“Computers can crunch data for us, but as humans we must always be ready to question the plausibility of their findings and must actually do so.” An interview with Erhard Grossnigg about the advance of technology and changing values in society.
What do you think will be the greatest changes in the near future, in terms of work and corporate life?
As well as the potential and opportunities created by digitalisation, with developments such as the Internet of Things, automation, robotics etc., I also think we’ll see a difference in the overall pace of change. We used to have a generation or so to adapt to changes, but today it’s more like a quarter of a generation at the most. That means we have to react to change much more quickly.
Technical developments are now accelerating everything in the world around us, but machines are also taking over more and more tasks from humans. How far do you think artificial intelligence can go? To what extent can it really replace human efforts?
Thirty years ago I was studying in the USA and back then there was already intensive debate on the topic of artificial intelligence. But the way I see it, I don’t think it is anywhere near being able to replace humans and their complexity. In fact I doubt that will ever be possible. But if I look at the construction industry, for example, and the potential there for using virtual and augmented reality to depict and explore entire buildings – before construction has even begun – then of course the capacity for efficient calculation and modelling is naturally superior to that of humans, and offers enormous possibilities.
In a virtual and digital world, do we still need actual office buildings to work in or shops to buy things in?
I was talking to a young man recently who told me he just uses the shops in town for “trying” things. Then he actually shops online at home, because he doesn’t want to carry shopping bags through the city. Online shopping offers not just easy price comparison but also a convenience factor. However, for me this does raise a question: if today’s citizens just focus on their rights and don’t think about their responsibilities, in the end who will actually look after the social, economic and political obligations?
I completely agree with you. I think this imbalance is particularly noticeable in the world of social media. Instead of producing reasoned debate, issues are just commented on with short “black/white” statements.
That reminds me of an interesting book by a Swiss writer, Rolf Dobelli, titled “The Art of the Good Life”, where he suggests it would be a great relief if people didn’t feel obliged to have an opinion about everything. In reality we can’t possibly have an opinion about everything, and in fact find many issues are just far too complex. He believes the quality and relevance of debate would be improved if people would engage with issues where they know what they are talking about and stay out of it where they have little knowledge or experience.
What do you think will stay the same in the working environment in spite of technological developments?
The emotional aspects will always be there. Whether or not people enjoy working together – through digital or analogue connections. Of course that varies enormously depending on the actual life circumstances of those involved, and their individual characteristics such as background, education, value concepts etc. We can’t de-emotionalise people, because then they would be incapable of human relationships. There will always be emotions.
Sharing is currently a huge trend and it is also tied up with big emotions – what do you think about this trend?
This topic is familiar to me partly from the construction industry in the USA where “community homes” are being developed to provide affordable housing. The idea is to create small private residential units, each with a bedroom, study and bathroom. And shared spaces such as a large living room and a kitchen that are used communally. People cook together or watch TV together. I think this trend will spread to Europe too, since it is no longer affordable today for people to buy individual homes of 120 square metres or more. Even for highly qualified people with a good income. I regard developments in the area of shared workspaces with some scepticism, however. Many people tell me that the concept of shared workspaces has a negative effect on the working environment, because it results in the loss of important structures, boundaries and a sense of continuity. Others think it is marvellous that the senior executives all sit with everyone else in a single large office space. But the fact is that status symbols like individual offices or cars are disappearing and these are simply becoming functional items.
So does each generation have a different set of values?
Yes, that is how it seems to me. Today’s young people are more interested in having a beautiful body and spend a lot of time and money on that. Another factor is that the younger generations today simply have far more than the post-war generation had. From government infrastructure provisions to personal prosperity through inheritance. That has an effect on people’s character and the way they live, and consequently also leads to changes in the working environment. Today everything is expected to be as practical and simple as possible.
In a way, digitalisation and automation fit in with these preferences.
Not in every way, though. The world is much more complex. Many things today are much more complicated than they were 50 years ago. Look at tax returns, for instance. Today you need a specialist to help with that, because there’s such a massive flood of regulations. To my way of thinking people’s freedom is dwindling rapidly. With the mania for regulations we have in every area of life, we are actually reducing our freedom enormously. And we are not regaining any freedom through flexible working hours or the possibility of working at home.
So everything is in transition in this volatile, uncertain and complex age, where even companies cannot really plan properly any longer.
Yes, that’s how it is. People used to make medium-term plans, and that still happens today. But the commitment to these three-year plans is not the same. Today we have to react much faster, because the world is changing faster. And that’s perfectly normal and reasonable. But what is really important as I see it is common sense. We need to go back to a common sense approach to things. Computers can crunch data for us, but as humans we must always be ready to question the plausibility of their findings and must actually do so.
Erhard F. Grossnigg is an Austrian entrepreneur with an impressive record in corporate turnarounds. After graduating from Vienna’s University of World Trade (“Hochschule für Welthandel”, now the Vienna University of Economics and Business) he worked for Chase Manhattan Bank in Vienna, New York City, Paris and Düsseldorf and then became Executive Partner of Donau-Finanz Treuhand- und Finanzierungsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG in Vienna. In 1980 Erhard Grossnigg was awarded a doctorate and since 1979 he has been Executive Partner of E. F. Grossnigg Finanzberatung and Treuhandgesellschaft mbH., which specialises in corporate restructuring. Erhard Grossnigg is also a founding partner of Austro Holding GmbH, a holding company with investments in various Austrian businesses.