An open letter on the abolition of executives

Guest contribution by | 29.06.2019

Dear Mrs. Koenen,

Thursday morning, XING News offered me a Top 1 article entitled “Deutsche Bahn-IT schafft Führungskräfte ab” (German railway IT abolishes executives):,3602696.

My first, still not quite cheerful and therefore little reflect reactions to the title were: Do they really mean THE Deutsche Bahn? An IT subsidiary of a traditional large corporation without executives? Never ever… And the CIO in charge is getting rid of herself, wow – no, not really, right?

Well, reading the article has brought my view of the world back into balance. I found the first spontaneous questions answered quickly. Deutsche Bahn yes, but the headline doesn’t reflect the content of the article, and of course top management doesn’t abolish itself – perhaps that’s why the article title speaks of executives and important IT functionaries are referred to in the text as Management 😉. And the article is mainly about the use of technology rather than leadership.

While reading, I felt like I was transported into a corporate world to which I still belonged 6 years ago – not railway, but a different industry IT that felt very similar.

The article then gave me hints as to what was really happening. Outsourcing data center performance, forming agile teams for an estimated half of the team (at least if you extrapolate team numbers and compare employee numbers), introducing so-called innovative technologies such as cloud computing, blockchain, etc., and then implementing the new technologies. Previous “classic” executives are likely to reappear in the form of product owners and agility managers. The article also indicates that not everything can be made agile, and the figures also indicate that at least application operations will continue to be run “conventionally”.

A huge number of technical catchwords and hypes are confronted with a large number of unanswered questions about the actual change process/change. Not a word about how leadership behaviour has to change and what is done to change it – in contrast to the mention of technical training. No concrete information about the actual change project itself, neither time period nor costs and certainly nothing about the organisation of the implementation. Goals? Unclear to me as a reader. And above all no indication of difficulties and challenges in the change process, no indication of what was successful in the first conversions of parts of the organisation, what was not and what was learned from it. Nor is there any information on how the end-to-end teams in charge work together precisely in a networked IT landscape, whether there is a need for standards and arbitration bodies specified by the group, and so on and so forth. For this, there was praise for everything that is currently technically good and in – except bimodal – whatever that is now again – no matter, it didn’t seem important for DB-IT anyway.

The further I got with reading, the more often I asked myself the question of what motivates a journalist and a CIO to signal to executives in a highly complex and sensitive change process that leadership is no longer important. In my experience, middle management in particular often block changes out of fear and quite successfully (known under the term clay layer) because they feel that their significance and knowledge are at risk. This results in resistance, which needs to be handled with a great deal of sensitivity. A headline like “… abolishes executives” is definitely not appropriate.

When I read it, I repeatedly noticed a resemblance to my former IT employer in a corporate group. So-called change workshops were held, employee exchanges initiated, motivation events in the lecture hall organised, new roles created and promoted, whiteboard meetings introduced in all teams. Unfortunately, this was not sustainable and did little to change the results and the externally visible way IT works. The main reasons were that the core topics of attitude and leadership were not consistently worked on, that top management was euphoric and “well-intentioned” instead of realistic, and that there was little idea of how difficult and costly such a change was – our slogan at the time: “Bring a tanker on a new course as a swimmer”. And it was also not transparent for us whether and how the TOP management tackled its own necessary change. Even systemic consultants then came to the end of their rope, got out or tried to save what could be saved. Large consulting firms switched from success orientation to profit maximisation.

Some hints on what has been achieved with DB-IT so far can be found in the article. And that didn’t make me more optimistic. The mentioned new application projects are presented with the technical glasses instead of under the focus of a changed organisation, as the title of the article had actually suggested. Like the technology focus of the article, this could be an indication of the perspective in DB-IT.

Robot Semmi, currently being tested to support service personnel at the main station, was recently presented to the public in Berlin. According to RBB (the tv station from the Berlin-Brandenburg region) reporting, which I heard by chance, it came to a standstill during the demonstration and unfortunately didn’t give the hoped-for answers. The external impact speaks for itself. Now also the service counter of the railway is not necessarily a refuge of welcome culture and service orientation, but should the robot not improve this instead of mirroring it?

Last but not least, this is summarised in the concluding paragraph “IT has an image problem”. This also seemed very familiar to me. We also celebrated similar successes as described in the article, and we still had an image problem. We couldn’t show what we were doing either, and looking back, I don’t think it was really much from the customer’s point of view either, because we as IT were far too much about ourselves and our beloved technologies! But maybe my assumed comparability with DB-IT goes too far.

Again and again I asked myself while reading what should be achieved with such an article? The actual change in attitude and leadership “doesn’t take place”, but would certainly be highly exciting for the IT industry. Instead, a flood of technology buzzwords. It is certainly not the motivation of employees and executives, because the frustration of those affected can be guessed at and is not addressed with a single word. Here again, one (I) can only speculate. Obviously, it’s really about image. The IT department is called traditionally organised. Various management boards give indications that the CIO role depends on consensus. In such a situation I have observed not only with my former employer, but also with my consulting activities that top managers of the IT showing how technologically innovative their organization is and that old structures are modernised trend true. Unfortunately, this has not helped the image, quite the contrary.

Dear Mrs. Coenen, I don’t know if you’ve authorised this article, I hope not. I also do not know whether my speculations are true. But the article plays with the fears and frustration of your employees and executives. It certainly didn’t make life any easier for my consulting colleagues who accompany the change in your company. I can only guess what effect it will have on your business colleagues. And as a railway customer, I unfortunately cannot believe in the beautiful new world of the railway if it is based on such pillars.

Yours sincerely
Astrid Kuhlmey

Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.