After a career spanning 47 years, Uwe Tams, Volvo CE’s outgoing vice president of Market Planning and Research, has had a long time to chart not just the developments in the company, but also those of its competitors and the world around him.
He has for the past 20 years been Volvo’s man with the helicopter view of the ever changing world.
But before retiring to cycle around the countryside of his native Hamburg, Tams decided to deliver a lecture on his personal view of world development.
“I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon that is globalization,” he said. “I grew up on a farm with no running water, electricity, phone or TV. But I dreamed that one day I would know of, and interact with, peoples from all around the world.”
One Country: The World
Globalization is a term that is much used — and equally misunderstood.
The New York Times has defined it as “the integration of markets, nations and technologies in a way that enables individuals, corporations and nations to go further, faster, deeper and cheaper.”
But it is not a new development, even in the 1800s statesmen such as Alexis de Tocqueville said, “It is impossible for men to remain strangers to one another, or to be ignorant of the events, which are taking place in any corner of the world.”
“We can’t build walls around ourselves to protect against events happening in the world,” said Tams. “If you throw a stone into water the ripples spread out to all edges.”
A good example of this is the Asian Crisis of 1997 — it was only the economies of a small part of the world that were directly affected, but the impact had reverberations in South America, Russia and ultimately in North America and Europe.
“If one area catches a cold — we all sneeze,” said Tams.
Volvo CE has embraced the concept of globalization, establishing research and development, production, marketing and distribution facilities worldwide.
But it hasn’t done it on its own. It has needed the ability to create global supply chains, the allowance to trade where it wants, invest where it wants and be allowed to travel there to make it possible.
But this freedom to trade is only half of what globalization means — the other is identity.
“It’s not a contradiction to be a Swedish company, a European company and a Global company — all at the same time,” explained Tams. “You lose nothing by going beyond your natural identity: it makes us richer to embrace cultures other than our own. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity — but diversity. You can be different and still be united. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
Globalization is not just the plaything of large corporations — the development in foreign holidays in recent decades and the number of people buying and selling online (e.g. eBay) across the world has grown enormously.
And while the process may be unstoppable, globalization does need to be managed: commerce has stretched ahead of the political and social framework, leading to trade barriers, unjust subsidies — and fear.
“Globalization doesn’t have to be bad,” said Tams. “But a lot of issues do need to be dealt with at a worldwide level, such as global warming, nuclear weapons, terrorism, drugs and organized crime.”
The process of globalization should be an instrument of opportunity and inclusion — not fear and insecurity.
The tools — especially in the construction industry — are available to help less developed countries provide clean drinking water, irrigation and basic infrastructure.
“The reaction to the South East Asian Tsunami disaster of December 2004 showed that the world could act as a single community — and this will become more common,” said Tams.
Although the process has always been moving in the direction of globalization, the rate of change is increasing rapidly.
Only during the past 200 years of approximately 10,000 years of civilization, has mankind progressed from moving at 10 mph (16 kmh) by horse and cart to 150,000 mph (241,000 kmh) in space travel.
Similar changes are happening in communications, meaning that almost anyone anywhere is contactable at any time.
“But we must remember that globalization is not just about speed and technology — or even trade,” warned Tams. “We need to remember the human element. Values are terribly important — we need to be socially responsible, working for the common good as much as for shareholders. We have to believe we can all make a difference — and change the world for the better.”
With children working in the United Kingdom and the United States, Tams’ love of experiencing new cultures has spread to his family.
But before he and wife Angelika close the door on this period of their lives, he has some parting advice.
“Globalization is an emotive and badly understood issue today,” he said. “But our grandchildren will look back and wonder why we were so reluctant to embrace it. The genie of globalization will not go back into the bottle — it is not just a temporary phase, it is here to stay, whether we like it or not. At some stage we will all have to accept that — and jump on board.”