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Size and questions around it infuse most aspects of our lives. Is the company large? Is the paycheck small? Is the airplane seat spacious? Is the personality large? Is the drink small?
More often than not, large wins over small. Our psyche appreciates volume and quantity. Quality and efficiency seem to be directly proportional to size.
It was an intriguing theme at the annual St Gallen Symposium this year: Proudly Small. The symposium that is run by the students of the St Gallen University near Zurich is in its 45th year.
Issues of size are important to companies and countries; individuals and groups; services and products. People are scared of large companies but prefer the job stability that they offer. A company may be too large fail and so can be a country that is too large to fail. Small groups of people are seen as ineffective, while a large majority can have its way. Large products bring economies of scale while small is value for money.
So is it possible to be proudly small? Can a company, country, group, product be proudly small?
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda summarized it the best at the Symposium. “There are small countries, there are no small people. Size is not destiny,” President Kagame said. Rwanda has exhibited that being small is not a disadvantage. The country has grown faster and developed better than countries ten times its size not just in Africa but across the world. It joins the rank of small but smart countries like Singapore, Switzerland, Japan and Iceland who have not let size determine ambition.
In a fascinating discussion, CEOs of Swatch, Novartis, Singapore Airlines and ABB debated whether large companies could be innovative and nimble as a small company can be. Nick Hayek, CEO of Swatch was very clear. A company may be big, but it had to behave small to succeed. “There is a pirate flag outside our office to encourage team to question, to think renegade,” Hayek told the Symposium.
Large companies tend to curb new ideas, suppress dissent and crush heretic thoughts. Small companies do neither. And therefore they are able to innovate and growth faster with lesser resources. Jorg Reinhardt, Chairman Novartis felt that innovation was not the preserve of small companies. Big companies can innovate if they create small creative teams that are given the right direction and freedom. Many big companies take the easier route too. They just buy the small companies that have been innovative but are struggling to grow. “About 70 per cent of our innovation comes from inside while 30 per cent is from outside,” Reinhardt said. Stephen Lee, CEO of Singapore Airlines said, “We are the only global airline that doesn’t have domestic flights. We have to be innovative and flexible to grow globally.”
Size then, is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking. An approach. It’s not physical. It’s an attitude. Multinational corporations and populous countries can’t just depend on heft and weight. They will succeed if they operated as an agglomeration of several small units, each working as an engine in sync with others.
It’s quite justified then to be proudly small.