My near philosophical musings about the world in general its problems and possible ways out.


Digital Confusion

This contribution has first appeared in the 25 years anniversary newsletter of the Project Consult some weeks ago.

Expected surprise

During my professional career I came across many new terms and buzzwords, sold by clever representatives of the huge consulting machineries. Most were short lived, some made it to the top of the charts for a decent period, few survived.

As we don’t yet experience the end of all times, there is no reason, why this continuous stream of verbal invention should finally run dry. So a few years ago the inevitable happened and first "digitisation" arrived, followed by "digital transformation".

Plenty of literature suddenly popped up, urging the frightened public, not to fall behind but in a way make use of these new imperatives and aggressively disrupt the market. No one however dared to do the hard dirty work of explaining what it means, how it differs from things done in the past and why it suddenly became important.

What the hell was going on here?

So eventually I went to an event where the agenda promised to provide some insight. Well, I was able to gain some understanding, however other than expected. Let me take just three random examples:

Customer orientation

Forget about technology”, one speaker proclaimed in an emphatic provocative manner. “It’s all about serving the customer.” The latter certainly has never been more true. In fact it has been true all the time. And didn’t I ride that wave myself, some 25 years ago? An eternal truth can hardly be considered the new driving force.

But isn’t there indeed some new enabling technology at hand, making a further automation possible, which was hard to achieve before? Even if we leave leading edge technologies like deep learning, Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous robotics and the like aside, steady development gave us predictive analytics, in-process operational data warehouses, cheap sensors combined with big data technologies. Rigorously applied to even existing business models they may unfold dramatic effects already – well, and should be harnessed to serve good old customer orientation.

Salvation by superman

Another speaker outlined the characteristics of the fashionable new function of the CDO, The chief digital officer. After summing up all the desirable characteristics of this multifaceted personality he had described some kind of superhero not to be found among us mortal muggles – certainly not for the salary of a middle to upper management position.

For those, who are not familiar with tribal rites of large corporations, I like to explain a common habit. If new and challenging problems arise on corporate level, which could neither be ignored nor annihilated through a onetime bold & swift strike by top management, but needs long and tedious work on several levels of the hierarchy, we use to assign this task to a new responsibility. By this mechanism special corporate functions like e.g. the Quality Manager (although “quality is everybody’s job”), the Risk Manager (although conscious risk taking is the prime entrepreneurial task of top management) or finally the digital Officer was born.

This doesn’t mean that such new role is per se useless. If part of a corporate wide campaign he figuratively can be seen as the figurehead of the ongoing transformation coordinating the various activities and driving the transformation program forward. Backed by C-level power and support, even success can be achieved.

More often than not however, he just impersonates C-Levels excuse, its unwillingness to take serious steps but instead position a well-paid incarnation of false promises as a scapegoat on a prominent position.

The innovators dilemma

Permanently reinventing your business a third speaker vigorously demanded of those in power. Hey great, that’s the right spirit, exciting! But shortly review the typical behaviour of the C-suite members of the dinosaur corporations, the alpha males, those vain egomaniac rulers, who run their empires by fear. Will notorious creativity suppressors employ creative destruction to reinvent themselves? Will they start with a blank sheet of paper to escape the innovators dilemma? History however tells us otherwise.

As management Guru Gary Hamel once pointedly put it, implementing radical innovation in large corporation reminded him to “teaching dogs to stand on their hind legs. The moment you turn your back, the dog is on all fours again because it has quadruped DNA, not biped DNA.” Obviously it rarely works like that; rather the attackers come from below. Once they emerge from the dark as tiny flickering points on your radar screen it may probably be too late already. Then you are encircled already and may face a stiff uphill battle – just to be defeated. Not creative, but just plain destruction.

The fatal lapsus

In a weary moment I dared to ask a question: “How does this all differ from the past? Haven’t we done this all before already?” And then hell broke loose – I bitterly regretted outing myself being so na├»ve. I really shouldn’t have said that.

Magic transformation

And then it came: transformation, where suddenly all the magic happens. Here the usual suspects paraded before our inner eyes: AirBnB, Uber, Amazon … Impressive indeed. But didn’t these enterprises start new digital business models from scratch in a seemingly well settled industry sector, rather than re-inventing a traditional business, maybe even with material goods to be shippedat the end of the value chain?

And didn’t the elite of the top level advisors throughout all these years promise to transform your business in order to cope with current, past and future challenges? I remember my own exiting time at Nolan, Norton & Co., some 30 years ago, where we crafted elaborate processes for the transformation of businesses by the proper use of the then latest information technology. But, what a pity, we did not call it digital transformation. Otherwise, who knows, I could even claim copyright on the term ­čśą

Cargo cult

Well, eventually I had to understand that if digital transformation ought to be the Holy Grail of strategy, management, information technology … and of course, consulting, it simply must not be the same old story from 20 years ago, which we just cleverly or reluctantly managed to avoid in favour of the short term bottom line and with less headache involved. No CIO will stimulate enthusiasm by proclaiming that he plans to finally do his homework. The old smelly stuff has to be repackaged, rebranded, labelled new and – well – perfumed to overcome its musty odour. To make the task complete the new shiny gift is embedded into an aura of an all-disrupting next big thing, something like the “Great Leap Forward” (which by the way failed miserably). There is always the temptation to celebrate some cargo cult around new promising terms.

The book

Eventually I came across a preview of my old friend Wolfgang Keller’s and co-authors’s  Michael Kunz and Hermann Ladner brand new book, not surprisingly called “digital transformation”. As they are brave men, they took up the fight with the monster, trying to shed some light on his dark matter, bringing some order to the crude. Did they succeed? Hard to say. The rise of buzzwords is a collectively emerging phenomenon, best understood in the light of complexity theory – if at all. There is no owner, no author, no final senior authority to for all time settle the dispute.

Wolfgang and his co-authors at least approached the topic systematically, came up with some decent and plausible definitions and classifications and covered some related side topics like business models, ecosystems and the like.

Of course he too could not withstand to discuss one or the other posterchild of the scene like those mentioned above. It wouldn’t be Wolfgang however, if it didn’t reveal some interesting and maybe lesser known facts about those corporations. Regarding the assumed mission to create a positive attitude towards the topic, these examples rather backfired. Quite the opposite, I took it as discouraging for established players in traditional businesses.

So, not surprisingly, among the more interesting passages is his foray on technical debts as a very common barrier to any bold and swift strategic action, be it (digital) transformation, mergers or acquisitions. Here he touches an often neglected however nevertheless essential aspect of the discussion.

Besides that it is a nice book, conveying tons of information, worth reading, even if you were exposed to all that before.

The insight

As an essential takeaway of this intellectual ramble tacitly the conclusion matured in my mind about what digital transformation is in essence. Digital Transformation is first and foremost a transformation. It should be a bit more than just doing the anyway necessary homework, i.e. not piling up technical debts. It can even end up in re-inventing your whole business. Of course, as in any strategic change activity contemporary technology should be employed. The technology is constantly evolving, appears in new shape each year at an even accelerating pace. The transformation process hasn’t changed at all.


During a short coffee break, while attending the above mentioned event, I had a discussion with one of the attendees about my heretical contribution.

You are right”, he said “It might not be all new. However what did not exist in the past is the new challenge by technology literate consumers. They demand business processes as seamless and easy as a post on Facebook. They don’t feel the least compassion with the obvious difficulties of the large market incumbents, to keep up with the pace of technology. 

If the user Experience does not live up to expectation set by the daily iPhone use, consumers will eventually abandon the whole product. 

The world became consumer driven. Agile consumers now chase the complacent corporate world – and some may go over the cliff soon.”

This is what’s new.”

Thus he spoke – hmmm, food for thought.


When god jokes

Recently I joined a colleague for an after work beer to one of D├╝sseldorf’s oldest and most rustic Altbier (literally “old beer”) taverns.

Quickly, we had engaged in a profound discussion about the nature of artificial intelligence and its effects on our lives and the world as such in general.

We were not the only ones reflecting their professional and beyond thoughts in a more convenient and inspiring atmosphere than a noisy crowded open space office with only with castrated and amputated computers at hand.

At the table next to us there sat god and devil. They seemed to be regular guests here as they blended in perfectly into the crowd like locals. Maybe they indeed were locals. While my colleague suspected that god might be from rivalling Cologne, which is to be considered as rather daring when being in in D├╝sseldorf, the devil spoke a distinct and often ridiculed Saxon dialect.

While my colleague went on elaborating on the sad outlook that programmers might become the first victims of AI, I could not help secretly and as inconspicuously listening to the conversations at neighbouring table.

Seemingly the talks were about the gaming business, the design and development of computer games, to be more precise, using many special terms, which I do not recall, as I am not good in memorizing terms, which are unbeknownst to me.

And they seemed to be worried.

I told you before - under certain conditions it might run out of control”, I heard devil saying. He reminded me of that macho type low level programmer, who loves to touch the iron itself, who dreams of applying the raw power of a signal processor and for whom C, assembler or machine language was not to sharp a weapon, not to risk its use – and abuse.

It is all about balancing. The more autonomy you allow for the decisions taken, the more powerful will be the systems behaviour. Adding one control level on top of the other, you have to let loose at some point. First you implement decisions, then overall beliefs, driving these decisions, on the 3rd level the beliefs might alter and take different shape, even new beliefs and meta-beliefs might emerge. Isn’t that all fascinating? No one knows the outcome!” Was Gods reply.

He appeared to me as a more intellectual type nerd, one of those who go after architecture, UX & design. I wouldn’t be surprised if he would be a proponent of the recently fashionable design thinking discipline.

Meanwhile my colleague, a brilliant guy as well, went on contemplating about applying deep learning on more mundane tasks like driving a car in the asphalt jungle of a modern megalopolis. “How long do you think it will take some Google-translate grade systems to learn driving? And will the teachers, who will tell them, when their attempts will be successful, be good enough at all? Or will they just learn from their crashes? That would be a bit too human-like for my personal taste.

I uttered some Aha, ahemm, nodding, shrugging and more sophisticated forms of structured silence, while clandestinely eavesdropping some of the words from beyond the waiter’s highway, seperating our tables.

But is comes with some severe shortcomings: the outcome is no longer predictable, the overall energy consumption does not support our green computing intentions, and in the end you will lose control over the whole sprawling complexity. Eventually you will have to – and this let me tell you – you will have to push the reset button, rather sooner than later.”

Well, you guessed it. This was devil again, our real-politics guy.

Lame as a manager, but intellectually convincing gods response came like this: “Well I just could set the parameters right, I mean find the optimal set. Adjusting the degree of inclusion, compassion aggression, traditionalism, envy, trust … and the like and lock it into their firmware. While doable, this would still pose a daunting task. However by doing so I would cut evolution of, would severely limit emergent effects and stall overall progress. Letting mutation and selection adapt exactly these parameters on a secular time scale, led to those hyper successful emergent effects, like establishing a cultural evolution on top of the biological one. And now on top of that even the next layer is about to emerge in my breed, which is misleadingly dubbed Artificial Intelligence”.

At the same time my colleague mentioned this very word in some kind of mockery. As if it were the keyword, everyone was waiting for; it cut through the fog of the ear-deafening noise of the beer tavern. For a moment my colleague and god looked at each other’s, smiled, nodded, like you may greet a rare compatriot in a foreign country, recognising that they are operating in a similar business. Aren’t they?

Devil: “I don’t think that it is about flaws in the implementation, but the very goal is contradictory. The tricky thing is, that while pursuing the right thing, you will get the unwanted, rather the opposite of what you intended. Good is bad, remember Orwells, doublethink! The design flaw is that making them utterly successful is the recipe for catastrophe. Every optimisation only makes the whole collective glide even faster down the slippery slope. Your favourite breed is too much bound for success, victory and glory. What made them thriving throughout the ramp-up period, will make your lemmings eventually hit a solid wall and lead to their complete self-destruction. That’s pretty deterministic. As you consider yourself a great thinker and architect, this should have been evident to you. Interesting however things become with the introduction of AI. I have to admit that. To be really helpful AI must be enabled of taking important decisions autonomously. For doing so it has to follow pretty much the same path as your current breed did. So if you hesitate to reboot now and restart freshly, AI will take over your job rather sooner than later. Isn’t that a joke?

God: “Hmmm, well, maybe you will turn out to be right. But if so, it was a good joke anyway.

After they paid their bills in proven German manner separately but with manna and glowing coals, they departed giving five, god to his could service environment and devil down to the devilish noise of his beloved hot and smelly server room.

See you soon, when I will have some news. The story isn’t over yet, bye.“

My friend, after so many beers he was upgraded, came to the conclusion to apply AI to the entire development of the human species for its better.

Hmmm, I mumbled. It can’t get worse anyway. See you tomorrow, Bye.


The Refugee crisis - how to deal with it with some dignity

May 15th last year I posted a link to David Blair's great article in "The Telegraph" on my Facebook page.

I commented it with:

One step further to an understanding of the current “crises” as the new normal: a logical result of our own politics.

The author David Blair however revealed only half the truth.

He correctly concluded that western politics like medical aid alongside with the simple availability of life saving products and practices enabled notoriously unstable regions to raise their population size tremendously, leading to a proportional grow of their “traditional” outpour of refugees and migrants.

He however missed to recognise that the sheer population growth itself is a prime source of conflict driving those desperate masses from their home countries towards an uncertain future. More can be read here.

Wolfgang Keller replied to it like this:

Hello Dr. Walther. There the question remains, how a solution would look like, or what is to come? In your blog post you describe the phenomenon of the "youth bulge" and the consequences, it may lead to. The open question however is: Should we Europeans simply "give up"? Should we shut our doors? Or is there any other solution without a "regional war" in Eurasia / North Africa?

And finally here comes my response:

Hi Mr. Keller,

Thanks for your critical response. I didn’t want to leave your question unanswered. Yes, my answer comes late. However, the simplest questions quite often turn out to be the hardest to answer. An – unfortunately – the very problem is here to stay.

First of all it appears pretty clear to me that we are miles away from a “solution” which could rightfully claim to satisfy an appropriately civilised level. It is even not entirely clear to me, whether we are approaching it at all or rather moving backwards.

Of course we quite simply could solve the annoying "refugee problem" by means of the so called "real politics". The AFD hawk Beatrix von Storch has placed her distinct scent marks here.

The majority of Germans might manage to live quite well with such a relapse into barbarism - at least as long as the football world is still in order, there is no speed limit on the Autobahn and the fridge always contains enough beer.

But you have asked me for my opinion.

I advise that we should first of all put an end to our own disorientation and thus helplessness and secondly do the same with our political representatives, so that they become enabled to truly represent us. It is about finding our philosophical positioning: Who are we? Who do we want to be? How do we want, and how we don’t want to live?

And may our tomfool career addicted politicians have got lost by all moral standards. May they condemn one despot and court the other. May they not be able to keep apart active aid to people in need from migration …

As an individual, I certainly can take a position. And this position will even not new.

But I have to take a step back to get the full picture:

The world has become more global, and so have its catastrophes.
We are at the beginning of a major transformation, the extent of which is not yet apparent. We shouldn’t be surprised however, as the guiding signals stood out of the noise for quite a while already.

On the refugees of the Syrian civil war, for example, I had already noted elsewhere:

"The civil war in Syria is already in its fifth year. In many areas, the means of livelihoods are largely destroyed. Even before that state was, measured by its usable resources, already overpopulated. And that is not the only failed state. A whole region is about to collapse in in front of our eyes. In order to "win" the European governments for his personal agenda, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly and for quite a long while threatened us to open the “flood gates” for refugees who want to move further to Europe.

That was all well known. Therefore we should not be surprised. It only feels quite different when it is no longer an abstract theory that can simply be ignored, but the people stand waiting at the doorstep.

In order to respond to a situation, which we had ignored for so long, from a German perspective, the answer must consist of two parts:
  1. Of course we are obliged to help, when people are in trouble, if we do not want to lose all self-respect. We cannot just leave them in their misery and perish at our borders.

  2. If a refugee however, no matter where he comes from, wants to establish his own future here, he has to fulfil some fundamental prerequisites. These may not be present in the majority of cases.

This is the view from the German perspective. And this will certainly not be enough. A European response is the least that is required here. I fear that even a joint European action will not suffice. The helpless paralysis of all those involved seems to me to be an indication that we are faced with a political paradigm shift that nobody still can imagine."

You may read helplessness in my lines. This may well be. By this however I may be already a step ahead of those who try to comfort us with simple answers. Those don’t exist as much as our politicians go retro.

If we anyway have to start from the very beginning, perhaps I should start with some basic theses:

1. We need to help people in trouble.

This sounds trivial and absolute - and so is the intention. The fact that Germany, being one of the very few countries, was ready to step in and help and, however uncoordinated, even did so, cannot be praised enough. The details however undeniably bear the stigma of failure.

2. Refugees don’t equal migrants

Help for refugees has does in on way imply migration or immigration. Most of these people do not leave their country voluntarily. Hardly anybody has the intention to morph into a German. And so they will not do so. They will be here temporarily only. We should make good use of this period of time nevertheless. Some of those humans who arrive here however will not only be able but even willing to integrate into our society and hence adapt to European values. We should give them a chance. They should be given appropriate further support.

3. Germany alone cannot solve the problem

I am talking about Germany and the rest of the world. What about the United Europe? Isn’t it after all one of the great achievements in the wake of the ultimate catastrophe, the Second World War? Oh, Europe! (A readable book by Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, by the way). Europe is aging and crumbling. It does not work any more - or it anyway only did during nice weather periods. Something has to fundamentally change in its construction. There are also thoughts about this. Right now cannot build on Europe. At present, Germany indeed stands alone in the cold. It has to act on its own and presumably take the lead for further regional development.

4. Germany does not need any immigration

To make no mistake: I don’t oppose immigration. The German population has by no means been created within Germanys today's borders. Throughout the ages Germany has been a melting pot of wandering peoples. So, we are already a result of permanent migratory movements. I can track them back in my own family. Germany has always been a hub on the crossroads of peoples.

Nevertheless, Germany does not need any immigration. No single country on this planet needs immigration. Even if our "economic pundits" can’t think of anything else than preaching growth, conventional wisdom tells us that there is no such thing like infinite growth. Our current ecological footprint covers 2.5 times our current planet, without we having more spare planets at hand. Our country is already densely populated. Actually we should not become more. On a global scale we even have to reduce the population in order to survive as a species. We should not strive for 10 billion, but for about one billion, so that we may not end up like the unlucky aliens. In addition Germany would be well advised to relieve its strained and overloaded infrastructure a little.

If we do not have the amount of skilled workers our economy demands, this is more due to the absurd expectations of the recruiting companies. And our old age pensions becoming a too heavy burden for us, is more based on a traditional corporate image associated with an outdated economic structure. As people tend to become a 100 years old, we cannot start phasing them out of the economic process beginning with the 50+ generation. In addition we have to say goodbye to economic models based on infinite quantitative growth. It is not deemed prudent to bury the rest of the republic beneath a layer on concrete and asphalt.

However, I must admit that our economists have not yet developed a model for sustainable management. So no one can currently tell us how truly sustainable economics could look like.

5. Refugee aid must be organized

Most refugees are young men. Young men are, however, especially when not sufficiently challenged, are natural born fighters. So, when is a man sufficiently challenged? Well, when he has no job, no wife, and no future. Of course, he then takes up arms, or creates some kind of trouble. And by this we already named the cause of that massive migration wave. It is not (just) due to evil dictators, medieval religious struggles, or the destructive effect of US imperialism (which, of course, has contributed those secondary causes). No,  paradoxically the reason is that the countries where most of the refugees originate from, did prosper for a long time. So their population has grown beyond the limits of their capacity - until a big bang inevitably had to come. This is not a new situation in the human history. And that is why I have discussed this point earlier.

When a refugee arrives here, the clock starts ticking. Life has to go on for them. This life has to be organized – strictly organized and tightly controlled. Just stating "We will cope with it", will not help much. For in the reality of the anachronistic, absurdly complex German federalism, this translates to: "They will cope with it" the states, municipalities and voluntary helpers. This however would mean overstretching their capabilities. There is only one organization nationwide that should be prepared for organizing a task of such epic proportions - at least in principle. This is the German army, the Bundeswehr. Of course it currently has a totally different mission. But it can be changed. That organisation has some experience in handling "explosives" of the above mentioned type. Much would have been gained already by separating women, families and children traveling alone from this army of young men. Even the religions, must be separated in these heated times. Children must attend kindergardens and schools. Even married women, mothers and grandmothers have to undergo some kind of brainwashing to make them realize that they have arrived in a totally different world now. A world which offers them refuge however requires them to adapt their style of living to the new environment.

6. Don’t start no new wars

Should we wage a regional war to restore order there? The silence of a graveyard can possibly be produced by this. For any positive outlook however, evidence is missing. On the contrary, not instigating new conflicts would help much more.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, ... the list of countries, which became failed states only by Western intervention, could be extended almost arbitrarily, if one goes back in history only for a little time.
When I crossed Iraq in my old VW bus in 1972 to get to Syria, I was able to witness the high standard of living, comprehensive education, free health care, the comparatively free status of women, the high civilian security (the political Persecution remained invisible, of course!) and other achievements. Today only ruins remain. We wanted to "free the land from the tyrant" - even if other motifs are more obvious. You can of course eliminate ugly rust spots on a car by blowing it up in the air. The butcher Saddam Hussein was already unbearable, but now it has become much worse.

So at times taking the hand from the trigger would help already. It will probably not be enough however.

7. Actively defend our European values

Occasionally I will have to take the time to describe this perhaps most important point a bit more in depth. For now only this much: Germany is widely envied for its basic law (Grundgesetz). Even if their fathers have missed a unique opportunity to model a secular state, rights and freedoms are granted here as being unalienable, which in many other countries have no reliable legal basis. The US Constitution (+ Bill of Rights) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations also speak of similar freedoms, draw from the same sources.

These liberal ideas do not come from a vacuum. Over the past 300 years they have been won by our forefathers in tough struggles with the power of the monarchist states, or even in open revolts. They were always endangered by setbacks, counter-revolutions, the empire striking back, by derailments towards the left and right margins.

In the end, we have achieved something in Europe which does not have its like in the entire world. It should be fiercely defended against all totalitarian challenges of political or religious nature.

Equal rights for all people, equality before the law, the prohibition of discrimination, separation of state and church, separation of the powers of the state, .... and some more are among the achievements, which Europe can rightfully be proud of. When and by whomever they might be endangered, we should stand up and fight for them. Our tolerance must not lead to tolerating intolerance. By such "appeasement politics" we would lose everything again.

8. And how to go on?

The science-fiction author William Gibson is quoted as saying: "The future is here, it's just not even yet distributed yet." If there is only some truth in these words, we just would have to look around at appropriate locations to recognize, how it may continue for the future.

Will we be pleased then?

Or will the words of Franz-Josef Degenhart (those who don’t know him, please google) turn out having been prophetic, when he wrote so splendidly “in the good old days”? “And they still rejoiced, when clouds dyed in the evening, and when the earth smelt burnt they calmly continued feasting.“

But then that was the end of those times, the good old times.

As Wolfgang's question was in German, I intuitively gave the reply using the same language. Now finally I was able to provide an English version too, in order to open the content to the rest of the world. Your comments are welcome.