Nils Elmark is Founder of Incepcion, a London-based organization advising businesses on creating new commercial visions.
A year ago, I wrote a report in collaboration with Amrop. ‘New Adventurous Leadership’ investigated how incumbent businesses could transition into a new fast-changing future and create sustainable growth. Outlining 5 global mega trends we analyzed the qualities needed for the next generation of leadership teams to get time on their side.
Today, June 2019 seems like a century away. We are in the middle of the biggest global setback in 75 years and much has changed. We still don’t know what the final outcome of COVID-19 will be.
However, the coronavirus crisis may just have pushed us even closer to the future state than we were before, and I think we are on the brink of a new post-digital age: Business Modernism. Let’s investigate what has happened and how our view on the future may have changed.
Of Chains and Pyramids
We have stretched our supply chains too far. As French president Emmanuel Macron expressed it: “At the start of the pandemic we needed simple face masks worth maybe just 40 centimes, but we couldn’t get them, and people’s lives were at risk. And the main reason for that is that profit counts more than people.” So for the global food supply chain. Farmers had to destroy their crops and pour milk in the sewer because of highly specialized but rather inflexible systems. Almost every industry has experienced broken logistics.
People’s values have changed. The crisis has taken us on an escalator trip down Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Self-actualization now seems irrelevant in a closed-down world. So is esteem. Who cares about how successful you are when hundreds of thousands of people are at risk because of a virus?
So, we land on the middle layer: love and belonging. We have missed that for a long time, haven’t we? In our quest for success and individuality, we have forgotten that we all need to belong to a community. Oddly, the crisis has actually brought love and belonging back to us. We are in this together. Eight billion people struggled to fight the same disease and for a short moment humanity was united. How it approached any kind of a solution is another matter, as we’ll see in a moment.
Taking the next step down, we find safety, which we, not least young people, have typically taken for granted, but the coronavirus is teaching us differently. Safety can only be created if we all contribute.
So to physiological needs, such as food, drink and medicine. Billions fear the future may prevent them from covering these — now they have first priority. The crisis has turned our value system upside-down.
We have become more fearful. Most of us have realized that we cannot take anything for granted; anyone can lose her job, and we are thinking more carefully about how we spend our money.
We will get through this. We may even forget — humans tend to have short memories. But I don’t think so. Our old values from the 20th century have been found wanting. People no longer want growth at any cost. The crisis revealed blue sky over formerly polluted cities, Venetians experienced clear water and even fish in their once dirty canals, and we have felt the joy of belonging to communities we thought didn’t matter.
Digital is a Positive Virus
During the crisis, we have been using social media in new and constructive ways. It’s no longer (just) about promoting ourselves — it’s about practical communication. We have learned to travel in spirit, zooming in on e-meetings around the world.
Industries have been re-configured. Some have been hit hard — airline and travel, for example. And some have almost been obliterated, think of cruise tourism. Others — particularly digital substitutes - have prospered. By mid April, Netflix had acquired 16 million subscribers. As more people have learned to shop and bank online, they will not go back to normal. They will go into a ‘new normal’, still rather blurred.
For 25 years we have talked globalization, but the discussion will be about globalism, rather than globalization. Globalization has meant that fewer companies have gained increased global power, whereas globalism will lead to increased decentralization in global communications.
The notion of a global community was already flawed when the Corona went viral. The clearest indicator of this is that we did not solve the new problem as one big global community. When the disease spread, each nation took over. The lockdown of Europe never became an EU-initiative. Suddenly the residents of the global village sought shelter behind their old walls.
This is not necessarily the beginning of national isolation, it’s rather a scale-down of global operations. The UK’s Secretary of State Dominic Raab has declared that relations with China will never be the same and Emmanuel Macron has suggested that Europe should increase its co-operation and start to develop its manufacturing industry. These are examples of what we coined “new globalism” a year ago.
The tech-globalization has connected billions of people digitally. But the operating system is obsolete. The leaders of two of the greatest nations are at odds with each other — and their people.
Profit and growth at almost any cost is no longer sustainable. Lest we forget, the planet still has a climate crisis to attend to! It won’t go away because of COVID-19.
So, what’s wrong?
Business Modernism: Re-defining the New.
I believe there is an urgent need for a new operating system that can handle people and technology at the same time. Our technologies can solve most practical problems almost without people — but we don’t know how to keep people satisfied with meaningful lives.
The political and business operating systems aren’t there yet; we still have to find the right people who can develop future organizations driven by dazzling new technology with a solid interface with humans. Our conclusion a year ago was that future organizations needed “adventurous leaders” because they have to lead their organizations in extremely uncertain times where old business rules and tricks no longer work.
I don’t think the coronavirus crisis has changed this. We still need adventurers at the helm. When businesses were paralyzed by the coronavirus lockdown, SpaceX launched its first two people into orbit. Elon Musk still had his adventure to tend to.
But I think we need to take our prediction one step further now. I believe we are at the beginning of Business Modernism in the post-digital era.
Everybody has been talking about digitization and technology for the last 10 years, but hardly anyone has talked about people. The pandemic has pointed that out to us. And as explained in the full article, to understand the term modernism we need to go back a hundred years.
One of the key figures in the modernist movement was the poet and critic Ezra Pound, mentor to literary geniuses such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S Eliot, James Joyce and Robert Frost. Pound’s war cry was “Make It New”. It was modernism that formed the 20th century, and business had its modernists too. Henry Ford was one of them. To me, Elon Musk, despite his flaws, is a 21st century Business Modernist.
When Ezra Pound said, “Make It New”, everything wasn’t new. The “It” was the old. It was the “It” that was to be made new. For Hemingway the “It” was not the book; the book was the same, the “New” was how he wrote in short modern sentences fit for the industrialized age, for people who had a constant eye on the clock.
For the last two decades we have seen a lot of successful companies that Made it New, such as Amazon, Alibaba, Huawei, Microsoft and Netflix. They have done this with regard to technology and business models — but they have not been sustainable, and have operated within the old 20th century setting. They have turned jobs into software, automating the global service- and manufacturing industries. Business Modernism has taken a lot of people out of its equation. But the people still exist in the world, and many feel scared and excluded.
We can’t create a sustainable business future until we Make the It of relationships between technology and people New. So our statement a year ago that businesses need ‘adventurous leaders’ to steer them into a chaotic, technology-driven world, still holds. But the crisis is teaching us that the adventurous leaders of the future also need to be adventurous about finding new ways of integrating people with technology and new business processes.
This adds a whole new dimension to the qualities that modern leadership must possess to create sustainable growth within the new modern business paradigm.
A recent Amrop article invites digital leaders to ask themselves: To what extent do I emphasize an ethical, responsible and sustainable approach to digitization?
Wise leaders are not just commercially accomplished or cognitively smart, they make responsible decisions and skillfully resolve ethical dilemmas, addressing socio-ecological challenges in a holistic way. The wise CIO stands at the epicenter of the adventure.
The digital era has raised a host of new dilemmas for its leaders. In creating more profitable relationships with consumers, to what extent should consumer data be used to predict (and influence) individual choice? In accessing data, should organizations just comply with the letter of the law? Or aim for the spirit of the law, restricting data access more than is legally necessary? Given advances in AI and robotics and their potential to replace humans, how to strike a balance between profit and people?
The ‘Adventurous CIO’ occupies a central position in modern business. So she needs to transmit wise decision-making into the digitization culture. Seeing beyond the technical boundaries of digitization, to its wider, and profound, implications.
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