Dealing with the dark side of technology (CFO Day 2021) –





How do we prevent people from being snowed into times of rapid technological development?

Photos: Elisa Smook

Huis ter Duin, Noordwijk. Wednesday, September 22, 2021. The day the CFO community was finally allowed to reunite for the annual but Covid-interrupted CFO Day. It was an extra special event. First of all, it was the 20th edition and the first since the great pandemic. Second, the ‘Brave New World’ theme was perfectly aligned with the big questions facing the financial leaders of organizations today. Third, it was the very last event for Community Manager Michael van Asperen, who for 16 years brought together finance managers for Alex van Groningen and now Sijthoff Media. It was a finish to be proud of.

“Don’t lose sight of people in a world increasingly dominated by technology”, Michael summed up the theme of the talk show that opened the day. With table guests Henry Schirmer (CFO Randstad Holding), Alrik Boonstra (CHRO Jumbo ) and Jabine van der Meijs (former CFO Schiphol Group and supervisory director) he discussed the most important technological trends affecting our society and companies.

Should we fear the ‘dark side’ of technology? Looking at the polarization in today’s society, instigated or even caused by social media algorithms, you’d say it is. But according to Boonstra, it makes or falls with your view of people. “What do you believe? I believe that in the end people can do just fine.”

“Technology itself is neutral,” added Henry Schirmer. “After all, it is the people who decide how it is used.” That is why the quality of management is so crucial, Boonstra stated again.

“At Schiphol Group there is a big focus on digitization to guide people through the terminals as quickly as possible,” says Van der Meijs. “Of course, data is used for this. The question in the boardroom was always: how far do we take it? The answer to that privacy question is often given in the form of more rules, Van Asperen said. “At some point, nothing is allowed anymore. So where do you stand in your digitization?”

Slaves of Big Tech and Fake News
According to the first speaker – the philosopher Oliver Khouri – man is losing autonomy over his life. “We are becoming slaves on the ‘digital plantations’ of the Big Tech companies that track, monitor and record everything about us,” the speaker began. “On May 4, we will reflect for two minutes on our freedom and the sacrifice that On the same day, a democratically elected member of parliament (Van Haga, ed.) is permanently banned from LinkedIn for allegedly saying things that do not agree with the prevailing narrative. Who decides what the truth is? Not a Silicon Valley cowboy, I hope.” According to the pessimistic philosopher, tech companies are increasingly behaving like dictators, and this is a particularly dangerous development.

And when it comes to big tech and especially social media companies, there is another danger lurking: fake news. Annique Mossou, researcher at Bellingcat, compared the disinformation pollution to corona. “This is also a pandemic that is spreading around the world. And just like with corona, you will have to take hygienic measures, namely avoid sharing and forwarding messages.” Mossou cited the various sources of disinformation, including ‘credible sources’ such as politicians who spread fake news and influencers. The key to stopping this is approval. This is a skill we all need to master to prevent this epidemic from further polarization.

“I fully support the importance of fact-checking,” Boonstra responded. “With a room full of CFOs, it should be possible!” The slave metaphor clearly appealed to him less: “I don’t want to believe that. We’re better than that.” Jabine van der Meijs stated that we must hold the tech companies responsible, but also ourselves. She hoped that we are capable of this: “I have two sons and they understand the game of tech companies flawlessly.” Schirmer talked about the checks & balances needed to keep Big Tech companies in check, but shared Boonstra’s positive worldview and also Jabine’s vision: “Freedom brings responsibility.”

CRISPR and transhumanism
Another technological development – ​​CRISPR, the adjustment of DNA strands in the body – also presents us with ethical questions. Molecular biologist Hetty Helsmoortel shared the still unknown news to many CFOs that in 2018 a Chinese scientist changed the DNA of Chinese baby twins to prevent diseases. The man has been convicted. At the same time, the discoverers of CRISPR were awarded the Nobel Prize. CRISPR is a clear example of a wonderful technology with potentially very dark sides. The consequences of modifying DNA cannot yet be predicted, and the question is also how desirable it is. “Curing a hereditary and serious disease in an embryo will probably provoke some resistance, but where does it end? Autism, intelligence, sexual orientation? And who will decide this?” According to Helsmoortel, we have less than five years to make decisions about this, and she encourages the CFOs to form an opinion on this.

Carlo van de Weijer (General Manager Eindhoven University of Technology) then spoke about the AI ​​revolution. “Our relationship with machines is becoming more complex,” the AI ​​expert said. “Moore’s Law is still in effect, and with the tremendous rate at which computing power is increasing, it’s only a matter of time before machines outsmart us. Robots are increasingly gaining character. Finally, technology is taking over more and more brain functions from us, so there is a fusion between people and technology.” That this fusion is already underway is evident from the fact that when there was a short musical interlude after the speakers, more than half of the CFOs reached for their mobiles.

How did the dinner guests see this development? “I don’t believe in perfection,” Boonstra said in response to the CRISPR story. “That’s the limit for me. We should leave something that’s good.” The finance director found it very positive that people can be cured of serious illnesses, “If I was the father of a sick child, I would do it,” said Schirmer. The merging of people and technology is already a reality in businesses, the panelists noted. “We see that people prefer to talk to chatbots than to real people,” says Schirmer. At Jumbo, with 30,000 new hires per year, they cannot do without chatbots. “But I don’t think AI will replace recruiting,” Boonstra said. “Making the right connection is still something for people.”

Times of cyber warfare
November 1983, the kidnapping of Freddy Heineken and his driver. Pim Takkenberg of Northwave stated that how this was done is very comparable to contemporary ransomware incidents. “You used to be sent a picture of the kidnapped person holding a newspaper and demanding a ransom. Now the computers in your company will be blacked out and a message will appear with instructions. What do you want to do? In many cases, payment is made. What choice do you have?” Takkenberg argued that it is fundamental for CFOs to understand the threat first. “You are dealing here with very well-organized criminal gangs operating internationally. Understand how such an attack works and discuss this in the boardroom .Be proactive and you really can avoid being attacked.”

Schirmer has had three attacks at Randstad. Fortunately, the company has not been locked up and has not had to pay. According to Takkenberg, the average downtime for such an attack is 23 days. In addition to the huge costs involved, the reputational damage is also huge. “At Schiphol Group, there was great awareness on the board of the magnitude of this risk,” Van der Meijs said. “We said: this is so important that we are going to invest a lot of money and resources into this. is difficult for many people. because they have never experienced an attack. You have to make it tangible and explain it in such way that everyone understands.”

The tension between freedom and coherence
The last speaker – Roland van der Vorst, head of innovation at Rabobank – talked about the dilemma between the need for coherence on the one hand and freedom and innovation on the other. “You can enforce compliance with standards and regulations, but they don’t give much leeway,” says Van der Vorst. “How do you ensure innovation, then?” At Rabobank, platform technology is used, where the continuous feedback loop ensures better intelligence. Another effective method is the story. Van der Vorst: “Stories ensure that people can work better together. Take capitalism for example. It controls our behavior but gives us the freedom to do it all in our own way.”

“As a decentralized organization, Jumbo cannot do without such stories,” says Boonstra. “Our success depends on entrepreneurship in the stores. This is only possible with a narrative. All 30,000 people we hire every year go through the “Welcome to Jumbo Day” .’ That’s where our story is told, including Jumbo’s 7 Certainties. But we also need structure in a company that employs 100,000 people. But the worst thing that can happen to us is to go corporate, and that danger is always lurking .”

“Something magical is happening…”
After the exciting opening, chairman Michael van Asperen looks back with satisfaction on not only a wonderful start, but also a very successful pre-conference program the day before, when Kevin Entricken (CFO Wolters Kluwer) was presented with the CFO Award 2021. In October, Michael starts his new challenge at Agium. He then introduced his successor as CFO Community Manager. Anne Brenninkmeijer has the honorable task of continuing to facilitate the CFO community with inspiring events and meetings. She thanked Michael for the many experiences and said she was looking forward to the coming years. “So many enthusiastic people together, it’s great to see.”

“Something magical is happening”, Melle Eijkelhoff (Co-CEO Sijthoff Media) also agreed, who came to put Michael on stage in the spotlight. “This 20th CFO Day doesn’t feel like an event. It’s about people acting as friends. “You need people to make this happen. Driving people like Michael. He has done a tremendous amount over the past 16 years to bring communities to life with this CFO Day as the crowning achievement.” A standing ovation followed.

During the rest of the day, many interesting ‘Brave New World’ themes were discussed, including the new metaverse, the loneliest century, ethical dilemmas in a commercial data-driven world and climate change. This year, instead of a plenary closing, the organization chose an extensive networking drink – outside along the beautiful coast in Noordwijk – where the CFOs can chat with each other for a long time in the pleasant late summer weather. Everyone was really looking forward to this.

The CFO day will take place again next year.
So note in your diary:
– 31 May 2022 (pre-conference) and
– 1 June 2022 (CFO Day)

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