Photo: Gunter Dueck,

Interview with Gunter Dueck, mathematician, author, philosopher and future thinker

Anyone experiencing Gunter Dueck, the long-standing IBM manager, mathematician, author and star guest at many conferences and congresses, live for the first time, may wonder if they are hearing satire or simply harsh reality. We also experienced two different sides to him in the interview prior to his keynote speech at the exhibition Zukunft Personal. One moment he may be chuckling at his own explanations and in the next breath, he will be deeply philosophical. We talked to him about why it makes sense to have network-organisations today and what metawork means in human resource management. We hope you enjoy reading it!

Mr Dueck, to what extent are organisations being transformed in the course of digital transformation?

In the 1960s, we had the classic, hierarchical corporations. Companies were neatly structured into divisions and departments in accordance with the management models of the time. An organisational chart looked like a family tree. Corporations often had regional organisations and then the southern company and the northern one were separate entities that invoiced separately and had their own human resource departments and their own buyers. Why can’t you have one single human resource department for all parts of the company? That would save money! Why not have a central purchasing department? That’s how it developed, that’s how matrix management emerged. Today, we can see that matrix management is a very good way of administering stable long-term business. But it doesn’t work well with innovations. Intuition and instinct fall victim to its complexity. We therefore needed to think how work and its organisation could be built on new foundations. This form of thinking is called metawork. I would bet that the new work would have to be organised in networks rather than in departments. After all, everyone is in touch with each other by mail these days…

I would bet that #newwork would have to be organised in #networks rather than in departments @wilddueck Click To Tweet

Does that mean hierarchies are now breaking up?

Probably not completely, it will just be different! Companies are no longer strictly organised on a hierarchical basis. I remember a colleague of mine who worked in an insurance company at the beginning of the 1980s. He needed a special computer for his project, a compiler. A colleague of his had this computer in an adjoining room but this colleague worked in a different department. “May I use it?” – “Yes.” That’s how you would do it but it is not possible in a hierarchy. In hierarchical management, staff are not allowed to ask a colleague in another department anything. You need to go to your boss who then contacts the other department…

So levels of decision-making are shifting.

Nowadays everything is encapsulated into processes by means of matrix management. It may be that you need to transfer the compiler from the colleague in the adjoining room over the company’s intranet. Then you realise that the old unused thing is not in the system anymore. Then someone comes from Financial Control and asks why it isn’t in the system… Horror manifests itself differently in every type of management system. Intuitive or instinctive people would say common sense has fallen by the wayside. This is because you cannot program it very well yet because it is not overly intellectual and needs space to make wise decisions. Maybe there are new networked structures where 95 percent are regulated using exact hard processes and the rest according to reason and not common sense. Reason demands that everything you do is intuitively clear. Reason places high principles above petty rules. Rules should not lead to absurdity.

So new organisations should be more intuitive and it is no longer completely necessary to have structures based on principles such as holacracy?

You only start building the structures when you recognise the model of a successful organisation. It is not that people in universities have thought about building companies as hierarchies or as a matrix structure for 20 years. Such thinking develops in practice, at some point stands the test of time somewhere or other and then becomes established.

There are currently new ideas in the market, to describe these transitions in organisations. I discovered them in the book Spiral Dynamics by Beck/Cowan. There it is described or postulated how world cultures constantly evolve higher and higher. First the jungle, then the tribal culture, then the dictatorship, next the more bureaucratic hierarchies and then the culture where only success counts and at some point a systemic network organisation. This sequence fits in quite well with the development from hierarchies via matrix management to a type of network organisation. Such ideas have experienced a lot of hype in recent times. I can recommend the book “Reinventing Organizations” by Laloux.

Experts are often more highly qualified than their line managers. So why do we need hierarchies? @wilddueck Click To Tweet

Nowadays, there are already companies that are so greatly automated that only highly qualified staff work there next to outrageously expensive robots. Robots do not need to be managed by orders and obedience or using force  – they are also probably “capable of working in a network”. What’s more, experts are often more highly qualified than their line managers these days. So what is the point of the hierarchy now? Line managers control the work but if they don’t understand it?! Then they are only checking the numbers. All this needs to be organised differently in the higher qualified companies. Maybe we should have a network of specialists with specific technical intelligence alongside the management of day-to-day business. I am currently trying to come up with a good name for it, I like “backbrain”, like backbone. This is also the name for the system of main pathways in networks.

What would that look like in practice then?

It would be a network of experts in a company. These experts are spread over all divisions, plants, specialist departments, countries and subject areas. They are “separated”, they often do not know of each other’s existence. When a local expert has to solve a problem, who can he turn to? Who has the necessary knowledge? We all have to face this type of problem almost every day. If you could bring all the specialists across all the hierarchies and divisions, countries and cultures into a good network, you would achieve a great deal. I know problems that people spend months brooding over and which could be settled in 20 minutes by making a phone call to Australia. You need a network of expertise, a sort of brain in the organisation. To do this, you would first have to allow the best people in the company to build such a backbrain. These people could then help to solve problems, establish contacts, act as fire fighters and at some point break through Gordian knots when the rules once again block sensible decisions.

backbrains: Maybe we should have a network of specialists alongside the day-to-day business @wilddueck Click To Tweet

You need to bring life into such a system, just as you do in a village. Here in Waldhilsbach where I live with 1,300 other people, we have a lot of clubs and institutions: football, the church, the Red Cross, singers, anglers, horticulturalists, accordion players or the fire service for example.  Such clubs and groupings either flourish or wilt. It is mainly down to an amazing club champion. If you have such a person then all is well. If you don’t have such a person, the club wastes away and complains because it hasn’t understood the problem: “Oh, we just don’t have enough young recruits.” For a network of experts, you need a heart to stimulate it from the centre – this has been known for a long time!

So at IBM, you were the club champion?

Yes, at IBM, we first brought together the “Top 100” and appointed them “the technological conscience” of the company. My goal was to regularly bring the top experts together so that they could get to know each other personally. Everyone should know who could do what, who you could ask or call about certain things.  Who could help a customer solve a problem? Who could help a sales manager during the sales process with technically difficult questions? Who was responsible when, for advising the management on what sort of questions? Could the team have a positive effect on the strategy and innovative capability of the whole? Couldn’t a techie be made available to act as a mentor for each major client?  Couldn’t every top expert be a mentor for ten to twenty young talents? This is how the basic backbrain develops into an even bigger network – via mentoring.

You call all the thinking about the organisation of work “metawork”. But such general thinking is not very widespread in practice, is it?

Most people only see the room around them and forget the next level up, what the point of it all is and how their work is connected with that of other people. This all starts at school. I used to have these discussions with my son.

My son would say: “Test me on a hundred English words.”
I would say: “Ratio.”
My son would say: “Verhältnis.“
I would say: “Do you know that in Latin too, ration/rationis? What does that say to you?”
My son would say: “But Dad, I only have to learn these hundred words, you don’t need to give me a lecture in Latin.”
I would say: “The aim is that you eventually become completely proficient in both languages and don’t just know the 100 words.”

Then we had an argument. To some extent, we are brought up to just ask what the homework is. There is no thinking about the overall goal. And that’s how it is in companies too. You sell what you need to for example, but forget the long-term relationship with the customer. You refuse to help out for ten minutes even though this would mean your colleague would save a day’s work. You forget the whole point of what you are doing by focussing on the detail. I always ask employees to ask for precise information and show an interest in what their boss, divisional manager and management board are working towards – and what the customers want. Particularly when it comes to innovations, it is very helpful to know how the system works. Most new ideas have failed to take something into account, which an interested person or someone that really understands the customer would have known straightaway. Then the idea is rejected. The inventor is angry – about “those people up there”. He should rather be angry that his horizons are not broad enough.

In companies, you end up in a department by chance and stagnate at that level @wilddueck Click To Tweet

How could you start to change this then? Apparently, you were not successful with your son…

Oh no, he did “realise” later on. He is really good at it now. It is just difficult to bring this across in words with the aim of changing someone for the better. It is better to do everything well right from the start, isn’t it? When a company has a fantastic backbrain with a corresponding mentoring system, every employee is drawn into the entire network as soon as he joins the company. He has his local work but is also part of the bigger network. He finds his role models there or the champions that he emulates.

Without a backbrain, an employee learns the ropes quite normally through “learning by doing” and has no idea of the various levels of excellence that exist in the company. When you learn to play football, you first watch international matches or the Champions League. You need to understand how it all works in principle. In companies, you end up in a department by chance and stagnate at the level you find there or are presented with. In a network of expertise, you can do your job but at the same time mature to be a champion.

So role models and mentors are essential. But what if managers do not belong to this network of excellence and are not “chosen” as role models? They would then have to accept a sort of parallel system. That would be difficult, wouldn’t it?

The point of the backbrain and the mentoring systems are that employees are introduced “up-close” to as many role models as possible. If a manager then gets jealous because he is not regarded as the greatest, then away with him! Managers have power and often higher salaries – and they should also get all the credit and be loved by everyone as well???  Managers also need to change in a new system.

Companies are currently on the look-out for coaching role models – this is an official announcement from HR. But actually managers tend to set the pace, something like a cox in an eight, shouting out “faster, faster” through his megaphone. So management is not what it claims to be. Staff are fired when they don’t pursue or achieve their goals. Managers sometimes fail to take the responsibility for changing themselves. At the same time, it is more successful if you manage as a role model because you then get the motivation and the professional advancement of your staff almost free of charge.  They are motivated and fulfilled. The problem is that there are not very many role models and you cannot easily become one. That’s why there are many more management posts than role models.

If a manager gets jealous because he is not regarded as the greatest, then away with him! @wilddueck Click To Tweet

How do you perceive the role of human resource professionals in practice?

Well, they usually follow some sort of procedure and complete boxes and tick what the applicant is good at or not so good at. If they cannot find someone that is good, they maybe appoint a third-class candidate. They often do not understand the expertise they are having to recruit. The same eternal questions about your main strengths and weaknesses  – do they really help? Techies, IT experts and engineers squirm when they see these questions because they feel obliged to lie. Many technologists are introverts and even a little autistic, they really suffer. They groan even more when it comes to the question of salary expectations. Everyone knows it is pure torture, why do they always have to go through the entire ritual? Afterwards they haven’t recruited the best techies but those that can talk about money confidently and who mention “impatience with below-par performance” as their greatest weakness. And the companies’ Internet portals for direct applications are quite simply often abysmal.

Have you already had experience with these?

I was able to experience the career sites which my son used to send off his job applications – and we thought those were the best. For example, my son with a Ph.D. in Statistics didn’t get a reply for four weeks and then  – he already had a job of course!  – he received a message twice saying that there was a new trainee programme available for students who had studied for three semesters. A large company could surely look carefully at all the applicants and recruit all the really good ones immediately and then distribute them across the vacancies in the company  – even if applicants had to be paid to wait at home for two or three months until they were allocated a job. Instead they look for applicants for each individual job! I could demonstrate that all candidates hired in this way are on average all a degree worse.

Large companies look for applicants for each job! They should recruit all the really good ones @wilddueck Click To Tweet

I am also allergic to human resource professionals who equate salary increases with attempted theft instead of fair remuneration for good performance.  That not only smacks of a degree of megalomania but also reflects an incorrect basic attitude in thinking they are the guardians of the personnel budget. In fact, they are responsible for creating a wonderful workforce!

How would it be if specialists and techies look for new candidates themselves?

Yes, why not. Maybe you should have people from the backbrain there as well. Or send these people from the backbrain out into the world first of all and extend their network out to Silicon Valley? What does a human resource professional do when he has to appoint experts for driverless cars? No-one in an engine factory knows them. But then they need battery experts. Engine technology is more like physics, batteries are like chemistry. How do you get such people then? Shouldn’t the human resource department first understand what it is all about technically, for example at Tesla, or what sort of people are actually needed? When it concerns really new innovations, everyone needs to get out of the company for once! But no, everyone continues as before and the in-service training only provides staff with in-house knowledge. A backbrain organisation that is also allowed to expand outwards, would be very helpful.

And the backbrain organisation should also bring people into the organisation?

Yes, of course. And also bring a good dose of new culture into the company. Companies are always preaching about spreading an innovative culture but employers continue to recruit clones of themselves. The culture will always remain the same if people that don’t quite fit in are immediately regarded as unconventional thinkers, artists or just plain odd.

I am fairly introverted myself and will try to give you an explanation. In the Maths Faculty at a university, you walk up and down the corridors deep in thought. You need about ten minutes of deep concentration to be able to really think things through. You then get the first valuable thoughts, you try out this idea and that one in your mind and make progress – and then: “Hi Gunter, how are you? Woosh, it’s over. I answer, somewhat distressed: “Well, thank you.” – The other guy continues on his way and probably thinks I am rather cold und unfriendly. I am too. I then need a few more minutes to focus my mind again. It really makes me angry that I cannot even think in peace on the professor’s corridor at the university without some passer-by wanting an obligatory smile from me and again stealing ten minutes of my life. You cannot work like that. I will probably have to go for a walk in the forest or shut myself up longer in the bathroom under the pretext of having a shower. Greeting people that are deep in thought is simply impertinent! So that is why you should be careful with techies to see if they are thinking or are indeed approachable, if it is the latter, you can greet them but very gently, you must not disturb them too much.

Constraints of #innovation companies continue to recruit clones of themselves @wilddueck Click To Tweet

To what extent do you think human resource professionals have a responsibility here?

Human resource professionals like to rebuild everything in accordance with their own image. They believe that being an extrovert makes you a good person. So there is a lot of telephoning, greeting, teamwork and distribution across large open-plan areas. “We want to have everyone together so that I can ask a colleague at the next table for help if there is something I don’t know.” But introverts are well known for the fact that it is not in their nature to ask other people for help. Extroverts think open-plan offices are fantastically “communicative”, introverts tend to have suicidal thoughts when forced to work in such an environment.

There are of course other differences between techies and human resource professionals. I would just say that the work environment in companies is styled according to the preferences of human resource professionals and managers – or according to cost issues. The employees suffer a great deal and achieve very little – no-one takes any notice. The despair I feel when even “work psychologists” expect me to actually work in an environment in which I physically suffer, can perhaps be detected in my lectures. Help! Staff development officers make us all do psychological tests and discover what we are like. And then we work in absurd offices!

The managers and human resource professionals require us to behave in a more extrovert way because that is better. “Is that possible?” I ask. “Everyone can change!” they reply. “And why aren’t you all coaching role models then?”

“Hello? Is anybody there?”


Event tip:

Keynote speech by Gunter Dueck at the exhibition Zukunft Personal:
On metawork and backbrains – thoughts on intelligent working (In German with live translation into English)
Tuesday, 18 October 2016, 12 noon to 1.30 p.m., Forum 1, Hall 2.1, Koelnmesse


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