Thornton May Profile

An empirical futurist and corporate forecaster for 35-plus years, Thornton May has helped various organizations outperform their competition by designing for what comes next. He serves as Executive Director and Dean at the IT Leadership Academy in Jacksonville, Florida; Futurist – External Technology Advisory Board at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering; and is Co-founder of the CIO Solutions Gallery at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University.

A columnist for Computerworld, Thornton’s insights have appeared in numerous publications, including the Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Week. His book The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics made the case in 2009 that smart use of big data would be the determining factor in whether a business prospers or vanishes.

Thornton is continuously gathering data and interviewing industry changers and visionaries to see what the future brings and how organizations can best prepare for it. He is among eWeek’s “Top 100 Most Influential People in IT” and Fast Company‘s “Top 50 brains in business.”

  • View Extended/Alternate Bio

    Thornton May is a futurist, educator, anthropologist and author. His extensive experience researching and consulting on the role and behaviors of “C” level executives in creating value with information technology has won him an unquestioned place on the short list of serious thinkers on this topic.

    Thornton combines a scholar’s patience for empirical research, a stand-up comic’s capacity for pattern recognition and a second-to-none gift for storytelling to address the information technology management problems facing executives.

    The editors at eWeek honored Thornton, including him on their list of “Top 100 Most Influential People in IT.” The editors at Fast Company labeled him one of the “Top 50 brains in business.” Thornton May is also the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics.

    Thornton May has established a reputation for innovation in time-compressed, collaborative problem solving. He designs the curriculum that enables the mental models which allow organizations to outperform competitors, delight customers and extract maximum value from tools and suppliers.

    Thornton’s insights have appeared in the Harvard Business Review (on IT strategy); The Financial Times (on IT value creation); The Wall Street Journal (on the future of the computer industry); the M.I.T. Sloan Management Review (on the future of marketing), American Demographics (on the evolving demographics of Electronic Commerce), USA Today (on the future of the consumer electronics industry) Business Week (on the future of CEO direct reports), and on National Public Radio (debating the future practice of strategy with Professor Michael Porter). Thornton is a columnist at Computerworld and has served as an Advisor to the Founding Editors of Fast Company magazine.

    Thornton’s research has been acknowledged in such seminal business books as Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing; Michael Schrage’s Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate; Moshe Rubenstein’s The Minding Organization; Bill Jensen’s Simplicity; and Jeff William’s Renewable Advantage: Crafting Strategy Through Economic Time.

    Thornton serves as: Executive Director and Dean at the IT Leadership Academy in Jacksonville, Florida; Futurist—External Technology Advisory Board at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering; and Co-founder of the CIO Solutions Gallery at the Fisher College of Business [the Ohio State University] where he also teaches the MIX program for eMBAs.

    Thornton obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from Dartmouth College, his Master’s degree in Industrial Administration from Carnegie-Mellon University, and developed his Japanese language competence at the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan and Keio University in Japan.

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Thornton May's Speech Descriptions

Thornton May uses empirical data and entertaining examples to get you thinking about what has changed, what will change, and what you and your organization are going to do about it. Since his keynotes dabble in three aspects of the future – the one we can foresee, the one that surprises us, and the one we create – he is constantly updating and adding new content based on his ongoing and most recent research.

Each presentation is customized to the audience to enhance topic understanding, interest, and action items to use in the participant’s own organization. In addition to educating your group through an energetic and humorous delivery, Thornton reels audiences in with group discussions and collaborative problem solving.

The New Know: Understanding and Managing the Big Data & Analytics
In a simpler time executives made decisions based on what happened in the past. In today's environment, however, leaders need a working knowledge of what happens next. To do that requires real-time, insightful data, or more specifically, analytics and Big Data. Identifying and harnessing the right analytics, however, is a struggle within any organization given the vast amounts of information available, the different technologies at work, and the divergent personalities who own the data. Futurist Thornton May offers solutions from his book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics on how to identify where analytics and Big Data sit within an organization, deal with a new breed of analysts, and optimize current technology to link analytics to innovation.

Bright Futures: The Unbeatable Combination of Innovation and Analytics
Procter & Gamble is investing heavily in ‘decision cockpits.’ Kaiser Permanente collaborates with patients in creating personal health forecasts. Harrah’s Entertainment quantifies the value of smiles on gamblers. MITRE has decimal point awareness of ‘who knows what’ in their network. Kimberly Clark saves $30 million with a $15,000 investment. Dunhumby USA analyzes the transactions of 350 million global customers. Business analytics is redefining The New Know—what can be known/what must be known. Analytics is transforming the global workspace. Some think that analytics may be ‘the Noah’s Ark’ that saves IT. Join Thornton May for a high energy, high impact workshop on the value that analytics can create.

A Strategy for Innovation
With humor, provocative frameworks and new data, Thornton A. May, will engage in a highly interactive workshop on Innovation. He will showcase new research regarding what ahead-of-the-curve enterprises are doing to expand their capacity for innovation. At the Stanford Business School, as May points out, Bill Hewlett teased professors that Hewlett-Packard was "successful because we had no plans." At the Harvard Business School, Mike Porter said that the only way to compete was not to compete, to become a monopolist. Today, east coast, west coast, and international business schools have concluded that regions, organizations, and individuals must have a strategy for innovation. Leaders find themselves at a critical point and status quo business models are struggling. Productivity gains and payback associated with "inside-the-box‟ solutions appear to be flattening out. Does this mean that the old way of thinking, knowing, doing, and computing are just about kaput? We find ourselves at a technology and business model inflection point. What are you going to do?

Jumping the Curve—Managing the Transition from Now to Next
We have come to a critical decision point. Is this the end of the current way of doing things? Status quo business models are struggling. Productivity gains and payback associated with ‘inside-the-box’ technology solutions appear to be flattening out. Does this mean that the old way of thinking, ‘knowing’, doing and computing are just about kaput? Mainframes gave way to minicomputers gave way to PCs gave way to client server gave way to the web…We find ourselves at a technology and business model inflection point. Is it time to ‘kick over the chessboard’? What are you going to do?

A New Kind of Leader for a New Kind of World
At inflection points in history [1453 -Fall of Constantinople; 1492 -Discovery of the New World; 1860 -Election of Lincoln; and 1919 -Treaty of Versailles] a new kind of leadership emerges. We are now at such an inflection point. Extensive research has surfaced five new "knowledges" leaders must master if they are to remain relevant to the modern enterprise. High performance organizations are in the midst of exfoliating a leadership cohort adept at answering questions, but not so great at knowing how to ask them; who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them; and who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. Success during moments of fundamental change requires finding a new direction, not marching at the front of a herd that’s heading toward the cliff. Thornton May will introduce you to the new set of ideas and a new cadre of thought leaders now animating world class organizations.

Re-imagining IT Leadership: Surviving Now, Managing Next & Preparing for Later
Society in general, the economy in particular and information technology leadership specifically are at an inflection point. An inflection point, according to former Intel chairman Andy Grove, "occurs where the old strategic picture dissolves and gives way to the new." Mitchell Joachim, Professor at MIT when queried about the future responded, "I’m counting on being surprised". CIOs face the unique challenge of being asked to simultaneously avoid and create "strategic surprise".

Hercules had twelve "Labors." Dante traversed nine circles of hell. And the hero of the emerging value drama—the modern IT executive will face at least four steep and disruptive technology learning curves: Big Data, Mobility, Social Media and the Cloud. In the cloud space alone analysts document that there are more than 2,000 software-as-a-service [S-a-a-s] vendors clamoring for attention.

A robust set of new technologies and practices offers those who would lead unprecedented degrees of freedom regarding where computational resources are located and how information services are delivered. Social/mobile technologies expand the populations creating and consuming content. Big Data and analytics transform what is and what must be known. Senior management has radically altered their perceptions of the value information managers and management can and must create.

Just as your technology platform requires regularly scheduled updates so too does your leadership tool kit. IT leadership needs to be re-imagined. Thornton May will lead the best-and-the-brightest of the technology world in a high-energy and highly interactive workshop designed to surface how to best prepare for the new world.

Managing Technology Futures
Al Toffler [futurist and author of Future Shock] believes, "the future arrives at the wrong time, in the wrong order and no straight-line extrapolation is ever accurate." Clayton Christensen [Harvard professor] suggests, "Stop trying to predict the trajectories of disruptive technologies because predictions just won’t work." If we can’t extrapolate and we can’t predict, what options remain open to future-focused executives faced with technology decisions?

Very few organizations have shown themselves proficient at prospicience—the act of looking forward. Few have mastered the art of extracting full-value from the technology they have purchased. And only a micro-minority have been successful at applying the technology loofa to exfoliate legacy systems which have outlived their usefulness. This session will showcase best practices associated with managing the 'what comes next portion of the technology life cycle."

Managing Healthcare Futures
Thornton May, futurist and classically trained cultural anthropologist is breaking exciting new ground undertaking an ethnographic analysis of the modern healthcare tribe. He is fortunate to advise, lecture and always learn from professionals at healthcare organizations such as Kaiser-Permanente, Cardinal Health, the Mayo Clinic, Medtronics, and Yale-New Haven Health System. In this session Thornton will engage the audience in a highly interactive conversation regarding the transformation now taking place in healthcare.

The Future of Security and Privacy
In the much simpler world of 30 years ago, Coca Cola assembled 200 multi-ethnic youngsters on a hilltop in Italy and had them sing. The message—the whole world could be united in its desire for a single product. While the world might be able to coalesce in its desire for a carbonated beverage, it certainly can't make up its mind what we need to know, who needs to know it, who should be teaching and how security and privacy best practices should be taught.

It has become common knowledge that all stakeholders in the enterprise should 'know a little something' about security and privacy. Procter & Gamble has decided that privacy will be as much a vital part of Tide as the chemicals in the box, as much a part of Pampers as the paper and plastic, as much a part of Maxwell House as the beans...What has your company or agency decided?

The original business plan at is reputed to state, "We will sell a low-touch commodity product (like books) via a process that allows us to extract information that will form the base of follow-on high value services..." At the base of the information age is information management. At the base of information management is the question: "How much information about your customer will you be allowed to collect and repackage?" At the base of this question lies the practice of security and privacy.

Everyone knows there's a security/privacy tug-of-war going on in the minds of the public. Nobody seems to know what to do about it. Everyone knows buyers care about their personal information... nobody knows how far they will go to protect it. Everyone knows buyers can be tempted to trade private data for personal gain... nobody can figure out the nature of such trade-offs.

We live at a time of unique opportunity to change how we think and do digital security and privacy. This is sure to be an informative and entertaining session that you won't want to miss!

The Transformed & Transforming Chief Information Security Officer
There is a security industry. There is a security tribe. And then there are the REST OF US. Rather than calculating R.O.I.’s on security spending, high-performance CISO’s would be well advised to calibrate R.O.U.’s [Rest-of-Us calibrations]. Every year roughly 153 million Americans go to work in approximately 13 million enterprises. The vast majority does not start their day or do their work thinking about information security. How can the security organization create a sense of shared consciousness and purpose regarding practicing "safe" information management with a multi-generational, mobilized, globalized, hyper-socialized, omni-connected, time-squeezed, and objective-obsessed workforce?

Publishers have been mis-labeled as physical book printers victimized by digital technology. In point of fact, new generation publishers serve a critical function as venture capitalists for ideas. Writers, both fiction and non-fiction have been chastised as egotistical wordsmith. The writers who last create a context in which other people can think. In a similar fashion security professionals have been mis-categorized. Many are ghettoized as enforcers who lock down assets. The emergent role of information security is to enable competitive differentiation/mission fulfillment.

People and information are the new security perimeter. A transformed and transforming CISO is the path forward. CISO’s operate in a behavioral casino. It is time they started counting the carbon-based cards.

The Road Ahead
Executives have to make decisions regarding three very distinct and interrelated time zones:

    • The realities of now [current fiscal year];
    • The problems/possibilities of next [36 to 60 months out]; and
    • The potentials of later [visions five plus years in the future].

Most organizations allocate the vast majority of their resources to managing the now. The next and the later tend to be starved for attention and resource.

Executive teams need to achieve a better balance across all the time zones of their future.

Consumerization of IT
Consumerization can be IT’s finest moment. Yes, few can dispute that enterprise IT is no longer the sole, preferred or even a particularly respected source of computational functionality. Yes, major media outlets are constantly pointing to the differences between the cool-new-tech outside the enterprise and the bozo-slow-old tech inside the workplace. One observer going so far as to lament, "For the next generation of knowledge workers, entering the workplace often feels like entering a computer science museum."

While making for an easy-to-tell and immensely satisfying narrative, it is overly simplistic to attempt to frame consumerization as a civil war pitting the vast, fast and global consumer electronics industry against a demonized, compliance-obsessed, control-seeking, security-sensitized and severely resource-constrained internal band of IT bureaucrats in a race for the hearts, minds, handsets & tablets of a highly digitized, mobilized, virtualized and socialized global workforce. There are bigger forces at work here.

Thornton May on Speaking

I hope to give audiences a renewed sense of hope, purpose, and clarity…

SPEAKING.COM: What do you want people to learn/take away from your presentations?

MAY: I want them to take away new data, new frameworks, and new understandings. I hope to give audiences a renewed sense of hope, purpose, and clarity along with all kinds of great and reusable stories they can use to pass on my points to others.

SPEAKING.COM: What kind of special prep work do you do prior to an event? How do you prepare for your speaking engagements?

MAY: To prepare for an engagement I conduct a custom piece of research, pinging my network to determine what the current state of thinking might be about the topic at hand.

I blend this data with ongoing longitudinal research programs [e.g., the Value Studio, the CIO Practicum, CIO Solutions Gallery, the Innovation Lab and the Executive Leadership Think Tank] that I conduct with 2500+ CXOs.

Finally, I engage with the event managers to make sure I understand EXACTLY where they want their audience’s heads to be at the end of my session.

There are many tribes on this big planet, but all of them share a common desire to understand the future.

SPEAKING.COM: Have you had any particularly memorable speaking engagements / unusual situations arise while on the road?

MAY: Within a single twelve-hour period I once addressed the group of finance professionals managing 65+% of personal wealth in the world [in Geneva, Switzerland] and right afterwards flew to Lubbock, Texas to address the local business community for Texas Tech University.

There are many tribes on this big planet, but all of them share a common desire to understand the future.

SPEAKING.COM: What types of audiences would most benefit from your message?

MAY: Audiences who want to know where we are going and what we should be doing next.

SPEAKING.COM: Which of your keynote speaking topics are your favorites and why?

MAY: I particularly enjoy situations where organizations say, “We are wrestling with X.” I contact the smartest people in the world who are working on that topic, synthesize the best thinking about that topic at that moment, and then sculpt an executive experience whereby the existing knowledge on that topic is transferred to the audience in an entertaining and actionable way.

Knowledge begins with conversation and once you manage to connect with people the conversation begins.

SPEAKING.COM: What inspired you to start doing speaking engagements?

MAY: Engaging audiences is a great way to connect with people. Knowledge begins with conversation and once you manage to connect with people the conversation begins. As soon as the conversation begins, knowledge starts to flow.

SPEAKING.COM: How do you keep your audience engaged and actively listening during your keynotes? Do you use case studies, personal stories and/or in your speeches?

MAY: My sessions are very interactive. I lay the groundwork associated with the subject being discussed. I collect audience input regarding their views on the subject. I juxtapose “audience thinking” with “generally accepted wisdom regarding the topic” and “outlier thinking.” We collaborate to create a path forward, incorporating positive energy, humor and hope throughout the entire process.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the successes you’ve helped clients achieve?

MAY: Having worked in high technology for 35+ years, many of the top practitioners have been students of mine at some point. I knew them before they became “industry rock stars.” Additionally, I have collaborated on panels, workshops, and government hearings with many of the top thought leaders in the “creating value with technology” space.

Some specific success include:

  • Helping a major technology vendor materially improve their relationships with key customers.
  • Helping a global services firm launch their mobile data initiative in Asia.
  • Guiding a global manufacturer in crafting a customer-centric future strategy.
  • Assisting several Asian countries with crafting their national technology plans.
  • “Workshopping” with a European financial institution to help SENIOR executives prepare for the next wave of technology.
  • Assisting a top tier systems integrator architect with their global thought leadership program.
  • Managing an “innovation session” for a trading firm that was seeking to understand how to hire and retain top talent. Exclusive Interview with Thornton May
Preparing for the Future, with Thornton May
In this interview, Thornton May discusses:
• Mastering the competency of business analytics.
• The future of the CIO.
• Questions IT leaders should ask themselves to prepare for the future.
Read the Full Interview

"Analytic mastery offers the opportunity to render the competition irrelevant and yet, most organizations have not taken advantage of this powerful opportunity."
- Thornton May

What People are Saying about Seeing Thornton Speak

Rating Entries

“Thornton is in the top tier of business technology industry intellectuals. I personally think he is a genius. My definition… smarter than me and most everybody else…. always is out front on ideas and uses completely fresh perspectives on issues and challenges in business… and balances it all with razor sharp wit. Nobody ever goes away after an encounter with Thornton without being enriched.”
    Barbra Cooper, CIO emeritus; Toyota USA

“Thornton May is the real deal. A daring intellectual in a business filled with fakes, Thornton encourages us–no he FORCES us–to sit up, pay attention and think hard about the real issues we face every day.”
    Seth Godin, Author of Permission Marketing, and Founder Yoyodyne

“Thornton May is one of the brightest, most knowledgeable, and funniest consultants in the information technology industry. He spots trends well in advance of most of the pundits, and he’s extremely well-connected with a very impressive following.”
    Barry Rosenbaum, Managing Director, Blue Note Capital

“Despite the claims of consultants, nobody has answers, but Thornton gives you all of the perspective you can handle. He’s the 360° consultant.”
    Robert A. DiStefano, Managing Director of Vanguard’s Information Technology Division; The Vanguard Group

“Thornton May is an intellectual speed merchant. He can think faster than the few people who are smarter than he is, and he’s smarter than the few people who are faster than he is—and that’s a tough combination to top in any field.”
    Alan Webber, Founding Editor; Fast Company, Candidate for Governor, State of New Mexico

“Thornton has an instant recognition and respect factor with Computerworld readers—not because he can be funny and outrageous (which he can) but because what he says makes them think about things in a different light. His ideas on IT leadership and his perspective on industry trends have a ring of truth about them, drawn as they are from his own experiences working with senior business and technology executives. He’s also one of the liveliest speakers on the face of the earth, so it’s enormous fun to watch him in action with a room full of startled execs who expected another boring PowerPoint presentation. Around our newsroom, he’s known as the Robin Williams of IT!”
    Maryfran Johnson, Editor-in-Chief; CIO Magazine & Events

“Thornton May is a category-defying thinker about all things related to information technology, leadership and communications. He is a brilliant thinker, marvelous communicator, consultant and teacher. He single-handedly shepherds insights into the brains of the country’s top CIOs, who collectively owe him an unrepayable debt of gratitude. Playing with him is always one of the most enjoyable parts of my professional life.”
    Andrew Zolli, author, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, Curator & Executive Director—PopTech

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Books by Thornton May:


The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics (Wiley and SAS Business Series)
Learn to manage and grow successful analytical teams within your business

Examining analytics—one of the hottest business topics today—The New KNOW argues that analytics is needed by all enterprises in order to be successful. Until now, enterprises have been required to know what happened in the past, but in today’s environment, your organization is expected to have a good knowledge of what happens next.

This innovative book covers

  • Where analytics live in the enterprise
  • The value of analytics
  • Relationships betwixt and between
  • Technologies of analytics
  • Markets and marketers of analytics
  • The New KNOW is a timely, essential resource to staying competitive in your field.

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