The Chinese military general and philosopher Sun Tzu once said: “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics”.
Some 2,500 years later, no-one knows that more literally than Håkan Nilsson.
The captivating, softly-spoken leader of five-year-old Swedish IT and management consultancy Zinnovate is quietly going about upending the way global logistics companies do their business. He’s won a panoply of awards in that short time while leading a core team of logistics-industry veterans to rewrite the rulebook for how large, unyielding organisations can transform themselves for the new industrial age.
After a 23-year career including roles as CIO at Geodis Wilson and TNT Freight Management, Nilsson created Zinnovate in late 2013 with a singular mission: Digitally reinvent the business processes of his industry for the betterment of all.
Since then, armed with a crack team of individuals with an unparalleled depth of knowledge in their field, Zinnovate has been able to unseat numerous multinational consultancy firms from comfortable contracts by offering something altogether new.
The key for Nilsson was to provide something he had failed to find in his leadership roles on the client side: Expert consultancy that was as nimble and responsive as a start-up but as scalable and tooled-up as a global heavyweight.
He explains: “When you’re on the buying side, either you go with the small guys that were on their toes, flexible – where you’re the most important customer on the planet – but they’re incapable of doing things to scale. Or you go with the big ones, like the IBMs of the world. You know they are there tomorrow, they have everything – but they are a very square box, they are not flexible to your needs.
“You have this either/or choice. In other areas also, you either have cutting-edge technology or in-depth industry domain competence, very rarely both. So, I wanted to a create a ‘both’ company to deliver much more value to customers.”
Nilsson’s strategy has broadly involved pairing Zinnovate’s laser-eyed focus on executional excellence in his domain with an often-radical thirst for added innovation. Central to being able to do that – and in so doing build Zinnovate’s rapidly emerging reputation as a force for positive industry disruption – has been the creation of a global network of partnered individuals and companies who can come together quickly and respond to any challenge a client may face.
WiseTech Global’s CargoWise One platform is a first-choice for companies striving for an edge in a digitising logistics industry, and it’s here that Zinnovate found a key motivator. The company’s experienced team of consultants understand CargoWise’s proper implementation better than anyone, but rather than bringing a roll-call of practitioners onto its payroll and then passing those overheads to clients, Nilsson instead began methodically growing a network of experts already working at the top of their game.
“We can scale up much faster. We don’t have to be 100,000 people and then add another 50,000 to do things. We tap into the best of the best that are out there already,” says Nilsson.
One of those is xWARE, a Swedish technology integration specialist with its roots in Cold War military communications applications. It was amongst the first names on the teamsheet, and Zinnovate works hand-in-hand with xWare to provide best-in-class integration solutions for its clients.
Further, to enable Zinnovate to deploy elite-level expertise anywhere in the world, it has teamed up with the Network of Independent CargoWise Experts, or NICE.
Unashamedly specialised, NICE boasts experienced product managers and engineers – many operating as separate companies themselves – on every continent and is working closely with Nilsson to continue to expand the network.
By co-ordinating this web of collaboration, Nilsson and Zinnovate are able to work at scale while operating as closely with customers as a dedicated neighbourhood agency. The result has been an expanding honour roll of big-name contracts, with Zinnovate often entering the fray to rescue stalled digital transformation projects before taking a place at the table as a trusted partner in the delivery of successful change.
Return on competence
Operating in this way doesn’t come without its challenges, Nilsson readily admits. While being able to leverage the power of distributed talent brings new rewards for customers, its overhead is the need for mindful and deliberate management and control.
Nilsson himself perhaps best embodies Zinnovate’s approach to that challenge. Digital Bulletin met with him during a partner conference in Stockholm and witnessed him lead an event whose most salient characteristic was its constructive informality and openness. Hugs over handshakes. Dialogue over diktat.
It’s a people-first approach to business that’s been woven into Zinnovate’s core principals from the beginning, says Nilsson, in respect to both colleagues and how it provides value to clients.
“For us to be successful in delivering value to our customers, we need to be at the forefront with exponential technologies. But it is almost even more important now to also better understand the human being in this man/machine relationship, otherwise that becomes the breaking point.
“My goal from the get-go with Zinnovate was to create a global team that embraced all of these skills because they are completely interdependent. If you do not embrace them holistically, the odds are very high that you will not be successful in your global transformation project.
“If I add that glue of personal chemistry between the teams, we can deliver something that is unique.”
Nilsson has codified his people-first approach into the DNA of Zinnovate. He eschews profit as a primary measure of success, preferring instead to benchmark his company on what he calls ‘return on competence’.
“This is one overruling guiding light in terms of KPIs,” Nilsson says with a smile. “I think if you start with employee satisfaction, that in turn will drive the ability for employees and teammates to deliver value to the customers, which in turn will drive your financial performance.
“So, in my world, it’s employees first, customers second and shareholders third, because they follow that logical cause and effect consequence in that chain.
“What I’m looking forward to is being able to take this ROC mantra and build it stronger and stronger. It is already proving a successful ingredient, but I think we can do even more in this.”
Zinnovate delivers technical solutions to large logistics clients with extremely complex problems, but in prioritising the people interacting with that technology – the “fluffy-fluffy side of business” – it is able to offer more than the sum of its parts.
Nilsson sees his mission being much more than the delivery of systems and processes alone, but rather helping people become better themselves. Successful digital transformation, he says, is as much about the HR department and influencing human behaviour. One success metric for Nilsson is to help organisations reach a level where they don’t need Zinnovate at all.
“It doesn’t have to be about Zinnovate delivering a value that the customer was unable to deliver themselves. It may also be to ignite some things, enable the customer to deliver something that they potentially could have already delivered even before we enter the stage. I think this bridging between silos is also the fastest way… if you can connect the dots that are already there in the network, it’s a faster way forward.”
Zinnovate’s network of partnerships has led it to rapid success on the executional side of IT and management contracts with clients, but it’s a network Nilsson is broadening in sometimes surprising ways to include novel new competencies.
His devotion to a people-first mantra is what led him to the doors of the famous Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, home of the Nobel prize, and a group of world-leading neuroscientists aiming to revolutionise how organisations can better hire, manage and empower their workforces.
Its company, Game Intelligence, worked with elite footballers such as Andres Iniesta as part of its research and development, and is now working with Zinnovate to bring the power of cutting-edge cognitive science to the projects Nilsson’s team undertakes.
Even further off-piste in the context of logistics IT, on first glance, is an investment Zinnovate has made in a company called Starflow.
Starflow has built a blockchain-based platform to enable artists and social media influencers to draw revenues from fans via secure microtransactions, helping them circumvent the vice-like content-monetisation grip of the likes of Facebook and Google.
Nilsson has foreseen the direct relevance that strand of technology could have in his area of interest: “I moved into this space to learn about micropayments. I think that also applies in logistics. Where you have situations where you need to make numerous transactions and it would be prohibited by a transaction fee because the fee is too big in relation to the payment itself.
“Working with Starflow reflects Zinnovate’s ambition to be at the forefront, to learn about other economies, to learn about blockchain technology.”
Enigio Time is another blockchain pioneer working with Zinnovate. A fellow Stockholm native, the company has spent the last six years applying distributed ledger technology to the world of finance. While the company is primarily focussed on cutting out the paper – and furious costs and delays – still belabouring the consumer mortgage industry, its growing list of patents promise much for Zinnovate’s ability to transform its customers’ capabilities for the better.
“I thought, okay, Enigio Time is leading and it has some really smart patents in blockchain for fintech.
“I believe, in logistics, we are a few steps behind that, so if we can team up with them and cross-fertilise our logistics knowledge with its leading fintech blockchain knowledge, we can create a really strong win-win,” he says.
“We can take things that have already been developed for the finance industry and find use cases in the logistics industry that nobody in the industry has ever thought of.”
The potential blockbuster impact of blockchain on the sector is front of mind for Nilsson, so in addition to Enigio Time’s capabilities he has also partnered with ShipChain, the high profile, US-based logistics platform aiming to ‘track and trace’ the entire supply chain with blockchain contracts.
“ShipChain is currently very much driven from the US, but from that aspect we combine ourselves with the European strengths we bring to the table and the American strengths that ShipChain brings. ShipChain is definitely a company with global ambitions.”
From its strong, core partnerships with leading vendors such as WiseTech and XWare, to seemingly tangential relationships with brain scientists, Zinnovate is leveraging its distributed, network-based operating model to explore every possible avenue of added value for its clients.
It’s how the company is “disrupting with honesty”, as Nilsson puts it. But when asked what the future looks like for his company, Nilsson is quick to return to the people-centric mission at the beginning of the journey. “We want to expand,” he says, but it’s heavily qualified.
“We are not on a growth journey in terms of number of employees. We will grow our global partner network.
“It’s not just a desire to be global; we are helping global customers… so it’s almost in-built in that we need to have global presence. That’s one dimension.
“The other dimension is definitely to grow in terms of expanding our capabilities. We’re looking at forefront technologies, we’re looking at the latest neuroscience and, above all, we’re looking at how can we make our teammates more passionate, happier, and help them find even more joy in their profession.
“It is very rewarding when you feel that you have contributed to a successful outcome, but it is even more rewarding when you see that in people you care about – your team members are successful, your customers are successful. You’re driven by a higher purpose.
“When you’re helping others to be successful, it gets back to you.”