What executives from German media company Axel Springer learned about innovation and culture change from a three-day “learning journey” to Silicon Valley — home to such disruptive innovators as Apple, Google, Facebook, and eBay.
There are plenty of ways to facilitate a
change culture within an organisation. There are plenty of ways to help
managers better understand the change needs in the media landscape and their
personal role as change agents.
I want to share one attempt we made at Axel
Springer that is proving to have quite an impact on our corporate culture and
our way of thinking.
Silicon Valley in
the United States is seen worldwide as a hub of technological innovation with
global influence. The huge number of technology and Internet corporations that
have settled with an unprecedented density in the San Francisco Bay Area are
regarded as role models for a business culture that fosters innovation, cares
about its employees, and boasts high-pace adaptability.
We can benefit in
manifold ways by understanding and learning from these corporations
That is why we
decided to organise a “learning journey” to the Silicon Valley last year. The
entire first level of management from Axel Springer SE traveled to Silicon
Valley with the board of management to take part in a management summit there.
The result: the 80 executives and editors-in-chief who went along were given
many new cultural impulses and a great deal of relevant know-how on digital
trends during the three-day trip.
programme provided a mixture of company visits, discussion rounds, and presentations.
The focus was more on exploration and less on introspection. On the agenda were
visits to large Internet and technology enterprises, including Apple, Google,
Facebook, and eBay.
We also had a great many opportunities, however, to exchange
ideas with young company founders, investors, and accelerators who support and
was a visit to the Institute of Design at Stanford University. For some activities,
we divided into two to four smaller groups so that the exchange between us and
our discussion partners could be as interactive as possible.
All in all, the
programme was packed full and intense for the 80 participants; it was like we
were tanking up at high pace with the spirit of Silicon Valley.
“You don’t change in the comfort zone”: The
actual themes and activities presented during the trip were meant to not only
inspire, but also give participants the chance to enjoy and benefit from a
special cultural experience.
decision was made to invite not only management staff from the business and
production units, but to also the heads of the corporate operations and service
If cultural and digital change is to be a success, all corporate
divisions must understand the new challenges facing them and make their own
contributions to overcoming these.
of this unusual framework was flying to our destination in economy class,
which, in view of the heavy overall costs of the trip, constituted a clear
signal from the participants and employees that this was not a “pleasure trip,”
but rather a special journey of exploration and discovery.
The accommodation on
site followed suit. Instead of booking a classic business hotel in a
tourist or financial district of San Francisco, the participants stayed in what
can only be described as a “charmingly hip” three-star hotel in the middle of
one of the city’s less noble districts.
A special feature
of our accommodation was that the hotel wasn’t big enough for single occupancy,
so all of the participants had to share a double room or even a double bed.
This already gave rise to an unusual hive of activity before the trip got underway, as people embarked on a search for the best roommate. And so it became
clear at an early stage what the motto of the conference would be: Leave your
comfort zone and come together to embrace the role of the inquisitive learner.
Here is a short video with some impressions of our journey.
Insights from Silicon Valley: Upon our return, those who had taken part
in the trip developed many ideas and suggestions for change in their own areas
of responsibility, and also for the company as a whole.
In some departments,
follow-up workshops were organised to go over the main points of what had been
learned and to derive practical measures. Many of these practical applications
already have been initiated both centrally and departmentally in the group’s
companies and divisions.
One of the main
impulses for change that emerged from the trip to Silicon Valley was the
realisation that not only must journalism remain at the heart of our corporate
identity, but technological competence should also become an integral component
of the company’s activities and its journalistic work.
Commercial staff and IT
experts have to work together on product ideas and optimisations.
What is more, the
working environment — and by that I mean how the technical factors, spaces, and
time schedules are designed at work — must be better aligned toward
interdisciplinary cooperation and communication.
That means open spaces,
flexible working methods, and large newsrooms in which all work steps and
processes can be better networked with one another.
reached the conclusion that transformation and innovation work even better when
decisions are made faster and with less hierarchy. Senior members of staff must
place trust in their employees and managers and give them enough space to act
on their own.
The trip to
Silicon Valley ultimately produced not only knowledge, ideas, and a concrete
plan of action, it also made the change process tangible and real to those who
took part — and it caused things to happen at a symbolic and emotional level in
the company and in the industry far beyond the small circle who traveled to
congress on the subject of digitalisation held at a standard conference hotel
would not have left behind the long-lasting impression that this learning trip
achieved — a trip that one can also see symbolically as a departure and a
journey into a mostly unknown future.
Dr. Tilmann Knoll is head of management development at Axel Springer, based in Berlin, Germany. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The urgent need to change the corporate culture at media companies to attract and retain platform-agile employees has spawned new initiatives and new methods to promote innovation and transformation. INMA's Culture Change blog captures best practices of media companies aiming to change their corporate culture – and the stories and lessons behind them.
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