Polymath values cooperation
Bea Knecht is a polymath: A computer scientist who has developed business applications; a tech entrepreneur; a successful strategist at McKinsey in two sectors; a strong track record as a banking IT manager; and founder of the pioneering TV channel Zattoo.
She has found that, while it is possible to reach expert status in multiple disciplines over the course of a career, it is a challenge to be recognized as such: “While I was at Berkeley, and thereafter in banking, I was techie to colleagues. When at McKinsey Palo Alto, knowing my banking background, I was seen more as a corporate banker than a computer scientist, even though it was more technical than most colleagues’ roles. When I subsequently worked in a VP Marketing role in a startup, I was no longer seen as a banker, I was now seen as a product and marketing expert. When I built Zattoo, I became a media expert in their eyes.”
She keeps up with advances in computer science, and still co-creates software products; she draws on her marketing experience as board member of the Swiss Marketing Society, and on her banking and strategy and tech experience when advising fintech firms. Media experience informs her role as a member of the Swiss government’s Media Commission.”
Her plan had been to complete an MBA at Stanford and become a tech entrepreneur. Her then employer the Swiss bank UBS, where she managed a core team responsible for decentralized computing after graduating in computer science at Berkeley in California, suggested IMD instead. She did not regret it.
A feature of the MBA at IMD she particularly values is the emphasis on interconnectedness. She highlights the “clever use of cognitive surprise” by the faculty to illustrate this.
“I liked the grown-up, eye-level treatment by staff. They were treating us as high-potentials, not as pupils.” – Bea Knecht
“You would have a case and it would start out as an accounting case; the accounting professor would come and do the numbers and so on. And suddenly it sort of turns, and takes on the nature of an organizational behavior case and JB Kassarjian walks in, or the organizational behavior professor, and talks about: These were the numbers, now look at the dynamics between the people who are trying to agree on the numbers: What is really going on in their heads?”
Noteworthy also were some comparatively small touches by faculty and staff on the Lausanne campus: how the MBA participants were treated as executives.
“I really liked the quality of instruction. I liked the quality of cohesion in the class, I liked the grown-up, evolved, eye-level treatment by the staff, they were treating us as high-potentials, not as pupils.”
At IMD she discovered she had a passion for strategy. She was hired by McKinsey, where she worked for five years, initially in banking strategy at the Zurich office, then in IT strategy in Palo Alto/Silicon Valley at the time of the dotcom startups in the early 2000s.
After McKinsey, she helped turn around tech firm Levanta with a product that optimized the efficiency of cloud-based server farms containing thousands of machines. She designed a layer above them to so they could be administered with the ease of one machine. She followed this up with a product for SAP that distilled her learnings about project staffing from her years at McKinsey.
In 2005, with an understanding of how the web was set to transform broadcast media, she co-founded a live streaming TV service operating under the brand “Zattoo” in Switzerland and Germany. By 2022 it has become the largest such operation in Europe, partially because it also offers white-label TV-as-a-service to cable and telco operators beyond Switzerland and Germany. She was awarded an Emmy for that work.
In her role as media entrepreneur, Bea emphasizes the importance of a free press. The ecology of a human community depends upon communication, and this can be poisoned “by propaganda, by dogma, by censorship or anything that hinders good sense-making”.
There is a need for social media platforms to identify information that comes from bots, and provide greater transparency on the source and reliability of posts. She observes that journalists “are the chief sense-making catalysts who, because they are new to a topic, need to understand it in layman’s terms and that by itself forces a retelling of the story [through which] we understand the essentials.”
Communication and interconnectedness are key to her world view – she sees the world as complex systems.
“On a chip, everything is interconnected, and a big insight in the ‘80s was that you don’t need to make all the chip faster until you’ve made the slowest part faster. It’s a little bit like the German high-speed rail system. They went into an arms race with France and they wanted their trains to go to 250, then 300 kilometers an hour … By now, Germans have understood that they first ought to improve the slowest part.”
In the groupwork at IMD, you learn a similar lesson: the pace of the whole team matters. Even a polymath needs partners.