The setting is ancient: A 400-year-old castle in North Hamptonshire, England.
The participants are young: 23 fast-track employees from German computer giant Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems (SNI).
The talk is about the future: The breakthrough technologies, demographic trends, and competitive forces that will define the computer market in the year 2005.
Welcome to the kick-off meeting of the SNI FutureScape Team. Last fall, CEO Gerhard Schulmeyer launched a new planning initiative at Europe's largest computer company. The idea was radical, even a bit subversive: give young people — those most enthusiastic about new technologies and closest to the company's next generation of customers — a genuine voice in shaping corporate strategy. Beginning with four days of debate in a British castle, and continuing through field trips to Silicon Valley and meetings with industry gurus, the FutureScape Team has been shaking things up.
"Our role is to challenge the board," says Stacy Welsh, who, at 29, is one of the youngest FutureScape members. "The management board is saying, `We don't understand the buying patterns of 16-year-olds, the kids who are watching MTV. We're nowhere near that generation.' They look to us for perspective."
Becoming a FutureScape member wasn't easy; top management selected the group, all of whom are 40 or under, from SNI's "high-potential" employees. Everyone agreed to work on the project over-and-above their regular duties. In return, the company agreed to keep the team together for at least five years — creating the chance to make a real impact.
Perhaps the group's most important contribution comes from its one-on-one interactions with members of the management board. Think of it as "mentoring in reverse." FutureScape members are "sparring partners for the board," says Richard Roy, an executive vice president of SNI who is based in Frankfurt. "They should challenge us to look beyond today's boundaries and shape our thinking about the market, technology, social change."
Stacy Welsh does just that. She manages public relations for Pyramid Technologies, a recently acquired SNI subsidiary based in San Jose, California. Her "sparring partner" is Richard Lussier, president and CEO of Siemens Nixdorf Americas and a member of SNI's executive board. Welsh says she has developed a close relationship with Lussier: "We have one-on-one meetings, or I write informal memos. I sent one recently that said, `Have you seen what we're up to on the Web? Here's how you access it. Here's the address.'"
Michael Christoferrakos, 40, who runs SNI Greece, "spars" with Alfred Nowosad, SNI's chief financial officer. Christoferrakos is a classic fast-tracker; he jumped three layers of management to take his current job. His FutureScape assignment is to explore the long-term impact of digital technology on banking and financial services and to keep CFO Nowosad posted on what he's learning.
All of which raises an intriguing question: Is the future too important to be left to top management?
SNI's Richard Roy suggests that might just be the case. "The young generation has a different model of how it thinks about things," he says. "FutureScape gives the board views it would not otherwise get. It also gives people in the organization a greater chance to influence the board."
That may be the most important point of all. Already, FutureScape's impact has extended beyond the board. "The FutureScape Team itself doesn't grow, but it does recruit other people to get involved," says Mark Maletz, the architect of SNI's change efforts. "It encourages people to offer ideas. That's not always easy in a big German company, where the culture says, `Wait to be asked.'"
The team is also spreading the word about new strategic opportunities. Every other week, SNI holds what it calls Friday Forums — Germany's answer to Silicon Valley beer busts. At every third Friday Forum, members of the FutureScape Team assemble in their home offices to answer questions about their work.
"There's a new sense of dialogue in the company," Maletz says approvingly. "People are more engaged with the direction and future of SNI."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.