Every year in March, the heads of many of Europe’s leading industrial companies come to the Munich Management Kolloquium (link), organized by Prof. Horst Wildemann (link), to discuss the state of digitalization, ranging from artificial intelligence and machine learning to additive manufacturing. This year, the title question was provocatively asking “Whether computers are the better managers?”.

Most of the speakers intuited against it but reasoned in favor. I moderated a lively and insightful session which included Dr. Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus, Dr. Till Reuter, CEO of the robotics company Kuka and Mr. Gerstmann, CEO of Zeppelin

Left to right: Tobias Engelmeier, TFE Consulting; Thomas Enders, Airbus; Peter Gerstmann, Zeppelin; Till Reuter, Kuka; – at the 2018 MMK

Overall, the mood is still pragmatic and sober (“keep calm and digitize slowly”), rather than visionary or even revolutionary. I guess that around 20% of the companies present are aggressively using digital technologies to redefine their business models (such as Zeppelin and Oerlikon). The big middle – around 60% of companies – see digitalization as one more tool to improve productivity that needs to be mastered. A surprisingly large minority of 20% is still in denial or simply bewildered by the changes around them.

The top 20% accepted the need to invest into uncertain or high-risk propositions to explore and unlock new technologies. They stressed the need for partnerships with academia and with other businesses – even with rival businesses (“frenemies”). They also focused most of their attention not on implementation or strategy but on changing corporate culture to attract a different kind of talent and on managing conflicts between their “old” and “new” cultures. Much of this made me think of our own, much smaller company, TFE Consulting (link), where we really stretch ourselves to follow new ideas, test new technologies and business models and find ways to cooperate with companies that come from very different markets and backgrounds but bring highly useful, specific technology expertise that we lack.

One big question that came up, was: should Germany – or rather: Europe – have a stronger “moonshot” industrial policy, something like an Apollo Program for key technologies of the future, such as additive manufacturing (3D-printing) or artificial intelligence? Will European companies otherwise be squeezed between the US, with its monopolistic tech giants and “America First” trade policy, and China, with its strategic and assertive technology policy? Even the “hidden champions” and industrial powerhouses with their world-renowned products could use support.