I attended my first Fortune Brainstorm conference last week. Brainstorm is an event hosted by Fortune Magazine designed to bring together an eclectic group of folks to discuss the impact, or potential impact, of technology on our lives.

In order to get in the door I had to answer a few questions – just like being back in school. Here are the answers I submitted: 

1. What is the most exciting technology innovation you've seen in the past 12 months?

The most exciting areas of development in the past year have been in the “green technology” sector. Simple economics have dramatically increased the relevancy of every advancement in this space. There have been significant improvements in fuel cell and hybrid technologies. Likely to be the most significant is Nanosolar technology. This thin-film solar technology can be applied onto almost any flat surface at a far lower cost than existing systems and could serve to exponentially increase the use of solar power.

2. What is your biggest hope or fear for the future, and how does tech relate to it?

We live in a unique time where access to information is now possible anywhere and at anytime. I am confident that we will use information technology to collaborate more effectively and advance the state of both knowledge and technology even more rapidly. Hopefully this "mass collaboration" will also bring the world closer together and even serve to reduce global conflicts. 

3. What should be the top priority for the next U.S. president?

While the economy remains top-of-mind for most in the U.S., I believe that we only can address the economy through a means that will provide sustainable growth and permanent economic improvements. To me, this simply means that our two top priorities must be to, first, invest in our people by better educating our children and, second, to invest in sustainable energy technology specifically so that the U.S. can achieve a self-reliant and largely renewable energy policy. Real progress will not be made through short-term tax cuts or consumption incentives; we need to act now with complete focus on a sustainable outcome. This should be our next "put a person on the moon" challenge.

Phew – I was now wondering if there was going to be a test afterwards….

Conferences like this are thought-provoking because they force us to step away from the day-to-day concerns of our immediate business and take time to appreciate the major technological shifts going on around us. If I have one key takeaway from this event….it is that successful companies are the ones that have found ways to leverage technology to engage their customers in completely new ways.

Customers are now engaged in every phase of a product/offer lifecycle — from innovation and development all the way through to support. This may sound obvious as most companies solicit customer input through customer councils, surveys, etc. The real innovation is that companies are opening up more and more of their internal collaboration tools, design plans, and support networks directly for customer access.

I was particularly impressed by a factoid from Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit. Intuit recently incorporated their online support tool directly into their product giving customers access to all support questions. As is turns out, Intuit customers now answer some 40% of support questions (at the same or higher accuracy rate than their own support team).

More and more, our customers will play a greater role in not only shaping our products but helping us throughout the innovation and design process, even to the point of engaging directly in design and support elements. 

To do this, companies will need to leverage many of the social collaboration technologies that exist on the web today. Gone are the days when companies can fly-in their biggest customers to a fancy hotel, quiz them, and run canned ideas past them for several days. I believe that the most successful companies will be those that build the largest “virtual teams.” As with social networks, where their value is based upon getting a critical-mass of members, a company’s success will be more and more based on the size of their virtual team.

Virtual teams can make small companies more effective. But, in a way, these teams have the potential to be equally, if not more effective, for large companies. To me, the secret is finding the right ways to engage the widest audience in the most cost-effective and productive manner. 

We are on the threshold of some very interesting organizational innovations that will fundamentally change the way companies operate – yes, we still live in interesting times.



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