Whenever companies talk about digitalization, they usually decide the following: to upgrade, use more technology, and reduce reliance on others. But digital change begins in our heads – and is surprisingly analog in the way it works. What is the significance of face-to-face interaction in a digitalized world?
Right now, everyone is spellbound by probably the most discussed valley in the world: Silicon Valley. On the one hand, it is revered for its innovative strength; on the other, it is reproached for its destructiveness. There is currently a lively debate about whether digital communication increases efficiency or is actually an interfering factor in our lives. Whether an iPhone makes everyday life easier or actually makes everything more complicated. Whether Facebook brings friends together or divides them. And whether Google is the nucleus from which everything new emerges or whether it actually destroys established business models.
Anyone who gets close to Silicon Valley is surprised at how small, rural, and almost how old-fashioned life is there. For those who have settled in Palo Alto, the epicenter of digital change, it somehow feels like being part of a village community. The great Internet giants appear to be organized like a big family: people help each other out, provide contacts, and openly share their experiences. Despite the apparent competition for capital, talent, and ideas, everyone seems to know everything about everyone else. People here don’t communicate by email, instant messaging, or social media, but almost always face-to-face. While the great technology giants continue to turn the world into a faster place, the industry’s movers and shakers communicate in a surprisingly analog manner. The Valley runs according to its own rules, and we can learn a great deal from it.
The digital sector, from Palo Alto to Berlin, is just like a soap bubble. Inside, behind its glossy exterior, strategists, start-ups, and designers circulate and mix among themselves. Whenever digital thinkers try to generate enthusiasm for digital transformation at companies outside this bubble, however, their ideas are often met with incomprehension. Blank stares. Question marks. And at a lot of companies, you can hear John Wayne mumbling under the desk: “That’s all a long way off. Too complicated. Too expensive. This is how we’ve done business for the last 30 years, and it’s how we’ll do business in future, as well.”
To break this deadlock, we need a new approach. We must learn how to get digitalization across to people. As Silicon Valley demonstrates, it’s not all about technology. It’s about being open and curious about trying new things. About the courage to test ideas and to work in open systems. About a new mindset. That isn’t something you can learn at a two-day seminar. To understand digitalization, you need a long-term approach. That’s why we founded Shiftschool, the first German academy for digital transformation. Perhaps the most important insights we give our students come directly from Silicon Valley: learn how to learn; trust rather than sell; and have the will to break down existing structures.
In order to change something, you first have to admit to yourself that you don’t know the answer. “I don’t know,” is a simple sentence, but it’s the origin of all knowledge. It’s the requirement for creating something new. We have to realize that we no longer have the right to a great career just because we once got a degree or finished an apprenticeship. We must continue to learn, constantly. We have to learn how to learn again.
It’s a fallacy that learning is difficult and laborious. Genuine interest in our surroundings and the desire to keep on learning is innate; it’s just something we’ve been gradually encouraged to give up. We observe how children love to learn, how curious they are, and even how much they like going to school. It’s the exams and deadlines, the reports and certificates, and the anxiety about the future that turn learning into how we perceive it today: as hard work. It is up to us to rediscover this curiosity. In order to learn throughout our lives, we must make a conscious effort to reverse this development. We must put content before grades. At Shiftschool, for example, we have replaced the traditional grading system with badges and small medals. We give out rewards instead of evaluations. Even the certificates look different for each person: individual performance, a good idea, or passionate commitment are honored accordingly. I can get an A in computer science. Or I can program a functional robot that people can see online in a YouTube video.
Silicon Valley also shows us that genuine networks are based on trust, not on selling. Only those who realize that giving brings more joy than taking and who help others without a hidden agenda will achieve long-term success. In Germany in particular, we often encounter trust with a very judicial attitude: we have to set limits to everything beforehand and consider what could go wrong. Nowhere is the damage caused by this attitude more evident than in the music industry. For years, record companies tried to eliminate music pirates and streams by suing sharing services like Napster. It was a strategy that failed in the long term. Instead, Apple, Spotify, and Deezer overtook them and were responsible for a paradigm shift.
Those who want to drive digital change have to work together. And to achieve that, it isn’t enough to put a buzzword on the agenda at the beginning of the year and then give your employees a good talking-to. Openness means being motivated with employees to take new paths. Openness means testing projects on the market instead of allowing them to vegetate in innovation management games. And openness also means approaching employees rather than monitoring and controlling each and every little thing that happens in the company. Not by long emails and distribution lists, but the traditional way: face-to-face.
We are all searching for answers, but we don’t have the courage to change ourselves, to try out new things, and to shape the future the way we want it to be. That’s exactly why we should once again reflect on what actually makes us human. Then, all we need to do is bring people together in one place, and the ideas will come all by themselves. Silicon Valley shows us how it’s done.
Text: Tobias Burkhardt
Illustration: Anna-Maria Köperl
Übersetzung: Toby Skingsley