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A Futurist’s Perspective

Keeping Ford on the cutting edge

Page 42-43

By James Amend

The entrepreneurial spirit epitomized by founder Henry Ford remains alive and well at Ford Motor Co., but the industry scion might scratch his head over the title – although surely not the role – that Sheryl Connelly plays in keeping the automaker out front on cutting-edge, affordable technology.

As the global head of trend and futuring at Ford, Connelly tackles daily one of the most challenging jobs in the industry: imagining what a customer might want in 20 years by eyeing the latest ideas in social, technological, economic, environmental and political spheres.

“We know we’ll never be able to predict the future, but we believe those five arenas will be the forces that shape the landscape,” she said.

Connelly is the automaker’s resident futurist and, unsurprisingly, her daily grind goes against the grain.

“Historically when organizations are thinking about strategy, or future plans, they start with an inside inventory,” she said. “That can be limiting, in terms of point of view. There are always activities that will happen and change the marketplace that we cannot influence. So, we take an outside-in approach.”

Put simply, Connelly imagines a distressing, or fortunate, turn of events in the marketplace, considers who the political winners and losers would be, and then finally, what innovations it might create and how costly those ideas may be. She hands the results over to subject-matter experts to determine the potential impact on Ford’s business, and then turns to her next scenario.

Ford cites work Connelly and her colleagues did in 2004 over a possible economic collapse as preparing the automaker for the crippling, but then unseen, recession in 2009. The foresight helped Ford reorganize its business without filing bankruptcy. Connelly’s work during the early 2000s helped anticipate a boom in the small crossover segment as Baby Boomers downsized and fuel prices increased. Small crossovers have skyrocketed since 2005 to become one of the world’s most popular segments, and Ford is a major player.

Looking ahead, Connelly predicts innovation will “crosspollinate” industries, building on the convergence seen today between automakers and handheld device makers. That marks a dramatic turn from the traditional technology path, where automakers would leverage their longtime suppliers’ partners for the latest innovations.

“It is a fascinating time, and it’s exciting because a company like Ford has the scale to democratize innovation in a way that makes it accessible to the masses.” — Sheryl Connelly, Global Head of Trend and Futuring, Ford Motor Company

“Suppliers are still critical in offering innovations, but the landscape is changing,” Connelly said.

The surge in cellphone use, for example, prompted Ford in 2006 to unveil SYNC, which paired the phone to the car’s entertainment system and hands-free buttons and voice commands. In typical Ford style, the affordable Focus small car spearheaded the SYNC rollout. Two generations into the technology, Ford can claim a leadership position in infotainment.

Silicon Valley influences Ford decision-making in other ways. In addition to being the first automaker to present at the Consumer Electronics Show, the automaker more recently began its Ford App Development Program. The program offers software developers access to Ford’s highly proprietary vehicle interface to create new mobile applications to enrich the driving experience. On the hardware side, Ford announced the OpenXC in 2011, which encourages developers to create new plug-and-play options for mobile devices.

Ford does not limit itself to mining the tech industry, however. The automaker annually attends the massive Milan Furniture Show, looking for the latest interior design and materials trends.

Henry Ford reinvented the industry a century ago through the induction of the assembly line, a radical change that spurred a period of economic growth and prosperity in America. Connelly hopes to continue Ford’s legacy.

“It is a fascinating time,” she said. “And it’s exciting because a company like Ford has the scale to democratize innovation in a way that makes it accessible to the masses.”

James Amend is a metro Detroit freelance writer.