Philipp Kristian Diekhöner is a trust futurist, innovation strategist and millennial voice on trust and innovation in the digital age. So with that in mind, Digital Bulletin spoke to him about the transformative effect Gen Z and millennials will have on the workplace, succeeding in a trust economy, making technology work for us and much more…
But it is not just technology that is going to change the business landscape. Over the next few years, the make-up of the workforce is going to change dramatically, with millions of younger millennials and Gen Zs (those born between 1995 and 2015) altering the dynamics of enterprise.
There are few people on the planet better placed to speak to about this potentially seismic shift than Philipp Kristian Diekhöner, a trust futurist and innovation strategist. Investigating how the digital economy changes the way we trust (and our resulting behaviour), he believes intergenerational challenges at work boil down to different trust attitudes.
Diekhöner spends the majority of his time working with some of the best and largest names in business on building a more trusted future, and has been part of establishing two Fortune 500 innovation labs and one of Asia’s fastest-growing technology scale-ups.
In short, Diekhöner is a busy man but he has been kind enough to carve 45 minutes out of his schedule to speak with Digital Bulletin, during which time he manages to discuss the effect of a digitally-native generation entering the workforce, the skills race, and generally how technology has the potential to change the world, all while navigating Singapore’s notoriously chaotic rush-hour.
Diekhöner starts off on the issue of trust – he is big on trust and its function in the world of work. “The younger generation is used to operating in the digital economy and they expect to be trusted up front,” he says.
“That is the opposite to Gen X and older, where trust has to be earned over the longer term, and that can lead to clashes in companies on a daily basis, especially when the younger generation are supposed to be led by older generations. It creates confusion and uncertainty.
“The best organisations are the ones that collaborate most effectively, usually based on shared trust and that usually also means they are faster in getting things done. There is a lot more alignment, so everyone is moving in the right direction.
“For me, this has a lot to do with creating an environment where there is autonomy, which is just trusting people to do their job, because you hire people for their skills, and nothing is less motivating than being hired for your skills and expertise and then being told what to do.
“People need to be trusted to do the jobs they are employed to do, and trusting people first before they prove themselves. The fact that you’ve hired somebody with the right skills and experience in the market shows that they’ve already proven themselves, so they don’t have to constantly re-prove themselves.”
One of Diekhöner’s specialist subjects, one he frequently covers in his keynotes, is ‘Trusting the Future of Work’ – that word again, trust. He argues that with business complexity on the rise and new generations at work, established management structures and philosophies are reaching their limits, and that we are seeing before us a move from a centralised system to a decentralised system. On the future of work, Diekhöner picks out three themes that he believes will act as paradigm shifts.
“Centralisation used to be done by classic bureaucracy, but centralisation is now happening in the technology space. Billions of us use certain technology platforms to facilitate our lives, but the actual commerce portion is very decentralised. The value creation takes place on a very decentralised decision-making model,” he says.
“It is interesting because while it is still called decentralisation, it has actually led to new digital monopolies emerging, and the reason they are monopolies is because they facilitate this decentralised and powerful commerce, so the levers of control are shifting to digital and shifting to the digital citizens that use these infrastructures.”
Diekhöner then comes onto how companies can no longer control their reputation in the digital age, something he refers to as the age of ‘democratic experience-based reputation’. A company’s reputation now, he argues, is the sum of the experiences that the brand or business creates.
“Companies have very little control over this. People are not as trusting of traditional media, there is a lot of scepticism about what information is real or what is fake, and that creates a level of uncertainty and ambiguity. It means that only the fittest messages will survive, which feeds into simplicity, because if your message is not simple, it has less of a chance to boil up,” Diekhöner comments.
“From a communications standpoint, companies are way less in control and sometimes don’t understand why certain things are said about them. The best thing they can do is create a message that can survive in this day and age, which is simple and compelling.”
Any conversation about the direction of business, economy and the wider world wouldn’t be credible without talking about sustainability, something Diekhöner says is “the biggest priority of our generation”. It is clear that the days young people simply join a firm – technology or otherwise – simply for the pay cheque are gone.
Gen Z and millennials feel passionately that the companies they work for should have similar ethics and values to them, and in an industry where there is such competition for the best young talent, technology businesses can ill afford to ignore those views.
“If we think of this mantra of ‘doing good is good business’, we can get a better idea of why purpose and sustainability matters so much. It matters first of all because if you are doing the right thing and making money in a sustainable way, you don’t have to worry so much about what is being said about you, because it is likely to be positive,” says Diekhöner.
“The younger generation is taking far more ownership of the world and making people accountable, whether that’s people, companies, politicians. We are being far more demanding, so this relates to the point that a company that pursues a real purpose has less to hide.
“A company that has purpose and operates on principle is going to be better off because when their pants are pulled down they have nothing to hide. In a world where we have so much distrust because of scandals, that is a winning strategy, and many technology companies have learnt this the hard way.”
The message is clear: companies who ignore these topics do so at their peril, and will lose out in the fight for the very best technology talent. That issue will only be exacerbated by the increasing emergence of a digital freelance economy. But even for those companies that are satisfied with their recruitment, a sea change in the way they work and utilise technology is still necessary, says Diekhöner
“Even companies that consider themselves digital are based on paper and stamps, which means that those corporate structures are not of this time, not built for knowledge and not built for flexibility. Companies have to be willing to accommodate the way we live in the 21sts century, and how we think in our private lives if they are to get the best out of their employees and technology.”
Despite the emergence of potentially game-changing technologies over the past couple of years, Diekhöner believes that as a society we are fast approaching a “productivity ceiling”, and that companies need to pivot to a new era, where technology – and more specifically RPA – takes on a significant role in day-to-day operations
“Productivity gains are getting smaller each year and that’s because there are too many rules, there’s too much rigidity. Technology should be used in business as much as we use it in our private lives is because it is a far better administrator than people; it is flexible, it is highly scalable and it is unbiased. That’s why we need to use it as an administrator,” he says.
“People are not built to be robots and we should never endeavour to be that way, so there is an entire challenge for people to adapt but there is also the opportunity for huge liberation, you don’t have to be bogged down in administrative work, and that is going to make your work a lot more meaningful. We have to look at technology as a human assistant in the simplest form.”
With our time running down, Diekhöner ponders the question: what skills will people need in this imagined future work space? While you’d usually expect answers such as ‘AI skills’ or ‘cyber security expertise’, the response is a broader one, in keeping with the rest of the conversation.
“That’s an interesting question, because it always comes back to that,” he says. “The first skill I think will be really important is integrative thinking, so being able to two conflicting issues and find a creative solution that makes everyone happy, which takes underlying skills such as creativity and strategy.
“It’s a core skill for the world’s leading executives. The reason it will become more important is because while the corporate world has no choice but to take an oversimplified approach to decision-making, the complexity of the wider world we live in will only increase.”
“The other thing is that I believe in is the ability to form effective networks, and you can call that influencing, you can call that making connections or socialising. The ability to build relationships that are mutually beneficial and form partnerships is going to be more important than ever. We are no longer looking at vendor to customer and supplier relationships, increasingly we are looking at integrated partnerships.
“Partnerships allow companies to take their reputation and capability in one space and take it to another industry. You are borrowing the trust that you’ve built in your traditional space and working with a company that is trusted in an adjacent space to create a symbiotic relationship – that’s going to be really valuable.”