April 2013 | 

The Next Big Thing: Observing the Future in Silicon Valley


Ten years ago, a group of Wharton Fellows met in Silicon Valley for a Master Class that included visits to eBay, Sun Microsystems, and Charles Schwab. The experience gave the Fellows — an international, ongoing learning group of senior executives — a unique glimpse into the future. They learned about blogs and wikis when they were virtually unknown, explored the ecosystem of the region with legendary thinkers such as John Seely Brown and John Hagel, discussed the emergence of social networks and mobile technology, and recognized that venture capital was at a crossroads.

On July 14-17, the Fellows will once again be in Silicon Valley looking for The Next Big Thing. Visits with Google, Facebook, Samsung R&D, Cisco, and a number of start-ups will provide first-hand views of the strategies, innovations, business models, cultures, and approaches of these companies. Fellows founder and academic director Jerry Wind notes, “Samsung R&D in particular will be astonishing, especially when studied alongside Apple’s dominance in the U.S. market. Samsung spends more on R&D than Apple, and our visit coincides with the company’s expansion of its Silicon Valley operations.”

The Wharton Fellows are comprised of international senior executives, thought leaders, Wharton faculty, and leading experts who meet for Master Classes around the globe (the second 2013 Master Class will meet in South Africa and Ghana). The lifelong network is designed to provide continuous critical knowledge, challenges to the status quo, and unparalleled decision support.

Wind stresses that by holding Master Classes “on location,” the Fellows get the inside story. “In July, they will see Google, where individuals can spend a certain percent of their time working on the project of their choice. The Master Class format is not a classroom — it’s going to companies, meeting with senior executives, observing corporate culture, understanding their challenges and strategies. Fellows will be able to have one-on-one interactions with management.

“When you read about these companies, you get the story through someone else’s lens — someone else’s version of what’s important. There’s no opportunity to interact with key players, ask questions, observe, and form your own opinion. You don’t need to accept someone else’s story — you can see it for yourself. It’s a live case with real players in the real context.”

But it doesn’t end with observation. The program includes discussion time for the diverse group to consider the implications of what they observe. As the participants reflect on the significance for themselves and their organizations, they create a plan for action with the help of the network. Alan Sheriff, co-CEO of Solebury Capital, explains, “A Wharton Fellow does not just go home with a lot of ideas. It’s one thing to have experiential learning, but if what you’re working on is judged by people who don’t really understand the current challenges you’re facing, it’s not valuable. That is clearly not the case with the quality of the Fellows membership. This is the bedrock of the program's value for me.”

The emphasis on individual context and current challenges is key, says Wind. “You interpret what the next big thing is for you. While no one can afford to ignore these changes, they can mean different things to different companies. The Next Big Thing is not all just mobile, social, analytics, and big data. You will see what innovative companies are doing, observe the future, and then ask, ‘What are the implications for everything we do, including our vision, objective strategies, architecture, process, talent, and resources?’ We provide an experience that helps you get to your own ‘aha!’ moment, answering those questions and creating an actual plan for your Next Big Thing.”