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Culture Still Eats Strategy for Breakfast (Perspectives from Sweden Part 1)

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Culture Still Eats Strategy for Breakfast (Perspectives from Sweden Part 1)

It was a pleasure to head to Sweden this week and co-host Cognizant’s Snapshot Breakfast: The Culture Cure for Digital....

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It was a pleasure to head to Sweden this week and co-host Cognizant’s Snapshot Breakfast: The Culture Cure for Digital. We’ve done nearly 20 of these snapshot events, but this one we took on the road and ran it at the rather grand Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). Joining me on the stage to discuss the issue of culture in the workplace in an era of hyper-technology were SEB executive Jan Amethier from one the Nordics largest corporate banks, Lars Ederström, Head of Business Innovation, at Sandvik Materials Technology, and Frida Pemer, Assistant Professor from the SSE. The presentations and the Q&A provided a fascinating insight into how companies are beginning to shape culture for the realities of modern work.

I started the conversation by putting the era of hyper-technology into perspective. As the technology behind work changes in a big way, there are big changes in how work gets done. There is nothing new in that. You can see this throughout history from the advent of the mechanical loom, and its impact on the textile industry to the computerization and rapid digitization that’s happening today. Big changes in technology alter how work gets organized, the tasks employees handle and the places where they work and how they behave. So, whether it’s the mechanical loom or the typing pool, the places where people work underpins their performance and their shared codes of behavior (culture). The rise of data, the growth of platforms and automation hasn’t changed this one iota—culture is still as important than ever, and you need to shape yours for the realities of modern work (you can read our prescription in the Culture Cure for Digital: How to Fix What’s Ailing Business).

There is one big trend impacting work culture and it’s the rise of the intelligent machines, especially in knowledge-intensive industries. Frida from the SSE walked us all through her research on the rise of AI and what happens when AI takes over the expert role. Her thesis is, business models set around billable hours are slowly being killed off by predictive analytics and AI, and the impact on employees looking to advance their careers is going to be profound. Billable hours, charged out on six-minute increments, are the bedrock of how the legal profession charges clients and encourages ambitious employees to reach to become partners. Frida explained how auditory and management consulting are now using AI at the entry level, pricing by value, and the result is tensions within the workforce. The mid-careerists (35 to 45 years old) are looking over their shoulder at the new kids entering the profession with these new tools and tricks at their disposal—and they could potentially pull the rug out from under them in their quest to reach the top. New skills and new competencies are needed for those squeezed in the middle of their careers. I do look forward to reading more of her research.

Then we heard from Jan from SEB. He gave a fascinating insight into the digital ecology that SEB is nurturing in the Nordics. Jan leads “SEB Singular” set up specifically to address the ecosystem of start-ups now pivotal to financial services and to marshal the dynamics at play around them. If you look at the sheer pace of transformative change unfolding across the financial services industry right now, you can see why this is critical for SEB. Alliances and commercial configurations have exploded, with APIs and data architectures creating a wave of young, hungry “Fintech” entrepreneur’s eager to disrupt the traditional bank and provide the highly personalized, intuitive products and services that digitally-savvy customers prize so much. Go beyond Stockholm to London, Paris or New York, and you will find Fintech events galore as customer demand switches channels and technologies bleed into everything, from chat-bots, natural language processing to sentiment analysis. SEB Singular is relatively new, but you cannot fault the attempt to drive a culture of agility, experimentation, and speed into SEB, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

Finally, we heard from Lars Ederström, Head of Business Innovation, Sandvik Materials Technology. He provided a fascinating insight into how an innovative culture evolves from the ground up (rather than in a directive fashion, from the top down). What I took away from his presentation was the need to find catalysts across Sandvik that could transform attitudes towards innovation across the business. The task was to effectively develop the FOMO affect (Fear Of Missing Out) among the workforce. He laid out a startling data-point to the company when starting off the process and it worked to provide a clarion call to the organization: 75% of all companies on the S&P top 500 list will be exchanged by 2027! So Sandvik’s radical change journey began from innovating “inside the box” to opening up and making innovation transparent inside, across and outside the business—a bit like SEB Singular and connecting to the ideas brewing at the organization’s edge. So far, they have established an external innovation portal and a platform for internal idea generation, and they initiate hackathons and challenges and on an ongoing basis, reach out to entrepreneurs and start-ups. Good to see he will be heading to Slush in Finland next week to capture the start-up Zeitgeist. My next post will deal with the questions that arose from this Snapshot. We ran out of time, and there were a lot via the live streaming that demand an answer!

PS. It is always a pleasure to head to Sweden because everything works. The trains are always on time; whatever credit card you present to the taxi driver, shop assistant or the waiter, it gets accepted; the hotels are always warm and comfortable and have a fire flaming in the grate, etc.; But most importantly, the Swedes are a hospitable and warm people. Swedish culture has to be one of my favorites.


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