helping make the network smarter

In what is likely the best example of my mantra that ‘work is learning and learning is the work’, Nokia’s Chairman Risto Siilasmaa describes how he learned about machine learning because everyone was talking about it but he still did not understand it enough to describe it. Frustrated, he was acting like many of his fellow executives

“I spent some time complaining. Then I realized that as a long-time CEO and Chairman, I had fallen into the trap of being defined by my role: I had grown accustomed to having things explained to me. Instead of trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of a seemingly complicated technology, I had gotten used to someone else doing the heavy lifting.” —HBR 2018-10-04

The result of what Siilasmaa learned is an excellent example of the integration of learning and work, a necessity in the network era workplace.

Embracing automation

Siilasmaa: “There are numerous jobs that can be done better and faster if you augment the people working on those tasks with machine learning. For that, we’ll need to change people’s behavior so that they look at everything around them as an opportunity to automate.”

I discussed this in embracing automation:

One small change that could have a major impact would be to look at everyone’s work from the perspective of standardized versus customized work. Every person in the company, with the help of some data and peer feedback, should be able to determine what percentage of their time is spent on standardized work. If the percentage is over a certain threshold, say 50%, then it becomes a management task to change that person’s job and add more customized work. The company should be constantly looking at ways to automate any standardized work in order to stay ahead of technology, the market, and the competition. Automation is pretty well inevitable but it does not have to decimate the workforce, as the Swedish example above shows.


Siilasmaa: “I often describe myself as an entrepreneur. When you have an entrepreneurial mindset, everything is your responsibility. You truly care and your actions communicate that loud and clear.”

This is how a social leader creates value:

Social leadership starts by connecting people to the goals of work, not just doing their job. By practicing personal knowledge mastery, everyone takes responsibility for critical thinking. Active experimentation is encouraged through constant learning by doing, and sharing with others to solve problems. Innovation will emerge from the entire network, when everyone is responsible in a transparent and open organization. Social leadership is about building work structures that align people with goals.

Making the Network Smarter

Siilasmaa: “Then I dug into the most difficult part: how to explain the essence of machine learning in the simplest possible way, but without dumbing it down. I created the presentation I wish someone had given me. (The presentation is on YouTube, where, so far, it’s been watched by nearly 45,000 people. I’ve also given it to, among others, the full Finnish cabinet, many of the commissioners of the European Union, a group of United Nations ambassadors, and 200 teenage schoolgirls to get them interested in science. Many companies have made watching my introduction to machine learning mandatory for their management.)”

Leadership is helping make the network smarter:

Managers acting as servant leaders should spend much of their time focused on complex situations, where the relationship between cause and effect can only be seen after the fact. Actively listening requires an engagement with networked contributors who are closely in touch with their environment. Everyone should continuously question the contexts in which the enterprise is working. Appointed servant leaders have an even greater responsibility to look at the big picture, not manage the contributors, who for the most part can manage themselves when everyone’s work is transparent. Managers can then propose changes and build consensus around suggested responses.

Risto Siilasmaa is not only a proactive learner but he is a knowledge catalyst and adds value to what he has learned in order to speed the spread of knowledge throughout the company. The video is worth watching, and the notes are worth keeping. If you are looking for good practices in network leadership, read about what Siilasmaa has done, and then set your own example.

Here is a follow-up on Siilasmaa learning about machine learning.


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