Being “Deutschital” – German Angst around digitalization

Published August 10, 2023

Magnus Lindkvist Self-employed

Brandenburger Tor Berlin Germany

Germany has fallen behind in digitalization. According to IMD’s World Competitiveness Center, Germany is no longer ranked among the top 20 digital competitiveness ranking, the trend is negative. This has consequences. Germany, once regarded as the finest industrial nation in the world, now ranks behind Saudi Arabia and Belgium in overall competitiveness, let alone high performers like Singapore, Switzerland, and my home country, Sweden. Is this the “German Angst” regarding digitalization?

world digital competitiveness ranking

Germany’s Ambivalent Relationship with Digitalization

To understand what needs to be done about this, it’s a good idea to analyze why Germany has a shaky relationship with digital technology, and what better way to do this than to let a Swedish futurologist with great love and admiration for all things German take a crack at this? I have been traveling to and working in Germany for the past two decades, meeting companies in the Mittelstand heartland, startups in Berlin, giant banks in Frankfurt, and automotive pioneers in the South. My books have been translated into German, even though they are featherweights compared with the intellectual and academic heritage of Germany. Love is a strong word, but I use it with intention and passion when I say that I genuinely love Germany. This is why you should not misunderstand what I’m about to write. It comes not from a longing to ridicule Germany or put her down. It comes with the hope that Germany can do better in an increasingly digital world.

German Angst – No Experiments

The Anglo-Saxon world had colonies, and running a colony was a notoriously tricky task. If you were sent out to manage some small section of the British Raj in India, you would find yourself in an inhospitable climate with (understandingly) unfriendly people and a general lack of resources. In other words, you would be expected to improvise. The village needs water – improvise a solution! There are no English-speaking teachers for the local school – improvise! There’s an outbreak of malaria – improvise (with Gin and Tonic)!

The experience at the frontier as America was being built. Immigrants from around the world were forced to make do with what they had, usually very little, to build a house, a town, and a living. This created an experimental mindset at the heart of Anglo-Saxon businesses. Set up a lofty goal and then find ways to accomplish it.

Germany had almost no colonies and could therefore afford to wait for the perfect solution to arrive. Why settle for a network of flimsy bamboo sticks to transport water when a solid network of water and sewage pipes could be built? Why settle for horse and carriage when train lines could be built on a national level? Fast forward to today, and American firms are known for experimental projects, whereas German firms are process-oriented, passionately pursuing perfection. A Tesla is, in essence, an iPad with four wheels, whereas the leather seats in a Volkswagen Touareg are the result of decades of refinement.

Knowledge from Below

Lufthansa has a uniquely hierarchical way of treating its passengers. The scroll-down list of titles is not limited to ”Herr” or ”Frau” but has extensive titles like ”Professor Doctor” to boot. Similarly, it is not enough to have one kind of VIP lounge but instead a network of business lounges, Senator Lounges, HON-Circle Lounges, and even a separate terminal for First Class Travelers. This is a reflection of hierarchical Germany. If you’re going to manage your business in a long-term process, hierarchy (of age and experience) is king.

The problem with this mindset arises when knowledge no longer comes from above (from the older and more experiences) but from below. This is precisely what happened with the rise of the world wide web in the 1990s. It was not CEOs and Chairmen that learned to code and experimented with new ways of selling books or records, it was twenty-something college dropouts. This has severely affected the power dynamics in the world since. From ”#MeToo” to TikTok, the conversation is now firmly controlled from below. Greta Thunberg would have been disregarded as a young child a few decades ago, but is now one of the world’s most influential people. The German parliament has an average age of 56, whereas Denmark is 45, and Norway has over 40% of its parliament under 45. The average age of successful entrepreneurs in the US is 42 whilst the average age of German DAX Boards is 56. Companies and nations that allow a free flow of ideas from below – from the young and less experienced – are bound to be more successful in an age where knowledge comes from below.

German Angst – The Guilt of Risk

The German words for debt and guilt are the same. The English call it leverage – you loan some money in order to be able to get further. The German mentality in regard to debt shines through when it comes to fear of failure. The German Angst to fail. Germany scores higher than the global average when it comes to fear of business failure and connects it with fear of financial burden and personal disappointment. This creates a self-perpetuating loop. In an experimental age where knowledge comes from below, there must be a high tolerance for failure. German bankruptcy legislation, as well as its tendency to overeducate its workforce, acts as a break on dynamism and productivity in a time when Germany would instead need boosters. I have met countless German managers who proudly begin their sentences with ”In Germany, we have a process for…” and display a myriad of academic titles on their business cards. In Germany, the word ”entrepreneur” was until recently a synonym for ”amateur”, and both were seen as unfavorable.

So, in conclusion…

Germany has a number of things working against it becoming a global digital business giant. This does not mean it should work hard to become a bad copy of the US or Sweden any time soon. Instead, it should work with what it’s got. In fact, Germany could become a winner in the next economy. As digital technology matures, it will require more process thinking and fewer experiments. The global economy is currently weaning itself off cheap money and debt, which plays well into the German way. And as prosperous nations have increasingly aging populations, we will need to look for ways where experience and innocence can play well together, not as antagonists. This is why I challenge German companies to define what it is to be ”Deutschital”, not just Digital. A more process-driven, long-term productive way to use technology for good, not just random experiments to make billionaires.

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