Five years ago, at Swedish giant financial services giant Skandia, Lief Edvinsson became the world's first director of intellectual capital. He quickly set out to revolutionize the corporate accounting with a new framework for measuring intangibles: the company's valuable "soft stuff" such as customer relations and organizational knowledge. Now he's reinventing another business practice — strategic planning, the corporate ritual of "accounting for the future" on the basis of past financial performance.
The 140-year old Skandia Group is rethinking the future from a prosperous present. The fast-growing company dominates the Nordic countries with its insurance and savings products and reported over $7 billion in revenues last year. Still, Edvinsson insists, "Future planning is too slow."
That's why, in a sprawling villa just 40 minutes from Stockholm, Edvinsson, 50, is creating a center to reach the future faster. Starting last May, he renovated a 130-year-old building into a future-focused thinktank and populated it with a carefully selected, generationally diverse group of knowledge pioneers.
Edvinsson's new unit, Skandia Future Centers (SFC), and his handpicked team of 30 people from around the world, form an elite squad of five Future Teams. Their mission: to explore five key driving forces of the business environment — the European insurance market, demographics, technology, the world economy, and organization and leadership. The goal: present a vision of the company's future to the corporate council, the companie's150 senior executives.
Edvinsson built his Future Teams on a model of organization he calls "3G": a mix of generations (from 20-somethings to 60-somethings) as well as functional roles, organizational experiences, and cultural backgrounds. The aim is to do a more explicit job of managing conversations within the group and to create intellectual capital from the dialogues. "We want to make the organization more transparent and thus reduce the lead time from learning to teaching," he Edvinsson. Some of the most potent lessons come from those normally excluded from the discussion of strategy — the young and untenured. "We need people who can understand the archeology of the future, he says. "That's why we have these 25-year-olds in our program. They already have that vision — they carry the icons of tomorrow with them.
Take Lotta Karlsson, a 27-year-old fast-tracker who has already held 3 key posts in her 4 years at the company. Now managing the development of some of Skandia's most advanced high-tech investment products, Karlsson is perfectly comfortable exploring the future of the world economy — and doing it without a net. "When you start thinking about something like this," she explains, "you can't be in the order box. You have to be wild and think in ways that haven't been organized. The SFC is all about blowing your mind and opening your eyes."
For her part, Karlsson pushed the group's idea agenda to the limit. She proposed engaging a professional troupe of actors to distill the team's combined learning into a short play to present to the corporate council. With its semi-apocalyptic visions of anti-aging treatments, the end of disease, and virtual reality couch potatoes hooked on language chips, the play, called "Future Perfect," delivered two messages: the future is in your hands, and the only certainty about the future is that things will be very different. After the play, team members had a chance to make short presentations of their own findings.
Karlsson had every intention of provoking the audience of 150 top managers — and did. In her allotted three minutes, she proceeded to rip into the fundamental assumptions behind Skandia's model of selling insurance and financial services through broker networks — relationships meticulously developed by several of the highest ranking executives in the audience — and rattled off a series of direct selling success stories as alternative approaches for the future.
In the lively discussions that followed, even the executives most heavily invested in the current business model were convinced to examine the issue. Other items for exploration emerged from the Future Team discussion. The demographic future group, for example, made a strong case for the development of financial products geared toward the female sector — a largely ignored but significant future market.
The meeting culminated in an online brainstorming session among 20 groups distributed into different rooms to respond to five core questions about Skandia's future. The process showcased alternative to the executive version of strategic planning. "It demonstrated the power of 150 brains working on the same thing simultaneously," says Karlsson. "We got a great set of ideas in just one hour, and also proved that you don't have to be in the same room to do it."
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.