Companies need to become extremely transparent

Management trends for 2019

Source: De Tijd (28 December 2018); Author: Marion Debruyne (Dean of Vlerick Business School)

A new year means a fresh start! And as always, we wonder what the year ahead will bring. To paraphrase Bill Gates: most people tend to overestimate what will change in one year and underestimate what will change in the next ten years. The chances are that 2019 will be very much like 2018. Only later on will we be able to see whether this year marked the start of a trend break, in between the subtle shifts.

Fashion magazines show you what to leave in your wardrobe, what to buy if you want to stay on trend and what to keep away from if you want to avoid looking hopelessly outdated. Management is also subject to trends.

What is in, what is out and what is here to stay?

Data is set to remain the new gold. And platforms are the holy grail of business models. I believe it is high time to do away with the concept of disruptive innovation once and for all. Not because the idea is worthless as such, but because it has been used excessively and has long since lost its real meaning. Every organisation has held a conference, debate evening or panel discussion about disruption, so they need a new theme for the year ahead.

Moreover, this topic might be popular to talk about, but it is much more difficult to apply in practice. Disruption may be a hot topic on the management committee’s agenda, but how many companies really practice what they preach and force through a disruption of their own?

In the current, somewhat sombre corporate climate I have also witnessed the return of a classic. The good old-fashioned concept of profitable growth is making a comeback and it is considered sexy once again. Why, you ask? Because profitable and persistent organic growth is not easy to achieve. But also because digital companies are pushing the question of whether or not growth even needs to be profitable at all.

The listings of Airbnb, Lyft and Uber on the stock exchange, all planned for 2019, will prove whether we are eager to invest in companies that may generate billions in turnover but have losses amounting to billions as well.

2018 was also the year when quite a few tech leaders fell off their pedestal, not so much because of disappointing company results, but rather due to bad personal behaviour. Elon Musk lost it completely, accusing analysts of focusing on ‘boring questions’ and first claiming he had the funding to get Tesla off the stock exchange and then that he did not. 

Uber’s Travis Kalanick was forced to step aside due to persistent #metoo scandals. And in spite of their political acumen, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg found themselves facing the firing squad for lacking the transparency they claimed to promote.

“Who still trusts these people?” is a completely legitimate question. Because after all, they hold a lot of your personal data. But do they still have the moral authority for you to click ‘I agree’ without hesitation when asked whether they can process your data?

Last week, Walt Mossberg, the influential tech writer, announced he is putting Facebook and its affiliated brands behind him. It says a lot that even in the United States, where deregulation is always much more popular than regulation, there are increasing calls for restrictions on the major tech players.

If things continue along these lines, 2019 will be an annus horribilis for Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg will be facing the chop. But don’t worry, I predict she will be sitting on Oprah’s sofa within a year, with a mea culpa and a bestseller. 

Digital ethics will become a hot topic and extreme transparency a must. Because what if the question is no longer which people you trust with your data, but which AI agent? Data is not neutral. Amazon found out that the hard way this year, when it had to halt an experiment in filtering job applicants using artificial intelligence. The algorithm was found to discriminate systematically, even more so than fallible people do.

These are turbulent times. With that in mind, agility is here to stay. The agility we need to tackle digitisation is nothing compared to the agility we need to tackle the perfect storm of technological evolutions, volatile international and local politics, and economic insecurity. The relative economic calm of recent years has been child’s play.

To stay on top of your game, you need to talk about strategic inflection points. The undercurrent of digitisation is an exponential curve. It is challenging to see how fast it is developing, but the direction is clear. Strategic inflections points are quite different. They refer to a trend break in the underlying foundations of your company’s success.

If you want to sound trendy this year, you’d better start practising. So instead of saying, “What about GDPR?”, say, “We are at a strategic inflection point where we need to shape our digital ethics code in an agile manner” or “Only extreme transparency allows us to achieve sustainable growth through our platform strategy”. That will make you sound right on trend for 2019.

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  1. The iPhone is out, so what’s next?

    Date: 13/02/2019
    Category: Opinions
    Beginning of 2019, Apple issued a profit warning due to a decrease in iPhone sales. The Chinese market seems to be a hurdle, as well as the fact that almost 12 years after the launch of the first iPhone, our enthusiasm for replacing our current model with the latest one is dwindling. Actually, it is not just Apple’s problem, says Dean Marion Debruyne. Because the underlying question is whether the wave of innovation driven by the smartphone platform in the past ten years is over. And whether a new platform can result in a new, similar wave of innovation. All eyes are on smart speakers.
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