8 tips for companies grappling with technological change

York's John McElligott preaches the gospel of disruption to midstate manufacturers

Forget all those old motivational poster platitudes about change and how it drives businesses to evolve and expand. John McElligott wants you to think about disruption.

McElligott, CEO at The Fortress and York Exponential, didn’t stand before a room full of midstate manufacturing executives this afternoon to talk about the disruption caused by floods, earthquakes or terrorism.

McElligott’s concept of disruption is a force for good — for those prepared to embrace it. The disruption McElligott described at Mantec Inc.’s fourth Business Growth Conference is that caused by exponential advances in technology, from smartphones to the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

It’s the disruption of Uber putting taxi drivers out of work, of drones changing the way we document the landscape and deliver packages.

Known professionally as a vision caster and technical futurist, McElligott’s “primary passion is focused on the rise and rejuvenation of third-tier cities and improving the quality of life of others.” He has preached that gospel around the nation, including at several White House events.

Here are some lessons manufacturers and other business leaders can learn from McElligott’s philosophy of embracing disruption:

1. We are in a new Industrial Revolution.

Changes in technology in the past decade are remaking the business and social landscape as thoroughly as the steam engine did 200 years ago, and more quickly. Just this week, the U.S. Senate met to discuss rule-making for robotic cars, he said, while Google’s AlphaGo robot – an example of Artificial Intelligence – defeated one of the world’s best players of Go, a challenging board game invented in ancient China.

2. The pace of change may be scary, but embracing it is the only path forward.

Forget mere unemployment. Failure to keep up with the demands of these changes could make one-third of the American workforce unemployable within a few short years.

“Accept this is happening,” McElligott said.

3. To really understand what’s going on, you need to understand the Millennial mindset.

“Technology has been moving so quickly for Millennials, that we are the first generation of mass early adopters,” he said.

For example, his was the generation that embraced music-sharing platform Napster more than a decade ago, scoffing at music industry protestations about how it would destroy their business.

So companies can learn a lot about how to embrace new technology from this generation, both good and bad.

4. OK, but stop obsessing about hiring Millennials.

First, McElligott points out, anyone can drive such change. “There is a difference between being young and being a disruptor.”

Second, the Millennials as a cohort have reached their maximum distribution within the workforce. That means it’s time to start thinking about the next cohort, who are not early adopters but true digital natives, he explained, as a photo of a toddler using an iPad flickered onto a screen.

“This is who we’re going to be working with,” he said. If you think Millennials move quickly, wait until you see our kids.”

5. That requires forethought about hiring needs years down the road.

“Train for jobs that are not here yet,” McElligott said.

6. That requires rethinking everything from assets to business models.

What do Uber, Facebook, Alibaba and Airbnb have in common? Call it a certain lack.

Uber, effectively the world’s largest taxi firm, owns no cars, McElligott pointed out. Facebook, the most popular media company, creates no content. Alibaba, a massive retailer, carries no stock. And Airbnb is an accommodation provider which owns no property.

7. How did they do that? It’s all about platforms.

McElligott held aloft his smartphone, parallel with the floor.

“This phone is not a phone. This phone is a platform,” he said — and something that thousands of taxi drivers would not have expected to destroy their livelihood, yet that is what has happened as Uber’s app swept in and changed the ride-for-hire landscape.

8. Pennsylvania can handle this.

McElligott loves to talk about history. He especially likes to talk about The York Plan, a collaboration among local manufacturers in 1940, anticipating the region’s industrial needs if America became embroiled in World War II – something many then insisted the country would not do.

The manufacturers were right, and their strategies for collaboration and cooperation proved such a boon for the war effort that the plan’s concepts were widely adopted and helped make Pennsylvania a key contributor to the nation’s war effort.

“It was the manufacturers who led the way. That is our heritage” McElligott said. “We’re talking about the time Pennsylvania saved the world.”

By applying new technologies to manufacturing, he believes the Keystone State can ride the next wave of seismic change.

“The West Coast can have Angry Birds. The West Coast can have social media. Here in Pennsylvania, we make machines,” McElligott said.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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