Anil Sadhoeram on the role of the Chief Philosophy Officer – an extract from the conversation
Sören E. Schuster: What does it mean for you to be a philosopher in a business context?
Anil Sadhoeram: The idea of the CPO is not from a book. I mean, I have some of the books – right now I am reading Jean Francoise Lyotard, for example. I don’t want to name drop necessarily. The reason why I bring it up is that not everybody in philosophy talks about technology. And he talks about cyber technology and the cyber world. His ideas are maybe 50 years old, but he already thought about that, what we will know as our future society. This is how the Chief Philosophy Officer can add value to a company. He or she is not an ethicist, but somebody who looks at the world of business in a holistic and integrated view. The CPO talks to all the departments and helps them to create a holistic mission, a bigger picture vision, without losing sight of what’s going on.
The role you describe would institutionalize this integrated view in a company. There are, of course, already many philosophers working for different companies, for example in marketing or corporate social responsibility. But it surely makes a difference if someone is actually hired with the goal of bringing this holistic view to a company.
I think everybody can fill out that role. I did not graduate as a philosopher and never wrote a paper on philosophy when I started engaging in philosophical thinking. The academic standards really do not matter. You don’t necessarily need to have a degree to be a philosopher. What makes a philosopher a philosopher? There is no consensus about that. If you ask me, I would say, you are no philosopher unless you allow and integrate the idea of technology as a force that changes human nature. We cannot have philosophical conversations without technology today. I don’t have the references in academia to support me in that case, which is why I have to come up with practical examples and data points. An easy example is building a bridge. We are crossing rivers all the time. In the corporate world, we are crossing multiple rivers at the same time, and we use technology to do it. If you don’t recognize the value of technology, I would say, you do not understand society. Because what is it to be a human? The way we think about humans, ourselves, is changing. If you have the question know thyself, for instance – I think that question is still relevant. But if you don’t take the technology and the influence of technology into the perception of the self, then I think you will miss the point. And that’s why it is great to know the great philosophers from the past, but we have to think for today. The board of a company has to somehow make decisions based on insufficient information about the future. Now I’m talking more like a physicist, but this is what’s going on when you are part of a board, in a leadership role. Therefore, the idea should not necessarily be that a philosopher is being hired and being anchored in the enterprise. I think a philosopher disrupts the enterprise. He comes from the outside. The value is that you don’t want somebody who is going to be telling what you want them to say.
So the CPO, as you envision the role, would rather be an external consultant? He or she would not bring academic philosophy to companies, but a broader understanding of the overall influence of technology for the business… This would then be translated into the company?
I created my role myself and set up my own company in the past. Eleven years ago, I thought a lot about the organizational structure of the future. Whether it’s a big enterprise or a small enterprise doesn’t really matter. My former colleague and I, the one I told you about earlier, we thought that in the future, people will work apart together. This was what I brought to the table, and it was based on an analogy again, on living apart together. And today you see the big corporations also using technology to do the job. We talk about the time before Google as B.G. and after Google as A.G., but now we also have the B.C. and the A.C., so the before Covid and after Covid. Many of the technological things that we now see emerging with the mainstream population were already out there for people like me and other people before me who were working in that space. So they already have first-hand experience of a future that some philosophers didn’t even see coming. Also, scientists did not consider it as a game changer.
That is the contribution, the value add. If I come into a company, I ask myself: What is going on in this company? And then you can see without them seeing it, because you have a certain distance, and to see things, you need distance. If you are too close, you don’t see it. The key is exactly what you said: you have to translate! You are not somebody sitting in a corner office that is concerned with quality assurance. That’s not the role. Not every company will be able to work with a Chief Philosophy Officer. You have to ask: What is the strategy? What is the goal, the overall goal of the company? A philosopher has to be a person that can be independent, so he or she cannot be corrupted.