CEOs need to change their way of thinking: digitalisation means decentralisation of power

Journalist: Simon Eppenberger | Photographer: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Work in progress – November 2020

He learned a great deal through failure and, now in his early forties, has worked his way to the top: Nicolas Bürer, CEO of digitalswitzerland, talks to us about Switzerland’s digital future and the opportunities in the new world of work.

Within a matter of days, the outbreak of COVID-19 meant that people from thousands of companies had to start working from home. In Switzerland, are we experiencing the largest boost ever to digitalisation?

Temporarily, yes. Digitalisation now plays a bigger role in many sectors than it did before. When it comes to interaction between teams, companies and customers, we’ve never seen anything on this scale before.

Do you think this exceptional situation will make Switzerland more digital in the long term?

I expect many people will return to their previous work environment. How leaders act will be a crucial factor. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were forced to think and act differently and also relinquish a certain amount of control. Working from home doesn’t fit into the classic top-down management model. Instead, it involves a network where teams and individual employees take on greater responsibility. This is the future.

Society had to start getting to grips with the digital transformation, even before COVID-19. This creates hope, as well as fears. How do you respond if somebody fears losing their job due to digitalisation?

The facts are clear. Over the next 15 years, around 20% of current jobs will disappear. This is a serious situation. Out of five million employees, this means that one million will no longer do the jobs they do today. But fear is a poor basis for decision-making. The solution is curiosity and life-long learning.

How will the Swiss economy brace itself against the disappearance of 20% of today’s jobs?

By investing in education, further training and innovation. We expect things to develop similarly to how they did during the third industrial revolution. 20% of jobs disappeared, but now we have more jobs in new areas.

This level of transformation on the job market is not easy to manage.

There is the risk that it will increase social inequality. The third revolution lasted 20 years, but today everything happens twice as quickly. The unemployment level must not rise too much, and in particular the number of long-term unemployed people. It’s not good for society if too many people are affected while the most highly-qualified people receive an endless stream of job offers.

Nicolas Bürer (42) grew up in Geneva and studied physics at EPFL Lausanne. He then moved to Zurich where he took up an advisory position, before later working in management roles at Dein Deal and youth channel Joiz. He is co-founder of Movu, a digital home-moving services platform, which was acquired by Bâloise. He’s also been involved in three other start-ups. He joined digitalswitzerland as Managing Director in 2016. Bürer lives in Zurich, is married and has two children.

So does life-long learning need to become the top priority within our society and economy?

It needs to be high up on the list of priorities at least. As part of a major survey conducted by Tamedia, half the population stated that at the moment they don’t feel as though they need to continue learning. I find this alarming – within this group are people who will lose their jobs.

What approach do employers need to take to deal with digital skills and training?

This needs to be a priority for the Board of Directors and the Executive Board. Many of the big tech companies have known this for a long time. Training is one of their main priorities, alongside their core business and finance.

The digital working world is evolving at a fast pace. What other risks are associated with this?

The major risk is one that applies to our private lives too: loss of privacy, values and social contacts. Companies can misuse digitalisation and use it to track their employees, for instance. Working at home all alone in ten years’ time wearing smart glasses is not an exciting prospect.

“Traditional management is being revolutionised. Companies are adopting an empowerment leadership model in which responsibility is shared.”

What opportunities will the digital working world bring?

Many things will be more practical, more convenient, and we’ll see a huge increase in services. Mobility will be transformed, agriculture will be automated, smart homes will take over our housework – machines will carry out lots of tasks. People need to be more creative about how they work together, and focus more on analysis and development and less on execution.

The #LifelongLearning campaign by digitalswitzerland and the Swiss employers’ association is committed to a continuous learning process. What’s the specific objective?

Initially, it was to make people aware that learning is an opportunity for life that each and every one of us needs to seize. This year, we’re focusing more on activation. We can now offer companies direct financial support for training their employees.

How can companies promote “digital upskilling” within their workforce?

Mandating digital upskilling would be a step too far. But what’s essential is that companies allocate enough days for training. Tech companies invest up to 20% of their employees’ time in training – even outside of their core business. Training is a key performance indicator.

What are the main challenges companies face with the “digital upskilling” of their employees?

There’s a fine line between enforcement and self-motivation. Both the employees and the managers must want it. Digitalisation means decentralising power, and CEOs need to change their way of thinking.

digitalswitzerland is the joint initiative between business, the public sector and science, and its aim is to make Switzerland an international leading digital innovation location. It focuses on the transfer of knowledge, training, start-up eco-systems and political frameworks. The association was founded in 2015 and its members include more than 175 of the most reputable companies and organisa­tions as well as innovative locations throughout Switzerland. In 2019, the Swiss employers’ association and digitalswitzerland co-launched a number of initiatives including the national campaign #LifelongLearning.

How does Switzerland fare when it comes to education? Are talented young people equipped for the future?

Here in Switzerland, we like to complain, although for the last seven years we’ve ranked number one in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. We’re not in pole position when it comes to digital education for children. But having said that, IT is on the 2021 school curriculum for 11-year olds, which is a very important development. The next step in education is “computational thinking”, in other words the interaction between people and machines. This involves children learning how to program robots. Digitalisation isn’t just about software.

Children will learn how to program robots?

If I look at my children as an example, they have no reservations or inhibitions when it comes to automation. Why vacuum when a machine can do it for you? I’m not really that excited about the thought of self-driving cars, but my children think it’s cool! The next generation is also very socially minded.

There’s high demand for digital skills but an insufficient supply in some areas. Where does Switzerland sit with regard to the digital talent gap?

According to a study by ICTswitzerland, over the next few decades there’ll be a shortage of thousands of digital specialists. Some large companies, SMEs and start-ups are already starting to really notice the talent gap.

How can companies fill this talent gap?

Firstly by upskilling and secondly through the immigration of digital experts. This statement is purely based on statistics and it’s a major problem in lots of countries. Every year in Switzerland, there’s a shortage of several thousands of specialists. It could be addressed by issuing tech visas. This is something that’s already happening in the Netherlands, which explains why there are Swiss tech companies operating subsidiaries in Amsterdam. Half of the founders in Silicon Valley aren’t from the US.

Training is expensive. Why do companies need to invest in it?

Training is a means of incentivising, and employees are grateful for training opportunities. When they’re able to put what they’ve learned into practice, they’ll remain at the company and contribute towards its productivity.

“Fear is a poor basis for decision-making. The solution is curiosity and life-long learning.”

What is your vision of the future world of work?

I hope that machines will make our lives much easier, and that we as people can concentrate on analysis, interpretation, creativity and further training. And essentially: on maintaining social contact. More people will have several different jobs, they’ll be more flexible and there’ll be more digital nomads. This means we really have to cultivate contacts.

Is digitalisation also changing how companies are managed?

Traditional management is being revolutionised. The keyword is people empowerment. This means focusing on the people and teams, and giving them greater responsibility. At the same time, companies will be measuring and analysing more, and they’ll be guided by validated data. This requires an understanding of complex structures. Top-down management no longer applies, instead companies are adopting an empowerment leadership model in which responsibility is shared.


Nicolas Bürer – In the spotlight

What were you doing 20 years ago?
I’d just completed a Masters in Physics at EPFL Lausanne.

20 years ago, could you have imagined that you’d be a CEO today?
No, never!

When did you consciously first come into contact with digitalisation?
I first realised what digitalisation is all about eight years ago, when I was working at digital start-up Dein Deal.

Can you remember your first mobile phone? What impressed you about it most?
It was an ancient Nokia phone. The same thing impressed me about the “Natel C” in my father’s car 30 years ago: the fact that you can communicate wirelessly and when you’re on the move.

What are you doing in terms of your own personal digital upskilling?
I read a lot every day. I’ve also founded a digital start-up and invested in three others. I’m really committed to it, and I learn a lot by doing.

What is it about your work that fulfils you?
The purpose and vision of turning Switzerland into a digital innovation hub together with the great people around me, as well as the flexibility that makes the work possible. These are all things that fulfil me.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?
For me, it’s not about balance. The 9-to-5 model no longer applies to a lot of people. Jeff Bezos said that the future is “work-life harmony”. I like that. During the day, I might do something non-work-related, and in the evening I might work.

Your personal career tip?
Failure! It’s an opportunity for your future.