I recently attended a conference on the Future of Work organised by the Diplomatic Courier and hosted by ETH Zürich. My good friend and serial innovator Susan Kish (www.susankish.com) was MCing the event and persuaded me to join by citing machine learning and VR/AR displays from the likes of Google and Disney. The conference was also expected to touch on my own passion – innovation in large companies and the implications that these technological developments would have. The conference didn’t disappoint. In fact, my emotional response was a near constant oscillation between exhilaration and fear (especially when the Google guys admitted they did not know how or why Google Translate was getting better!).  There’s a lot I can say about my experience but here are my top 5 takeaways:


1.     “Big companies must improve their innovation culture” – Senior Leader, Swiss Bank

Kodak had nearly 145,300 employees at its peak. When Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012 it had 13.  That’s a frightening Kodak moment if you work for a large, mature, ex-growth company today.  If you don’t do something quick, start-ups will start disaggregating your value chain and eating away at your market and profitability (Fin-tech – you know what this feels like!). Big companies must foster an innovative culture which means taking smart risks and the unit of change is culture, which means it must start from the top for it to work. The large, fixed asset companies (think chemical), in particular, will have to figure out a way to manage innovation in the core business as well as on the edge (new market, customers etc). Several times the need for an innovation ecosystem was mentioned – that is something bigger than any single company to help find solutions… collaboratively.


2.     “Selling and persuasion skills are more important than ever” – Conference Moderator

Every industrial revolution creates a set of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. New jobs are created as old ones quickly become obsolete. My grandmother still likes to talk about being a telephone operator and how she used to pull the cables in and out of the switchboard to connect to the right home. Today I don’t think you could even get a live operator on the line if your life depended on it. So, what skills and capabilities will guarantee your relevance when this 4th industrial revolution fully hits us? We hear a lot about coders (even an aunt of mine has been to a coding boot camp recently!), but I was astounded when most of the talk centred around “selling skills”. In the world of start-ups and mature organisations, one skillset that will continue to be in high demand and avoid automation is selling and persuasion!  There are probably some lessons we can still learn from the door-to-door salesman selling vacuums…


Talk by Bob Summers Associate Director at Disney Research, Zurich.


3.     “Design for Failure – Productive Failure.” ETH Zurich Professor

Failure is required to make progress – this was a resounding theme throughout the conference. You need to fail forward. While I couldn’t agree more, I wonder what some of my previous employers and clients in large, mature organisations would say to that. The notion of failure is counter-cultural to so many organisations, especially in heavily regulated industries where in the past (and maybe still today) failure meant customers or employees getting sick or dying! What does this mean today to innovation in the core and on the edge? What’s clear is that design skills are paramount and that education is no longer about learn and apply but rather about being in constant design mode and that must always include productive failures.


4.     “Education and lifelong learning is key to innovation”. Innovator & Presentor

We must all become continuous learners – innovators are self-learners. If you didn’t know that already, take note. Long gone is the era of working for one company throughout your whole career. With today’s unprecedented life expectancy, most of us can expect to have 3-4 different careers, not to mention the number of different employers. The implication is that we must develop the Learner Mindset. No one is going to take care of our learning and development – we must build skills through continuous and self-directed training. We are never done.  As leaders, we must also ask, what can I do to improve the way people learn and find purpose in my organisation? What the collective wisdom seems to understand is that collaborative, fun learning is best, with a touch of personalisation.  For some of us that means making learning more social, for others it means making it a game. What we know to be true is that collaborative learning is the most meaningful and sustainable approach.


5.     “Anything that can be automated will be.” – Conference Organizer

Here comes the scariest part. This was one of the final insights shared by one of the organisers. In fact, he said it three times at the end of the conference. Slowly. Anything that can be automated, will be. We joke about the Uber drivers and legislation keeping up. The number of taxi drivers is a rather finite number compared to all back-office finance workers in the world! But in 3-8 years, all those jobs will be close to 100% automated.  We must ALL be asking ourselves, how do we apply the machine learning revolution to our work and purpose? AND how will companies and society be ready to manage this transition – who will lead it? How do we prepare ourselves? What are the right skills and capabilities to invest in? For those of us in large organisations, how do we innovate in the core and on the edge to not become the next Kodak?


At the Innovation Ecosystem, it’s our core purpose and mission to equip corporate innovators, business leaders and large organisations with the tools, strategies and insights necessary to respond to these challenges. Our previous guests on the podcast have delved into these issues in much depth: Emmanuel Gobillot explored collaborative learning and leadership, Robert Cialdini showed us the art of persuasion, Amantha Imber (and others) extolled the virtues of failing forward, Pamay Bassay discussed the importance of lifelong learning and Kevin Kelly addressed how automation would change the face of business.

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Written by Walt Renfree


Walt Renfree is an Innovation Ecosystem Partner bringing fresh insights and valuable expertise to the Innovation Ecosystem team. He is an inspirational leader and experienced business builder with a passion for driving innovation to deliver new sources of profitable growth. Walt spent 8-years with a-connect an innovative network-based consultancy where he helped to grow the business globally. Most recently, Walt held a senior leadership role at Syngenta leading innovation teams across multiple continents. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.