Axel Springer’s takeaways from Silicon Valley? Transformation must center on technology, interdisciplinary cooperation

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.

The summit 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 network start-ups.

Another highlight 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.

A conscious 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 departments.

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.

Another element 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.

Ultimately, we 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 San Francisco.

A typical 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.

About Tilmann Knoll