Learn Mandarin! – A study trip with self-experimentation in transformation

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Learn Mandarin! – A study trip with self-experimentation in transformation

Wednesday, 15. January 2020

Transformation and change in Germany and German retail? How long are we going to keep talking about it? When will we be overtaken by technology and the attitudes of future generations? Why do we find it so difficult and what is the point of looking beyond our own backyard? A study trip made by the author to Asia turns into self-discovery – an experience he processes here with the help of polemics.

Background and object of investigation

In Germany and Europe, we are intensively occupied at all levels with the major and increasingly pressing challenges of digitalisation. It is changing politics and society in general – and enabling technological possibilities that shake the cornerstones of democracy. In the world of consumer goods and retail, we can see and touch it. “How much has Amazon grown again (without paying taxes)?”, “How many mid-sized brands and retailers has it taken down this time?”. And in private we are impressed by the way our children playfully – consciously or naively – welcome new technologies into their lives. Or we are surprised to see how even our parents and friends enthusiastically allow themselves to be bugged in their private lives.

Depending on their data-related goals and financial capabilities, corporate decision-makers launch extensive projects and glean the talent pool of available data scientists. They create new functions and units and initiate and roll out new technology features like there’s no tomorrow.

Some try the mandatory integration approach (“We have to get this into every head!”), some swear by disruption and deploy CDOs and their teams to “incubate” the new technology parallel to the organisation as a whole. Some do nothing at all – but you don’t hear much about them at congresses.


Experiment setup and procedure

A look beyond my own backyard to Asia, more precisely to this year’s PI Apparel in Hong Kong, helped me a lot to readjust my radar and to partially answer my own urgent questions. With a mixture of fascination and defensiveness, I became a guest in a cultural and social stratification that was noticeably different. There were an above-average number of young – of course, excellently educated, technically and technologically savvy – Asian engineers, both in the audience and on stage.

The topics revolved around all the current buzzwords in the context of Industry 4.0. The top themes were 3D sampling and virtual product development, followed by PLM, cutting technology, big data in quality control, circular economy, artificial intelligence and human robotics. The focus was always on networking and continuous integration of data for better decisions. What else?
















The most important thing first: I wanted to conduct a cultural investigation on change and technology-driven change outside Germany and found that I myself became the object of investigation in my experimental setup. Observing change and change resistance and experiencing it in myself. Exciting!


Observations and hypotheses

Almost every presentation contained its own agenda item on change, transformation, mindset or whatever we want to call the adventure people are experiencing. And those who did not address the topic received questions about it from the audience. So here, too, it was right at the top and was just as much of a brain-teaser. So I was in the right place and just had to listen carefully!


Observation 1 – “We” are the problem

“The problem is sitting in front of the computer,” was an old saying from the help desk, when my PC wasn’t running. And exactly this message was noticeable in the room: “The problem is in Europe, and it’s the customer”. The technological possibilities for process improvement, data transparency, speed, resource conservation that present themselves would often be blocked by our (Western or simply stubborn) attitude to digitalisation and the associated resistance to opportunities. Manufacturers and service providers reported almost across the board that customers are most likely to prevent or delay implementation, or at least not drive it at all. And that, when they are the ones who would actually get the most out of it. One manufacturer’s conclusion: “We had to start, even if our clients did not encourage us!”


Observation 2 – Many people call it transformation, but mean something completely different

But then I was slightly sobered by some solutions to the transformation that were presented with astonishing fervour: “Just be more nerdy and geeky – just love technology.”

Well, that's like telling an illiterate person to love books a little more as a solution to the problem. Or this: “You just need to train more the people in the organisation.” Aha, I knew it, if you reject something unconsciously or consciously, out of fear, insecurity and an inner attitude, then simply more of the same! Of course, without any form of knowledge transfer, transformation is bound to fail. But I doubt that experts in their respective fields reject new technologies because they do not understand them technically.


Observation 3 – Ultimately, there is a much simpler path to transformation: move or get moved

A presentation that at first it didn’t seem very elegant turned out to be a revelation. The answer to the question of a successful change recipe for digital product development was both simple and striking: “Well, we moved to a new building – which is outstanding within our local area and industry. We became attractive to young experts. We hired them, so we have now the people with the right mindset.” Maybe that’s the way to go, and maybe our CDO and team-in-team structures are only a somewhat half-hearted approach that pretty much reflects the same old structures. In any case, I can well imagine that in regions with different possibilities and young talent potential, you can advance much faster that way.

While I had not yet found the solutions that were completely transferable to Europe, I had a high level of rational buy-in. I personally wondered where and in which topics I should possibly become more “nerdy.” In any case, curiosity about new things is a lever, but so is an unbiased discussion with Generations Y and Z. And some undying sensitivities of individuals may have to be approached more “dynamically”.


Observation 4 - Drawing boundaries in the embrace of progress: we all have to decide for ourselves

But when it came to “Sophia”, I had to check out! That exceeded my resilience and my faith in progress. Sophia is a human robotic, a “star” with whom serious interviews are conducted, who holds meditation classes and to whom – according to her creators – people react very, very positively. “Sophia helps us to make us better human beings.” or “Super-intelligence is the final goal as a species. We will either destroy our-self or reach superintelligence and singularity.” WTF?! We have thousands of people and hundreds of communication points around us every day, we don’t see enough of our friends and acquaintances. And I should approach a robot and be happy that it interacts with me? And by the way: Singularity, very briefly defined, is an unplanned, exponential leap in development that is not triggered or influenced by humans. Otherwise, “Matrix” and “Blade Runner” wouldn’t be science fiction. But left and right around me the audience smiled with fascination.

But my feelings were anger, rage and rejection. I simply ignored the positive applications. Yes, now I understood what it felt like when what was technologically possible went beyond one’s own values. And what if others feel the same about other topics? How do you still reach people when they are in the “tunnel”? Later I learned that I had reached the Uncanny Valley, the acceptance point where humans abhor robots.

“Sophia” is the Greek word for wisdom. Does it fit a robot?



Conclusion 1: Catch up, now!

We will continue to lag behind China in the global technology competition for the next few years – but it’s possible to catch up! The first mover is not always the winner! Nevertheless at least those under 30 should learn Mandarin ... that means not me, but others!

Conclusion 2: Let’s shift up a gear!

Retrospective and risk-focused actions are now punished faster and more harshly. The point is to increase the pace. Faster to test, faster to adapt or faster to discard. “What? You failed only once this year? Not enough effort, huh?”

Conclusion 3: Checkout allowed in the transformation process!

Knowing and accepting consequences. Everyone can check out at completely different points (entering his or her Uncanny Valley). When this happens, training measures are of little or no help, and sermons even less. Try to address the employee’s or colleague’s interests where he or she stands. Nevertheless, it is necessary to work together and clearly assess whether giving an individual a certain role and set of responsibilities is compatible with the company’s objectives. Separation may be necessary. Nothing is worse than to expect something from employees that runs contrary to their innermost understanding of how the world works. Burnout guaranteed!

Conclusion 4: Let’s use the power of generations!

Work and communicate with young employees and the consumers of tomorrow. Mixing teams and competencies. Do not allow conflict, do not disconnect from generations. “Rezo and the CDU” – that was the title of a lesson in cross-generational German politics in May 2019.

Conclusion 5: Venture out!

Every year, treat yourself to a study trip and a break from your familiar surroundings. Perspectives narrow fast and nothing is more fun than to face something new and to observe yourself. It doesn’t always have to be Hong Kong – perhaps next time the mountains, a monastery, the South by South West in Austin or even just a weekend-long change of scenery with colleagues to inspire each other.

Oliver Schlömann

has a penchant for self-experimentation as an important part of his personal learning processes.