Photo: Paddy Cosgrave, CEO and co-founder of Web Summit

Recently, Web Summit took place in Lisbon. “Web-what”? Web Summit is indeed a relative newcomer on the event scene, but you should take notice. At its core, Web Summit is all about connecting larger enterprises and investors to smaller tech companies. On a human level, Web Summit’s goal is to bring together youngish and enthusiastic technology entrepreneurs with experienced investors and leading managers of technology vendors. The result is a fresh and dynamic exchange of ideas and opinions as well as the mutual mentoring of the involved participants.

Web Summit started only in 2009 with a few dozen bloggers, journalists, and technologists in a hotel on the outskirts of Dublin. Web Summit’s rise to become one of the most important global technology conferences is remarkable. In 2016, the event already attracted 53,000 visitors from 166 countries and 15,000 companies, with 65% of visitors being senior managers, including 7,000 CEOs.

And still, Web Summit so far is not yet on the radar screen of many enterprise technology managers. This should change, because Web Summit is not just another gadget show that so many of the traditional global technology conferences have become. There are no shiny devices to look at and no noisy and pumping product launches. This sets Web Summit apart from other tech conferences like MWC, IFA, CES, or CeBIT.

The benefits that Web Summit delivers for attendees are based on the significant exchange of quality content and nonstop networking. Web Summit runs 24 stages, each one of which targets particular verticals or focus areas. There debates, startup pitches, or presentations happen in 20-minute intervals. In addition, there are organized networking events. This setup helps to:

  • Raise funds for young businesses. For second- or third-round funding startups, Web Summit provides a platform to pitch their ideas to potential investors and vendors, which can provide them with advice and financial resources to build their businesses.
  • Provide established firms access to expertise and skills. Enterprises benefit as Web Summit introduces them to mature startups, their skill-sets, and their agility. The results are new partnerships between established firms and startups.

Of course, Web Summit also provides valuable insights for technology managers and enterprise customers. Dozens of sessions debate highly strategic themes that businesses face as part of their digital transformation process, such as, for instance, insights regarding:

  • Serving customers more proactively along the various stages of the customer journey. A big theme was that artificial intelligence (AI) in combination with automation and machine learning will enhance customer service. Machines will learn how to proactively react to a customer depending on the mood of the customer. Russian tech provider Yandex believes that we will see AI being deployed to allow true personalized — and fully automated — customer engagement services for every single customer. Facebook explained how it is already providing Messenger-based solutions for customer service centers of large banks and some telcos. It has managed to boost customer satisfaction by up to 60% and reduced costs by 75% by automating some responses. Longer-term, Facebook believes that the combination of AI, messaging, and chat bots will trigger one of the biggest revolutions for customer engagement ever.
  • Rethinking the approach to innovation in the digital context. There was agreement that innovation is as much about adjusting your business to changing circumstances as it is about developing new products and services. Changing metrics and KPIs are, therefore, part of digital business model transformation. For instance, the Financial Times pointed out during a session on the future of media, that in the news business the norm to just focus simply on website impressions does nothing or even undermines quality journalism. Nestle, meanwhile, has started to run innovation challenges to involve startups in its own innovation activities. Nestle’s Pete Blackshaw said that the goal is to work more closely with these startups to provide Nestle more direct access to startup thinking.
  • Redefining marketing to younger target groups. Social media is beginning to play an increasingly critical and tangible role for marketing. Take, for instance, social media stars like Alfie Deyes, the founder of PointlessBlog or Jake Paul of TeamDom. They might still be teenagers, but they have millions of social media followers and create billions of views. Such social media stars represent increasingly influential personalities for certain target audiences. Traditional brands have to get used to working with such social media stars, usually on the terms of these independently minded young people, if they want to start marketing more effectively to Gen Z.
  • Accessing expertise though cross-industry collaboration, ecosystems, and M&A. BMW’s Elmar Frickenstein said that BMW cannot deliver autonomous-driving vehicles without support from partners. Too many factors outside its core-focus area, such as the reliance on 100% connectivity, come into play. For this purpose, BMW is developing, together with partners like Huawei, Intel, Mobileye, and Qualcomm, a cross-industry and nonexclusive development platform that is open to anybody. These cross-industry ecosystems will play a critical role in underpinning BMW’s future business model. Also, M&A will play an important role to provide traditional firms with access to much needed expertise. M&A among technology companies is usually about acquiring access to expertise, technology, and next-generation products. Therefore, as John Chambers of Cisco pointed out, bringing company cultures together smoothly is important in order to reduce the risk of the newly acquired talent walking out on you immediately.
  • Learning from and operating more like a startup. For traditional firms, exposure to external forces in the form of continuously talking to leading startups has the potential to humble and motivate managers. This can change their ways of managing their own organizations. Leading startups know that simplicity rules and digital winners always have a total customer-centric approach. Setting-up “constant representations” in these in tech hotspots like Silicon Valley or Berlin ensures ongoing contact with the respective startup scenes and supports the approach to “tapestry-learning.” Nestle’s Pete Blackshaw said that such “external exposure will focus management” and motivate action. Similarly, reverse mentoring of top executives by leading startup members has become critical at Nestle.

To be sure, Web Summit is still evolving and most topics discussed at Web Summit are also discussed at other technology conferences. But Web Summit’s value stems from somewhere else: Most traditional businesses struggle to overcome their silo-structures and break out of their own conservative mindsets when preparing for and implementing their own digital transformation. Web Summit brings people from very different backgrounds together in a coordinated manner.

The race is on for every company in every sector to complete their digital transformation in the next few years. At the event, John Chambers repeated his belief that about four in 10 of today’s leading businesses are unlikely to succeed in their digital transformation. Those that are too slow will simply be replaced by those that have succeeded faster in their digital transformation.

Web Summit offers attendees from traditional businesses a great opportunity to experience a less inhibited approach and fresh ideas to tackle the opportunities and challenges that digital offers. For these reasons, I expect Web Summit to continue to attract a growing number of enterprises. The other technology conferences, in particular Mobile World Congress with its startup off-shoot 4YFN, will have to radically rethink their concept in order to stay relevant.