Unless you have been hibernating over the last few years, you are probably aware that advances in information technology are causing disruptive changes in business, government and society – impacting almost every aspect of our lives. You may not be aware, however, that the effects are so deep and far reaching that we may be in the initial stages of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I say ‘initial’ because the pace of these changes is accelerating. Revolutionary advances in software development and computing infrastructure have enabled rapid development of new platforms and capabilities, that are themselves enabling others. Continued breakthroughs in micro-electronics have given rise to an increasingly connected world, where everything (and everyone) is a data source. Breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence, including deep machine learning, are built on this foundation, and have the potential to increase the acceleration further, causing massive disruption in areas previously left unscathed.

This extremely dynamic environment creates enormous opportunity for organizations that understand and adapt to these changes, leveraging the power that technology brings to bear. But it comes with a price: there are major challenges and risks, both to large incumbent industry players as well as smaller businesses. There is a near-constant threat of competitive disruption, and it seems impossible for leaders to digest the fire-hose of new technologies, innovations, and concepts emerging monthly. And if that weren’t challenging enough, there is one topic that looms omnipresent, threatening to envelope everything and everyone: Cybersecurity.

Information security is an overarching concern because the dynamics that have enabled this Fourth Industrial Revolution have also amplified the threat of malicious actors inflicting damage on organizations. There are three primary drivers for this:

  • The value and importance of data and information assets have increased significantly as businesses have become increasingly digital
  • The size and complexity of the Internet of Everything has resulted in a cyber-attack surface area that is exponentially larger
  • Advances in technology give threat actors incredibly powerful capabilities to leverage for cyber-attacks and exploitation, making them harder to defend against, and creating a virtual arms race.

So how do organizational leaders navigate this complex and ever-changing environment? They are charged with ensuring the success (and survival!) of their respective business or mission, but many have not fully come to terms with the scope and pace of changes that are occurring. In addition, most organizations often lack the supporting expertise to make the decisions and drive the changes necessary to adapt successfully. Like with all difficult problems, there is no magic solution, but organizations should consider these three critical pieces of advice:

  1. Elevate Information Technology and Information Security to first-class strategic concerns. This begins with hiring or identifying leaders with the appropriate skill-sets and focus, but that is not sufficient. Technology expertise must have a seat at the table for all important decisions and processes, and be incorporated into the strategic DNA of the organization. Many organizations have elevated cyber-security to some extent due the extreme risk perceived, but the focus is typically on reducing or quantifying that risk, not optimizing for organizational success.
  2. Adopt a change-oriented mindset from top to bottom. It is difficult to adapt to revolutionary change without making revolutionary changes. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes here; a sustained focus on leading and managing transformation across multiple enterprise domains is required from senior leaders, middle management, and staff members. This includes fundamental shifts in how systems and products are delivered, how all work is managed, and how teams and employees operate. And don’t forget the ever-important cultural changes: people must have the permission and the support to take risks and innovate.
  3. Maintain focus on outcomes! The complexity and scope of changes occurring, both internally and externally, can create a lot of confusion and “noise”. This sometimes lead to teams (and leaders) developing myopic focus on driving change for change’s sake. If the organization loses sight of “why” it is changing, it will not achieve the desired outcomes. These goals need to be tangible enough to guide resource and prioritization decisions effectively. While “increase bottom line” or “enhance mission performance” are usually the high-level outcomes desired, focus on things like driving customer experience, enhancing collaboration, optimizing operational processes, or transforming products and businesses is often useful.

The challenge to organizations is real and present: adapt to the large-scale changes being driven by technology, or follow an increasingly well-worn path toward irrelevance and obsolescence. Leaders must harness the power of technology to succeed in the modern digital era, so that organizations can innovate, transform, and thrive in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.