliveCor, a clinical-quality low-cost ECG heart monitor for the iPhone, and 23andMe, a DNA analysis service that allows people to research their own genes and is available as an online subscription for $299. Hundreds of start-up companies are looking to change the face of health care in the coming years.  

Powering the People

Is it all science fiction? Not necessarily. Provocative hype from investors looking to publicize their portfolio companies? Perhaps. But set aside for the moment even the fact that the iPad 2 has as much processing power as a Cray-2 supercomputer from the 1980s, and look at what is happening elsewhere.

The New Media Medicine group at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the U.S.  researches technologies to “enable radical new collaborations between doctors, patients and communities, to catalyze a revolution in human health.” If anything, their mission statement goes beyond even Vinod Khosla. 

Despite amazing advances in medicines and medical technology over the past 50 years, health care is in crisis. Costs are skyrocketing, health outcomes are uneven, and the patient experience is unacceptable. We believe that people, working together in creative new ways, can succeed where the medical establishment has failed.

The research projects at MIT’s New Media Medicine range from enabling care coordination through mobile devices to automated pre-visit interviews, all under the banner of bringing about a “powershift in health care.” Commentators and experts are far from unanimous on what the future holds for the medical industry, but one thing is certain: something is happening and the risks to the health care industry are real.

Dr. Algorithm Will See You Now

In his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, motorcycle mechanic and philosopher Matthew B. Crawford points out that in today’s global information economy, any job that can be encapsulated in a set of instructions – an algorithm – is a prime target to be the first to be outsourced to a country with cheaper labor, and eventually delegated to a computer. Like it or not this is becoming a fact of our modern day world.

We must keep in mind that there are safe jobs that will not be outsourced to another country or to a computer, primarily in the trade and service industries. But there are many other highly skilled, expert professions, such as medicine, that just might be. The question must be asked: if medical doctors face a real possibility of being replaced to a large extent by computers in the coming decades, who might be next? The risks are real. We all face them.  How can we cope?

Seeing Around Corners

If the prospect of dealing with constant, radical change feels scary or overwhelming, take heart. It’s a universal human tendency to see the world as static and seeing change as an anomaly. For centuries, change came relatively slowly, but today change is constant and fast.

The good news is that successfully dealing with change is also a skill set that can be taught and learned. Nick Horney, Ph.D. is a principal and founder of Agility Consulting and Training, LLC and a specialist in helping individuals, teams and organizations successfully respond to change and deal with the risks involved. After a career leading diving and explosive ordnance disposal teams for the U.S. Navy, he received a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of South Florida.

“In our work, we borrow a term from the Department of Defense, saying that we live in a very VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. And it is not going to slow down. So health care and other industries need to come to terms with constant change, whether it is driven by technology or other factors,” Dr. Horney says.

Dr. Horney says that research indicates that seeing changes coming down the pipeline does not come naturally to most people and organizations. “We tend to be great firefighters, but leaders are seldom equipped to anticipate change. What is needed is not only agility – the ability to pre-empt and respond quickly – but also resilience, the capability to spring back.”

Thankfully, these ideas can be practiced and integrated into leadership models. Sometimes inspiration can even come from areas far afield from one’s own. Dr. Horney draws an analogy from his own background, noting that businesses can learn a great deal from Navy Special Operations teams. “Agile teams do not need everything to go perfectly.  They need the team to be ready for when things do not go as planned due to the turbulence in the world we live in.”

Speed and out-of-the box thinking are also key factors. “Special Ops teams are trained to think creatively based on the situation and their past experience.  Successful business teams also exhibit innovation and creativity, especially if they are chartered to come up with creative solutions.”  Horney says that no matter what the situation, traditional leadership skills still count. “Leaders need to both generate confidence and engage their teams, keeping each employee aware of their contribution to the whole.”

Of course, team leaders don’t need Navy SEAL training to succeed in today’s business world. Regardless the field, embracing the concept of agility and facing the very real risks to an industry and adapting can help ride out that next change wave with more skill and confidence. “A corporate executive we work with always tells his teams that they should be constantly looking around corners. It’s about anticipating and identifying patterns as they are developing,” Dr. Horney concludes. 

PROFILE MAGAZINE 1/2013 page 8

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