Between technology and humanity
Heavy metal, powerful images, spotlights – the opening of the WORLDWEBFORUM had an undeniable impact. The expectations of the agenda were high – very high indeed. What’s the upshot?
Text: Tina Müntener and Michael Lieberherr, Images: Michael Lieberherr and WORLDWEBFORUM, 13 February 2018
The WORLDWEBFORUM has nerves of steel: it invited a government representative to hold a presentation on the end of nations and states. That’s because this particular day of the forum is dedicated to a provocative proposition: “End of Nation”. This is an allusion to the power of the world’s major technology companies, which in many ways are happy to defy national borders, local circumstances and even the law. Or, to put it another way, they are creating new facts so fast that legislators simply can’t keep up. What matters is growth, growth and more growth. And the growth is happening fast. These companies cater to millions of, and some even up to a billion, customers. They have rapidly become the world’s most valuable companies. They have a huge wealth of data at their disposal which promises to be tomorrow’s business, and in some areas their infrastructure has now become systemically relevant.
This paradoxical task – speaking about the end of nations – was shouldered by the Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann. He argued that the state is more important than ever before. A virtual community is not in a position to guarantee social services, education or human rights. The state’s task is to offer its inhabitants prospects, and it needs to help people to continue to refine their skills. Even though all sorts of changes have occurred, it is digitalisation that is now encroaching into all areas of life. The state’s role is to exploit the potential offered by technology in a responsible way. A nation is the reaction to nomadism, and provides an emotional homeland. The Federal Councillor is convinced: “I’d take Sumiswald over Silicon Valley any day.”
When everything is in flux, even CEOs need a compass. Marc C. Thomson is an author and an advisor to CEOs. His questions give food for thought: “Think back to Christmas. Did you really enjoy yourself? How many of you felt a desire to change a member of your family?” We can’t change other people, but we can lead the way ourselves, he concludes. Leaders need to inspire other people to change, but have to start with themselves first. Thomson’s “Fitness Programme for Change” is based on four pillars:
Design Thinking also runs contrary to classic management models. Carissa Carter, Director of Teaching Experiments at Stanford University, explained why good solutions are only produced by a multidisciplinary process: “Look for voices you wouldn't otherwise listen to.” Or: “The topic area is larger than you think.” She presented her eight-point model, which is largely about diversity, creativity and methods that aim to ensure that more contrasting views and voices contribute to solving problems. And it wasn't the last model to be presented on this day with the aim of schematising and streamlining changes driven by technology.
Nancy Pfund, the founder and a managing partner of the DBL investment fund, argues that profits and good deeds go hand in hand. From her point of view, it is not possible for states to solve all problems on their own, with investors instead being called on to create positive changes: “Investment is impact.” She presented a modified yin and yang: yin is the profit, while yang is the social aspect. There needs to be a balance between the two. According to Pfund, the company’s solid performance over the last few years proves that this works.
Salesforce, founded in 1999 and now the world's largest CRM provider, valued at US$12 billion, has been flying the flag for good deeds ever since it was founded. Its 1:1:1 model means that one percent of the capital it generates, one percent of the products it produces, for example in the form of free software licences for NGOs, and one percent of employee hours are donated for a good cause. 4,000 companies have since joined in. This is an idea which we in Switzerland have long been familiar with. Gottlieb Duttweiler already had this vision in 1957, when Migros introduced the Migros Culture Percentage.
Suzanne Dibianca, Chief Philanthropy Officer at Salesforce, explained that a model like this needs to be firmly embedded in the corporate culture. At her company, equal pay for men and women has been implicit right from the start. The company has also recognised the potential that diversity offers: “We train mothers” and “We empower women”, Nancy Pfund says.
Glenn Gore, the head architect of the world’s largest cloud, shared insights into the culture at Amazon in a panel discussion on the topic of innovation. The Amazon Cloud has a global market share of more than 60 percent. It is growing rapidly, just like its profits. Gore explained that, if there are two opposing ideas, making compromises is the wrong approach – instead, consistent pursuit of one of the ideas is the better strategy. Amazon is not looking for harmony in innovation, he continued, but dissonance – polarisation instead of harmonisation. This is what enables good ideas to emerge. The company uses masses of data to evaluate ideas, but once the discussion is over, everyone needs to get behind an idea and support it.
There was one topic in particular that stood out in the presentations at the WORLDWEBFORUM: “Hiring is a big issue.” Amazon has decided to focus on “bar raisers”. They are chosen employees who play an active role in making recruitment decisions and enjoy a right of veto – even one to veto candidates who have nothing to do with their topic area. These are precisely the people who ask the most interesting questions – and ones which show whether a candidate suits the corporate culture or not. These “bar raisers” are neither human resources nor management employees but work in a wide range of functions.
Overall, the success of the technology giants stands and falls with the right talents. It is not the money that is decisive for these people, but rather interesting projects and responsibilities. These people want to solve problems and be given a challenge, says Glenn Gore. The effect that culture can have is shown by the company Atlassian. Its representative, Sean Regan, made the following claim: “We don’t have sales staff working for us – our product needs to be so good that it sells itself.” Its success proves Atlassian right – the company attaches great importance to the culture it fosters. Representatives of the company have confirmed this at previous conferences with their examples.
Another management model was proposed by David J. Treece, Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. By way of example, he illustrated how the capacity to plan a corporate environment is in constant decline. Trying to provoke his listeners, he stated: “A great company doesn't stay great for long”, invoking historical economic data. Companies must develop in a direction that builds up dynamic capabilities. An equation with two unknown factors needs to be solved. Planning is dead, and real leaders are now being sought. In the discussion with two colleagues that followed, he did, however, emphasise that uncertainty is not the same as taking increased risks.
The reason why technology cannot replace the human element was explained by designer Wilhelm Oehl. He worked together with Steve Jobs to develop the Apple Store: “We are social beings, regardless of how digital the world is.” Referring to the Apple Store located on Fifth Avenue in New York – the distinctive glass cube – Oehl said: “Apple simply had the courage to invest in something that they believed in.” The cube is, in a sense, a forum of the type familiar to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Not a place to perform dramas and tragedies, but rather to bring people together – even though the inability to score a new iPhone might be a tragedy for some.
Following all the serious topics focusing on change and corporate culture, the last person to take the stage, Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden, provided a welcome splash of fun. A man of many talents, he has been playing in the best-selling heavy metal band for more than forty years, has sold millions of albums, earned his pilot’s licence for a Boeing commercial liner while he was on tour, published books and video games and, last but not least, brews his own beer. All just for show? No, this man gave what was probably the most inspiring performance at the WWF. He animated the audience to believe in themselves, putting all the fragments of just about everything that was spoken about over the course of the day into a nutshell, and pieced them together to give the big picture and, in a moment of rhetorical brilliance, concluded by explaining why the autopilot won’t ever replace the pilot: At the end of the day, people are at the centre of everything.
The WORLDWEBFORUM has finally reached maturity, and the years of lawlessness are over – something that last year already demonstrated. Reliability and the expectations of a larger group of stakeholders now have priority. The issues covered at the conference have also changed dramatically. Technological issues used to form the main focus, while today it revolves around dealing with the changes evoked by new technology. The conference has also adapted to its changing public. More attendees, but also more uniformity. Fewer surprises, and instead solid management models and change-related topics. The number of gripping and unconventional pitches that provided lasting inspiration has, at least subjectively, decreased. The go-go dancers and the loud music bear witness to the spent youth of the WORLDWEBFORUM.
Visitors who have been attending for many years are likely to be asking whether the predominant Silicon Valley perspective will remain the measure of all things. Silicon Valley does indeed remain the undisputed breeding ground for innovation. And yet other, and highly promising, hotspots have long since emerged: examples are Asia with Tencent, Alibaba and other companies that have made great advances in the field of e-commerce, or France and Israel, which are growing at an extraordinarily dynamic pace in relation to the start-up business environment. In this context, the conference would benefit from greater involvement of the digital shapers working outside the Californian technology mecca, along with their success stories, and possibly even Swiss players. We need more role models from our own ranks, who can alleviate fears and inspire confidence to ensure that Switzerland can also count itself among the winners of digitalisation.
Glenn Gore is responsible for the architecture of the world’s largest cloud – hundreds of millions of users access it every day without even noticing it. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has a global market share of more than 60 percent. Estimates made by Gartner in 2016 suggest that AWS has ten times the combined processing power of the 14 providers that come after it. Glenn Gore exclusively answered questions at the Swisscom Breakout Session and in the Swisscom Lounge. Swisscom is a consulting partner to AWS, and boasts certified experts. This allows it to offer professional services for companies seeking access to the global AWS cloud. Its focus is on integration and migration.
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