April 2015 | 

What’s Next? How to Find Trends, Insights, and Opportunities

What’s Next? How to Find Trends, Insights, and Opportunities

Eric Green was in the first Wharton Fellows Master Class in 2000, and he also attended the most recent one. The CEO says he participates in the program to understand, as succinctly as possible, the issues created and opportunities presented by disrupting technologies. “It’s tough for businesses today. The pace of change and volatility are much greater than they were ten years ago. Competition comes from places in the world you never thought you would deal with. You have to be smart, creative, and nimble enough to reinvent yourself. If you aren’t really good, you’re going to get swamped by the competition.”

Green, who is also an art collector, draws parallels between the challenges faced by executives and artists. “You can do something incredible when you start out — look at Picasso’s blue period, for example. But, you have to continue to create, grow, and master new techniques and abstractions in order to be considered a great artist, just as Picasso did.” Similarly in business, he believes managers must continue to challenge themselves if they want to stay successful.”

Green views business plans and how they are executed as an art form. Some plans and business models are elegant, beautiful, and revealing. They flow and persuade; they command the reader’s and the marketplace’s attention and say and do something of import. Additionally, as Ray Nasher once told him, it’s generally superior to collect plaster rather than bronze because the plaster is “‘nearer to the artist’s hands.’ … That is what the Wharton Fellows program offers,” Green explains, “an understanding of the most important and current issues and opportunities, directly described by those who face and execute those issues and opportunities.”

The recent three-day Austin, Texas Master Class was preceded by a Dallas art tour, which included a stop at Green’s home and collection. Fellows were also given private tours of the contemporary art collection at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Fellows programs often include such pre- or post-meetings, which add meaningful insights and inspiration and provide another opportunity to strengthen the learning community.

“The Fellows program is designed to challenge our participants,” says Jerry Wind, Wharton marketing professor and founding director of the program. “The world is changing dramatically and continuously. There are technological advances, scientific discoveries, globalization, and more empowered and skeptical employees and customers. Senior executives can’t expect to just continue doing what they’ve always done in the face of these new realities, which is why the Master Classes are focused on The Next Big Thing. Lifelong learning, continuously updating yourself, is key to survival and growth.”

Wind stresses that Fellows isn’t about classroom education. The programs bring participants into some of the most exciting and innovative organizations in places such as Singapore, Seattle, and Silicon Valley, all of whom share the challenge of staying steps ahead of the pace of change. From Dell, whose CEO famously noted the company must “change or die,” to Intel, the IC² Institute at the University of Texas at Austin to IBM’s Design Labs, where cutting-edge applications of cognitive computing are being explored, site visits offer exclusive access and insights.

But it’s not just businesses that must continuously evolve. Visits with Michele Skelding, Senior Vice President of Global Technology and Innovation for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Hugh Forest, Director of Austin’s South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals, and Jeremy Strick, Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, showed the widespread need for change and growth.

Jeremy Strick explains his challenge, which will sound familiar to any organization with a strong brand. “As a museum, adapting to change presents a fundamental paradox. Central to our mission is the preservation of our collection, so that it can be studied and enjoyed by future generations, but our audience is evolving quickly.”

For the Nasher, that means reaching out to the community by using social media and their website, hosting large “festival-like” gatherings, and even reconsidering the physical boundaries of the museum space. For their tenth anniversary, they commissioned ten public sculptures and exhibited them at sites throughout Dallas. Nasher XChange, was the first citywide, museum-organized public art exhibition in the United States.

Gaining insights from museums, non-profits, start-ups and innovative established companies is what keeps Wharton Fellows coming back for more. With the pace of change showing no signs of slowing down, senior leaders need continuous knowledge to stay ahead. The provocative program; which will take place in Israel, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Singapore in 2016; provides an encouraging learning community that pushes participants to try new things. Eric Green explains, “You can’t just anticipate what is on the horizon; you have to put yourself in a position to take advantage of it.”