Monday, July 1, 2013

How could Europe be competitive – or for that matter PHL?

Many must have watched Richard Quest on CNN recently moderating a panel composed of the CEOs of Lufthansa and DHL and a journalist from the Financial Times discussing European competitiveness. It was timely especially given the shrinking EU economy and thus the debate whether austerity or stimulus was the right antidote; and, of course, the questions about the future of the euro and the EU itself as well as the different trade agreements in the works.

I’ve spent most of the last 10 years living and working in a relatively new EU-member country while being a US resident over the last 25 years. No doubt that I've drunk more wine the last 10 years than all the years prior, had more cappuccino and spent more time in cafes. Even when I was with my old MNC company visiting our Paris office (or Brussels) meant having the option to have wine over lunch in the company cafeteria. (And the first time I was in our Madrid office I jokingly asked if we'd take midday siesta after being warned to be prepared for the late dinner hour – “that’s why we invented the tapas!”) "In Europe we live to eat, in the US you eat to live." And since my family's first visit to Europe I had wondered how people could spend so much time in cafes – until I became a resident!

Compare that to my wife's first visit to New York. We were staying in a midtown business hotel, and one morning as she was going through the hotel's revolving door on her way out . . . she found herself right back in the lobby – her first lesson in the New York pace of life. And it was repeated when she went to a deli to order a sandwich: "What kind of bread (white, brown, whole-grain, wheat, rye), with mayo or without, what about mustard, any lettuce or tomato . . ." And she just lost track and before she knew it, the woman at the counter yelled: "Next!" [Today she's a New Yorker and scares the wits out of service providers like the cable company, etc., and can make lawyers, doctors, accountants and our neighborhood banker listen to her.]

And so I could only smile as Richard Quest kept probing the panel about European competitiveness. I have learned the last 10 years that "form and style" is European; while American is "function and comfort." And I would break into a grin every time I put on a European shirt, because they are designed to be tight and chic! Culture matters. I'd be proud to see a Steve Jobs come from Europe. But I know there will be more Valentinos and Coco Chanels. Yet there are many areas where Europeans have been pushing technology – in aerospace and pharmaceutical, among others. I recently listened to my Eastern European friends present options to fully mechanize (short of full automation) our newest warehouse – and make it truly fireproof, i.e., nothing can ignite because a big chunk of the oxygen in the air would have been eliminated. But then parking in the city center is such a problem that cars would appropriate the sidewalk to the disadvantage of pedestrians. And open-source software from the US is challenging modules of enterprise-wide systems like SAP.

The Economist in their periodic technology series has reported about European creativity – that while they generate more ideas the US still comes out with more commercially successful innovations. Where could it be coming from? I learned problem-solving techniques in a seminar in the Philippines, but it was in New York where I realized that "problem-solving" was a way of life. Granted that I was in a headquarters environment – but people did problem-solving as though it was fun, and not to be dreaded. "This is fun stuff," one of the best finance folks I'd worked with would quip every time we threw him "what-if" scenarios – and his face would sparkle. And bosses would admit to mistakes to start a problem-solving effort. People all around were forward-looking, which brings Edison to mind: "I want to see a phonograph in every American home." And Bill Gates: ". . . a computer in every home." Or Steve Jobs: "I love music and why not a thousand songs instead of just a few; and who doesn't like music?" And they all come down to: "starting with the end in view."

I sit in endless meetings with my Eastern European friends – and they are very creative people. Yet the "problem-solving is fun" ethos that I lived through was different especially the forward-looking instincts of people – and thus "starting with the end in view" was the norm. How could Europe be competitive – or for that matter PHL? 

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