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leadership lab

Jeff Cates

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

With the start of the New Year, most savvy leaders make sure to carve out time for reflection and taking stock of their business. During this time, it's equally important to look ahead and identify the upcoming trends likely to impact how you position your company for success.

Customers expect organizations to be at the forefront of innovation, regardless of the products or service they provide. If you're not looking towards emerging technologies in the pipeline, you're missing out on a crucial opportunity to drive your business forward, even if you don't consider yourself a tech company. These days, all companies will be significantly impacted.

It can be daunting to sift through the buzzwords and identify what tech innovations show the greatest potential to transform the business landscape and empower leaders to operate more effectively.

Here are the top three emerging tech trends I think are mostly likely to impact businesses in 2017 and how leaders can harness them to get ahead in the coming year.

Machine learning

Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) which focuses on the creation of computer programs that can teach themselves to evolve and grow when exposed to new data. Machine learning processes use large-scale data sets to predict customer behavior and provide personalized promotions or recommendations to consumers based on this information. Coupled with the global explosion of social networks in recent years, there has never been more data available right at your fingertips.

While leveraging machine learning for AI assistants like Microsoft's Cortana or Amazon's Alexa is an obvious application, you don't need to be a consumer tech or robotics company to apply it to strategic business decisions. Over the holidays, my family and I spent some quailty time with Alexa and Hey Google and were amazed at how quickly having an always-on AI became our go-to for questions and simple tasks like playing music.

This bleeding-edge process is an example of "working smarter, not harder" at its finest and is the trend I'm personally most excited about. With machine learning software-as-a-service companies can build a connected platform of data to provide a tailored intelligent service, giving their customers more of what they want and spending less time doing it.

As more users join our QuickBooks Online ecosystem, our platform of connected data continues to expand, driving our ability to leverage machine learning. This growing community will make our ecosystem work harder and enable our customers to operate more efficiently and strategically. Ultimately, our vision is to harness this data to create an artificially intelligent strategic advisor for your business.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality has been a trend to watch for a while now, but with the recent launch of consumer VR headsets like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift and Sony's PlayStation VR, coupled with entry-level mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear, VR is more accessible to users than ever before. In fact, according to a recent study by IDC, spending on AR and VR in Canada is expected to hit $500-million (U.S. in 2017.

So how can businesses start integrating VR into their operations? If you think immersive experiences just impact gaming, think again. From advertising to tourism to healthcare and beyond, the usage cases for VR are nearly limitless. It's changing the way businesses interact with consumers, empowering brands to draw in audiences like never before. One of my favourite examples of VR done well is TOM'S "Virtual Giving Trip" this year.

For companies with remote workers, virtual reality will also be a powerful tool to keep colleagues connected. In fact, Oculus is already pushing for a more social environment on VR with its Oculus Avatar feature, allowing users to create a digital version of themselves and interact with their connections from anywhere in the world.

Blockchain technology

Best known as the technology underpinning the bitcoin digital currency, blockchain has implications for business way beyond crypto-currencies. Blockchain is an extensive globally-distributed database running on millions of computing devices and open to anyone, where not just information but anything of value can be exchanged and stored securely.

The financial services industry has been the first to take advantage of this new technology. Where trades are typically confirmed by a central clearinghouse that maintains its own central ledger, blockchain architecture removes this middleman from transactions, eliminating added fees and wasted time.

In the last year, more than 40 financial institutions reported working with blockchain technology, and it's starting to gain momentum across a variety of industries. For example, Mycelia, a new "collective of creatives, professionals and lovers of music," has developed songs with smart contracts built in, allowing artists to sell directly to consumers without going through an intermediary like a record label or music streaming company.

Today's blistering pace of technological change provides business leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to build new efficiencies into their business models and reach their audiences in creative, compelling new ways. We're sure to see some incredible innovations come of age in 2017. Getting ahead of these trends now can position your company to lead the market for years to come.

Jeff Cates is president of Intuit Canada.