AI, RPA, blockchain, the Internet of Things, 3D printing… What’s your take on new technologies? Worried or unfazed? Do you see them as an opportunity or a threat? One thing is certain: the impact of technology on society, your business and your life will not decrease – on the contrary, in fact. So get ready for the future. Six experts are here to help you get started.
Do’s and don’ts
Tine Holvoet, Open Banking BNP Paribas Fortis: Let's cut straight to the chase. What are the dos and don’ts when implementing a new technology or an innovation project? To me, the key is follow-up. Why? Because the opposite – asking your staff to share their ideas and organising inspiration sprints – causes a lot of frustration.
Nik Baerten, Foresight Expert: My don’ts are inspired by the recent opposition against the large technology companies in Silicon Valley: you shouldn’t see technology as a niche for techies only. On the contrary, you need to make sure there are sufficient other perspectives shaping the technology.
Brecht Hanssens, Finance Director at Smilewise: You should ask yourself, “Why are we launching this project now?” Everyone who is involved must be well aware of the possible consequences, both positive and negative. Non-technical persons should be involved too, and you should ask for their opinions. After all, if the accountant, marketer and salesperson all back the technology, its implementation will be much easier.
Jonas Verhaeghe, Senior Marketing Technologist at Invisible Puppy: The number-one priority on my list is developing the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). All too often, this step is skipped. The MVP should always be the first thing you develop, as it forms the basis to build on. The first task on my don’t list? Don’t develop any technology without having a clear idea of what you want to market. And do not make endless variations of something that has never been tested.
Alexandra Vanhuyse, co-founder of Snowball: Make sure everyone has the same understanding of what you intend to do and how the technology will be used. Also give the task force the necessary empowerment, authority, budget and decision-making abilities to steer the project.
Marc Buelens: I would add, give everyone a ‘stress button’ they can press to take a break for ten minutes, an hour or even a month. And also a ‘super stress button’ that allows you to ask someone else to press your stress button. What should you avoid? I agree with Jonas about the MVP: you can no longer come up with fully finalised plans for the future. Take the Flemish government, for example. They claim the budget will be balanced in a few years’ time. But how can we possibly know at this stage? Do we know whether everyone will still be using Facebook next year? We don’t! There’s no need to predict everything. I learned from the Japanese that you should always leave some space. When you erect a new building, for example, you should give people the opportunity to live in it and experience it for a while before finishing everything off.
Tine Holvoet: So we should steer away from strict project planning and instead maybe use scenarios to guide us. How can this be done?
Nik Baerten: People often focus on the engineerability, and think more outwards rather than inwards. They cut you off from the dynamics around you. Using scenarios is a good way to turn that around. You embrace insecurity and reason from the outside in. You explore your current context and the context you could find yourself in, ten years down the line. Maybe that future world will have become averse to technology and your situation will have changed completely. How do you deal with those challenges?
Jonas Verhaeghe: I think scenario building is very interesting, but it shouldn’t be done by typical tech experts. You should keep them out of the process until you’re half-way through. Why? Because scenarios are generally devised not from the perspective of the technology experts, but rather by people with an idea or a solution to a problem. That idea must be refined first. You need to be well aware of the context and your goals. Only then can you determine what is possible from a technological point of view. If you allow tech experts to join the process earlier, they would be likely to shoot down the idea before it has been refined with statements like, “That can’t be done”, “That’s too expensive”, and “From a technical perspective, that’s impossible”. We want to avoid that, so the agile part comes into play only half-way through. For the first part, we apply the Kanban methodology.
Tine Holvoet: How do you go about it?
Jonas Verhaeghe: Kanban is used in technology development, but you can also use it for scenario construction. Basically, it comes down to working in various stages. It all starts with an idea, which can be very limited, even just a word. That is stage one. In the second stage, you conduct research and in the third stage, you need to elaborate the idea. The fourth stage is the idea validation.
Tine Holvoet: What is the timing for this process?
Jonas Verhaeghe: That’s difficult to say, because it’s a creative process. As soon as you know what you want to build, you can set an indicative timing, as you would for Agile, for example. You could work in sprints and decide that going from A to B should be done in two weeks. That is possible, because you know B and you know what needs to be developed to reach that point. If you don’t know what B is, any timing is useless.
Tine Holvoet: Can you give a concrete example of a project you recently worked on?
Jonas Verhaeghe: We received a request about marketing automation technology. The problem was the way the request was formulated - things still needed to be discussed. What exactly are we going to automate? In which context? And in which scenario would we end up with automation? Is it even useful to automate? Are there other options? All of that needs to be clarified before you look at the technology.
Nik Baerten: In fact, questioning the request or the assignment should be part of the process.
Tine Holvoet: How do you deal with the assignment description, Alexandra?
Alexandra Vanhuyse: Snowball is a cleantech hub. We try and test new technologies. Try really is the key word here, because it doesn’t always work. When I give my team an assignment, it’s usually a broad one. I tell them I need a solution and it should look like this or that. I prefer to work with self-managing teams and I want them to surprise me. Therefore, they enjoy a lot of freedom. I give them an idea of what needs to be done, and they tell me what they can do. But I also rely on other leadership styles. Sometimes I’m confronted with negative attitudes and I say, “Cut the crap. Just keep going. This is what I need and I need it by the end of the week.”
We might be wrong
Tine Holvoet: Alexandra spoke about trying and the risk of failure. Marc, you’ve worked with many models. Have you come across the “We might be wrong” model?
Marc Buelens, Emeritus Professor Vlerick Business School: In the 1990s, during the trend of the “learning organisation”, we realised that few people are rewarded for making mistakes. It takes courage for a manager to say, “We’re not going to make it”, right? Because they will have to pay the price. For an entrepreneur, it’s slightly easier. They can say, “It’s my project, I abort, it’s gone.” But the big “We might be wrong” confession is fairly recent. Now, when things go wrong, we realise we have often been wrong before. Just look at Facebook. They launch a currency and all of a sudden everyone starts backing out.
Tine Holvoet: That often happens at the peak. Take blockchain, for example. Once all experts start pulling out, it becomes a hype and even a social theme. It seems like hypes are seeping through more slowly. Alexandra, you were in fintech and now you’re in cleantech. When was cleantech launched?
Alexandra Vanhuyse: It’s been around for almost ten years, but I don’t think cleantech hubs have passed their peak yet. There is still a lot left to be done. After all, it’s a broad and cumbersome industry with complex production processes, comprising anything from mines in Brazil to retailers in Edinburgh. It takes decades to transform such processes. Moreover, cleantech can be applied to many fields, from energy to mobility, production processes, transport by air and by land, food... Something is always bound to be a hot topic, right?
Tine Holvoet: What’s your take on investors? Do you feel they give up too easily?
The relativity of future predictions
Marc Buelens: It’s almost impossible to predict social behaviour. At least, so far, we have not managed it. When I was young, there was talk of installing moving walkways in the city. I loved it. No one would need to walk anymore. What happened to these walkways? They do exist, but what do people use them for? Right, for jogging. And look at the rise of Facebook. Was that ever predicted? No. The same goes for our smartphones, which we check two hundred times a day. Believe me, social behaviour is unpredictable.
Alexandra Vanhuyse: I do. I think it's because they have excessively high expectations and they forget that consumers are slow - they don’t change their behaviour from one day to the next. Today’s world is incredibly fast-paced. Unless your turnover doubles every year, you’re no longer good prey for investors.
Nik Baerten: Investors also want things to move fast because of our close-minded view of technological development. The platform economy dictates and relies on an old-fashioned land-grabbing approach. Grab as much land as you can, even if you are not doing it properly and spoiling it all. That doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve got yourself a nice piece of land that’s all yours to exploit. Think of Uber and the like. In the next phase, they’re sitting on piles of cash, they buy any possible competitor that comes their way or they destroy them to get them out of their way. Another tactic is to copy what others are doing far away, in Malaysia or Belize, for example, where they’re guaranteed no competitors. There, the ins and outs of a product or technology are tested before they are introduced on a competitive market. That’s a very narrow-minded approach to technology that closes the door to a lot of innovation opportunities. Luckily, we are now starting to adopt a more critical approach, partly because of the launch of countless hubs that give the Silicon Valley model their own spin.
Tine Holvoet: Which hubs are we talking about?
Brecht Hanssens: An example is Softbank, a Japanese company whose entrepreneur became an investor. A patient one - or so he claims. But he does have a strange land-grabbing method. He takes the plane to the US and tells Lyft and Uber, for example, “I’m going to invest in one of you.” Of course those companies grab the opportunity, because they know if they don’t, the investor will go to their competitor, and that’s the end of it.
Jonas Verhaeghe: In the past, technology was easier to deal with, because it was all new. Back in the day, you could start a technology company from your student digs and turn it into an instant success. Today, that’s much more difficult - you often need serious investment straight away because of time pressure.
Dating app versus climate change
Nik Baerten: Instead of asking ourselves whether we’re still doing things the right way, we should ask ourselves whether we’re doing the right things. I think many people scratch their heads when seeing the 200th dating app and think, “Haven’t we got enough of those? When are we going to tackle climate change, poverty or the property market bubble?”. Call me naive, but I think we’re nearing a turning point.
Brecht Hanssens: Today’s start-ups also keep a close eye on the Facebooks of the world. They think to themselves, “We need to be careful with this new technology, because before we know it, Facebook will have copied it, leaving us empty-handed.”
Tine Holvoet: We’ve talked about Kanban and Agile. Are there any other interesting models we should be aware of?
Alexandra Vanhuyse: Recently, I googled the concept of “holacracy”, which is applied at Zappos. The idea is that you get rid of all leaders and set responsibilities. No one is specifically responsible for the accounts, development, marketing and so on. Every team member takes on the responsibility to achieve something.
Tine Holvoet: Can this approach work?
Mark Buelens: Yes, but only within very clear frameworks. That is the only way to organise your staff in a radically different way.
Nik Baerten: You’ll see, now some companies will pursue this blindly.
Jonas Verhaeghe: Everything is copied nowadays. This implies that people and the current culture are taken into account, which turns into a mixed result. Or, in the worst case, it doesn’t work at all.
Tine Holvoet: What do you think of Cisco Living Labs? That’s a model in which several companies jointly tackle a common problem. By sharing the challenge, they make the problem a priority. An example is Airbus, Caterpillar and DHL joining forces for two-day idea sprints, where they develop five or so prototypes in two days. They then ask end users in the different companies to test them. This is followed by a 12-cycle period of 60 days. What’s your take on this?
Nik Baerten: The main thing to me is that there is a budget for this, that the team includes people from different areas of expertise and that they join voluntarily. When you force people to join forces with their competitors, you risk sabotage.
Alexandra Vanhuyse: We’ve all witnessed the rise and silent fall of B-Hive that aimed for major banks to join forces in a single project. What went wrong? First of all, everyone was forced to take part. Secondly, it was unclear who would do what with the results.
Marc Buelens: In such projects, it’s very important to determine the failure level. That is a key difference between communism and capitalism. The communists also had good engineers, but failure was not an option. In capitalism it is. We set the failure level at the maximum. We allow large businesses like Thomas Cook to go bankrupt. That’s why we have such great travel agencies. We didn’t treat banks the same way in the past. We allowed failure and acted in a somewhat communist manner. But entrepreneurs in our capitalist system don’t have this option. They are met with greed and fear. Greed because you hope your projects will yield money, and at the same time fear of failure and losing your job. Failure is simply part of it. For every entrepreneur who succeeds there are plenty who have failed. But what about a department, team or individual in a company? Can they fail? And are they allowed to fail?
Jonas Verhaeghe: In Belgium we’ve had a few wonder labs. Failures are part and parcel of it, because for every 12 developed prototypes, 9 are bound to fail. However, it’s a short-lived failure. We once had a client who said: this is the budget and if you fail, that’s OK. But he did expect results: a possible failure required an explanation.
Brecht Hanssens: Can you even call that failure, though? For that client, the result is the validation of something not working.
Nik Baerten: In the past, that was called “experimenting”. If your goal is to get an answer to a question or hypothesis, that’s not considered failure. In that case, failure is just part and parcel of experimenting.
Jonas Verhaeghe: Who once said, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”?
Marc Buelens: Edison. But as an individual in a company, you can’t say, “Hey boss, I’ve found another way for things to not work”. You’ll just be seen as incompetent. CEOs used to say: everyone is allowed to fail here – once. In other words, there’s no room for failure.
Nik Baerten: But there’s a difference between people who fail and don’t learn from their mistakes and people who do learn from them. The banks failed, but did they learn from that failure? Did they organise their activities differently? They felt they were too big to fail. What will be the next thing that’s too big to fail? Facebook at the expense of democracy?
Alexandra Vanhuyse: Compulsory voting was not too big to fail.
Nik Baerten: I think it’s fascinating that you are sitting at this table, Alexandra. We often associate technology with a specific sector. In the past, it was manufacturing, then data and now it’s something in between. But we are seeing a shift towards other technologies, like biotechnology and genetic applications. Technology has become even more all-encompassing and demanding, and it has a greater impact on our lives. Look at biohackers and geneticists who mess with the building blocks of life, without any laws to protect us. This is because the social dialogue is not where it should be; it’s still focusing too much on that other technology.
Alexandra Vanhuyse: You shouldn’t overestimate all of that. Maybe we should indeed focus on genetics and blockchain, but seemingly small things that keep our society running, like batteries, are still super-relevant too. That’s a problem in Europe, because we don’t have a single major battery producer on the continent. China has taken over. They have become the world’s largest battery producers.
Marc Buelens: Apparently we always want a piece of everything. Newspapers, radio, TV and gossip mags ... they all still exist, despite the rise of the internet and social media. We have it all, but in different ratios.
Nik Baerten: We often hear, “What’s next?” But it’s more than just one thing - it’s everything at once.
Alexandra Vanhuyse: Ghent University came up with a brilliant motto to celebrate its 200th anniversary: ‘The next big thing will be a lot of small things.”
NEED FOR SPEED
Tine Holvoet: I would like to talk about the aspect of time for a minute. Investors expect quick results. Start-ups often calculate their exit strategy over three years, from development to sales. Do you see that happening?
Jonas Verhaeghe: In principle, things should move even faster. In the past, you could afford to spend three years in the development phase. But let’s be realistic: by that time, your product will be outdated before it’s even launched. So I think you have no other choice than to start with an MVP and build on that. Sometimes, you might have to say, “The piece we built is not really worth it”. The question is also: does the start-up already have a product when it is set up? If not, that will need to be defined first, and you can’t really put a timeframe on that. However, if there is already a product definition in place, the company needs to know whether or not the goals are likely to be met in the first year. That doesn’t mean instant success, but they do need to have at least a few clients and know whether or not the product will stick. If one year on there is still no traction, you need to reassess.
Tine Holvoet: So time has shrunk: we’ve gone from three years to one year. Are we really in a permanent full-speed-ahead mode?
Nik Baerten: These are neophile times. Everyone is on the lookout for the latest innovation. But there are still companies in it for the long run, even in the technology sector. Those companies attract a different kind of people.
Brecht Hanssens: I think it strongly depends on the product or service you are offering. A company selling shoes on an e-commerce platform will be able to quickly determine the cost per lead and the degree of interaction with its market. Those are the indicators you need to look at, not the turnover at the end of the financial year. But other projects simply require more time. In healthcare, for example. There it’s all about empathy, trust, connection and word-of-mouth advertising. In that sector, building trust takes time - three, four, five years, or more even. But there needs to be an interest, and that is something you can see pretty quickly.
Jonas Verhaeghe: The question is also, “Why was a business or organisation set up in the first place?”. Start-ups are sometimes set up to cash in within three to five years, as their products are easy to copy. If that’s the case, you go for a very short cycle, you achieve success through land grabbing - regardless of the cost per lead - and you find yourself in a very specific scenario of high investments, pitching and presenting results...
Nik Baerten: After the war, Marshall was tasked with devising a plan for Europe. His idea was to build an economic structure “for the benefit of democracy and society". “For the benefit of” is a phrase we don’t hear anymore, because once you’ve entered the economic framework, you’re stuck and there’s no way out. But maybe we’ve forgotten about the many models that are working from a different perspective and that are surviving in this context. We should dig them up again.
Jonas Verhaeghe: Just look at companies with a long history. They often adopt a different mentality. The problem is that they don’t get much publicity.
Nik Baerten: I remember an assignment we did at Volvo. They say: sustainability, we’ve done that for so long, using water-based paint and the like. But we’ve never actually used the word sustainability. So why are we not getting the attention we deserve?
Tine Holvoet: Ecover is another example. They are celebrating their [40th] anniversary this year but their innovations have hardly garnered any attention.
Nik Baerten: Maybe such companies that have withstood the test of time are less likely to follow every hype and drift in a different direction. This proves stability definitely has its benefits.
Tine Holvoet: Lastly, what advice would you give people who want to create an impact within their company through technology?
Marc Buelens: “The empire strikes back”. Your project or approach may end up having totally different consequences than what you had imagined. You need to keep that in mind.
Alexandra Vanhuyse: Technology is evolving rapidly. The risk is that you simply don’t have the time to think about what you want to do and why. So, my advice is to slow down - or should I say, slow time? That will allow you to get a clear idea of your vision and get all stakeholders to jump on board.
Jonas Verhaeghe: There’s no need to understand technology to know what you want to achieve. You don’t need to know exactly how blockchain works to secure your documents. Try to keep track of your goals by defining them in writing. Technology will follow, don't worry. Today, practically anything is possible.
Brecht Hanssens: Regardless of the technology you develop, be it for consumers or companies, humans will work with it at some point. So always bear in mind who your end users will be, to make sure they can actually use your products. At the end of the day, technology is just a means to an end.
Nik Baerten: Do your best to step out of your echo chamber. Don’t just surround yourself with people and information telling you what you already know. That will help you break free from a mono culture of thought.
Who is who?
- Open Banking BNP Paribas Fortis
- Her research focuses on entrepreneurship and innovation
- Master in Sociology
- Foresight expert
- Co-founder of Pantopicon, a foresight and design studio
- Trained as an engineer, has a background in artificial intelligence
- Finance Director at SmileWise
- SmileWise develops sales software for dental clinics
- Electronics and ICT engineer
- Senior marketing technologist at marketing agency Invisible Puppy
- Translates business targets into technologies
- Master in History and International Relations
- Co-founder of Snowball, a cleantech hub
- Former Fintech Chief at KBC
- Master in Political Sciences
- Emeritus Professor at Vlerick Business School
- Marc retired 5 years ago and likes to look at issues from a philosophical perspective
- Doctor in Organisational Psychology