I am spending the weekend in Stein am Rhein in Switzerland where I speak at the Stars 2011 conference. This is a bi-annual conference in Switzerland and China where 80 ‘Leaders of the Next Generation’ come together to discuss about the challenges and choices for the next decade.
The participants are leading figures aged between 35 and 40 years old from the world of business, science, politics and NOGOs, all hand picked by their own bosses. Think partners in top consulting and accounting firms, country managers for multinationals or directors of NGOs. I am not one of them of course, but was invited as a speaker on the influence of online media. I will give a talk on Monday in a section on “The Media and its Changing Influence”. Among others Bertelsmann CEO Hartmut Ostrowski will also speak in this session.
I look forward to the talk, because after spending since Saturday morning with the group of participants I realize that many are far behind in social media use – at least in comparison to the people that I normally work with. I spent quite some time talking to people here about why they should use Twitter, Facebook or other social media. Several argued that they are too busy, but actually most have never tried it and don’t really know what they are missing or how it can help your business.
In contrast to other conferences that I normally attend nobody was using iPads or laptops during the talks, and there were no Stars hashtags on Twitter. I found a couple of tweets from participants, but most were actually using pen and paper to make notes. I realize of course that social media usage at big organizations is different than that of start-ups and that is fine. But I think it’s important that this group of future multinational CEOs realizes how online media has changed the world and how it will keep on changing it.
This morning I was surprised by two of the speakers when they among others discussed the use of Twitter and Facebook. English politician Lord Michael Hastings of Scarisbrick (Global Head of Citizenship at KPMG) and Prof. Joachim Bitterlich (former foreign policy advisor to Helmut Kohl and currently a.o. board member at Veolia) both argued that Twitter and Facebook lead to a focus on short term decision making and don’t allow you to step back and take a longer term view. Having that opinion is fine of course, but not when you first announce that you don’t use Twitter and Facebook! It’s so typical that people who don’t use social media seem to be the biggest critics of it.
When Joachim Bitterlich then called mobile devices ‘awful devices’ (“During most of my career we did not use Blackberries and that worked just fine”) and Lord Hastings nodded in agreement I could hardly believe it. They are very smart and experienced men, but without being disrespectful I have the feeling that life has moved faster than they have and it almost seems they don’t want to acknowledge that. Generally they have excellent views on the world and the strategic risks for the future, but this part made my hair stand up on end.
The location of the symposium is in Stein am Rhein, a late-medieval town on the river Rhein. I took the Friday midnight flight from Shanghai to Frankfurt and the shuttle flight to Zurich from there. A driver picked me up from the airport on Saturday morning and drove me to the town. The hotel we are staying is directly on the Rhine and my room (a suite actually!) is directly on the river, with a huge balcony. On the other side of the Rhine I see the vineyards, it’s an amazing place to spend a few days. The late September weather is also great, sunny with highs in the low 20s Celsius, which makes it even nicer. Before the seminar started yesterday I ran 20 kilometers along the Rhine (a good remedy against jet lag) and it almost felt like a holiday.
I had never been to Stein am Rhein and I have to say it’s a beautiful town, full of old renovated houses. If I understood it correctly the town owns 1% of stock in Novartis and they use this money to renovate the buildings. The conference is held in the Buergerasyl, a renovated building that’s hundreds of years old (one of the participants told me the renovation costs were 13 million EUR just for this building!). An impressive location for a seminar, probably one of the most interesting place I ever spoke at. And tonight we will have cocktails and dinner at the castle of Hohenklingen high above the town and the river, which something really special that I now already look forward to.
All in all the Stars conference is excellent, in terms of participants, content and organization. Most of the speakers are top notch and I had tons of interesting discussions about politics, NGOs, strategic views of the future and (of course) social media. I am very honored that the organization asked me to speak to this group and I am happy that I could fit it into my schedule. I met several people that I will likely stay in touch with and I learned a lot already. Thanks to the organization and the sponsors for putting together such an amazing event!
I don’t even know where to start commenting; it is such an appalling observation… As much as we need a better balance between consumption and thoughtful, real, better living (see the ecology of happiness for where I’m coming from), this is really backwards, to the point of not having arrived in the present.
And, there’s a(nother) parallel: Like so much of the issue of sustainability, it sounds like this other form of connected living also appears like a “good to say, but not enough value”-proposition to such people, for their companies. Thus, it is very hard to even convince them of the importance, because they don’t have much of an inkling of what they are missing.
Let me put it like this, though: if I want to buy something other than a carton of milk nowadays (and even that may be influenced by what I hear about different companies/brands and forms of production), I will check what others are saying, what the details on the product and brand are – and I will try to interact with the company. If they aren’t on social media and react (and another company is), I will take my business elsewhere. If they aren’t where I am, if they don’t want to interact, why should I buy from them?
Gerald, I agree that people should try out social media because they don’t know what they are missing. But I also think that people like myself who work in the Internet sector are living in a different world, that is not (yet) the world of the top managers of corporates. For me it was a wake up call to learn this, but I think it will change eventually. That’s also a reason why I speak here and talk to the participants, I ‘evangelize’ my thoughts on the Internet and how it changes people’s live.
I worked in a multinational myself for many years and know it is a different world there. It will take time, but also these companies and its top employees will eventually realize that social media has a huge added value for a company and for the persons using it.