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Home > A conversation with Roberto Panzarani

A conversation with Roberto Panzarani

by Redazione FGB [1], 2 April 2008

(In Italiano [2])

Roberto Panzarani [3] teaches "Innovation Processes in Organisations" at the Psychology Faculty of La Sapienza University in Rome and has worked in the training sector in Italy for many years.
He was head of training at Alitalia, where he founded the Alitalia Business School. Other positions he has covered include Chairman of the AIF (Italian Association of Trainers) and of Governance (Association for the Promotion of Knowledge and Skills for the Exercise of Management Responsibilities).
In 1999 he served as advisor to the Prime Minister's Office in drafting the Master Plan for training. As an expert in Business Innovation, he works with the senior management of Italy's leading companies.

This interview revolves around the subject of "intangible assets":
"Intangibility means emotion, the importance attained by imagination and concepts: elements that were also important in the past, of course, but which are attracting particular attention nowadays and, I have to say, are also a source of concern. It is these concerns that have led to the focus on what has been defined as 'intellectual capital'." (Panzarani, interview published in the Credito Cooperativo House Organ, June 2004).

Part one (2004-09-27)

Tommaso Correale Santacroce:
1. Brand.
There is no better way to extinguish the true fire of an emotion than to declare "I am feeling emotional". As soon as the words are uttered the feeling is no longer there, at least not with the same intensity.
Giving a value to an intangible asset is like formalising something that is impalpable, invisible and difficult to describe. When a bank puts out a message saying "call in at your local branch", how much is it really changing its relationship with its customers? Or is it perhaps just engaging in a marketing operation?

Roberto Panzarani:
It's most definitely a marketing operation! As Rifkin reminds us, in the past culture used to be the first to emerge, with trade and the whole commercial and mercantile dimension following. Today, unfortunately, it's the opposite: Naomi Klein's "No Logo" devotes page after page to this subject. In a big shopping centre like San Paolo - shopping centres have become the city plazas and meeting places for people who are, however, becoming more and more absorbed in the buying and selling dimension - you can read a poster declaring that "You are in the centre of your emotions". So everything is a market in the end. It is almost impossible to distinguish between our own original emotions and induced ones, and vice versa. That said, the subject has become so pervasive that we need to re-examine the very nature of modern-day capitalism and redraw the borderlines - as two interesting books, "Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists " by Zingales and "Uccideranno il capitalismo" by Bebèar, tell us.

2. Business Ethics.
I think that the real value of a company's brand and image always lies in the close match they achieve with the way the company as a whole relates to its customers, the quality of its products, and the choices it makes with respect to its surrounding environment. For any given organisation, how much should the decision to capitalise on its own intangible assets reflect on the outside world? Where by "reflect on the outside world" I mean not acquiring greater visibility, but actively achieving change.

This is the key theme of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), in which major Italian companies too are investing - and will probably do so increasingly in the future. The risk is that talking is one thing, but actually building a "sustainable" company is not so easy, because if you want to make it really sustainable you touch on a whole series of interests and ways of doing things that undoubtedly might damage those who have something to gain from the status quo. It is also true, however, that we can't continue as we are at present. You could say that the latest attempt to create an unsustainable model for the purposes of certain capitalist interests has been the war in Iraq. But this isn't working, so I am convinced that at the international level a different need will develop: to access energy sources and to produce. Alongside this the emergence of eastern countries such as China and India will pose serious sustainability and pollution problems the like of which we have never seen before. So sustainability will mean survival. That said, man's folly is, frankly, without limits.

3. Culture.
For those organisations that are repositories of culture par excellence, such as libraries, theatres or museums, a general increase in people's interest in intangible assets should be a source of good fortune, like re-discovering a treasure hidden in the attic. How can organisations of this sort take advantage of the stronger impetus to capitalise on intangible assets?

This is a highly relevant question and I will reply frankly by saying that at present these organisations are utterly lacking in any such awareness - which is, of course, the Italian problem! The issue of intangible assets has once again, and paradoxically, arisen in an industrial and financial context (although it still hardly applied). All the other organisations are still at the starting line. It is clear, as a number of recent articles by Giuliano Amato have underlined, that this is the great issue of "What are we to make of Italy and of Europe?". First of all, I think we need to develop a greater awareness on the part of artists and cultural operators - in short, of all those working in culture - of the real value of the activities they are engaged in. For some this is very clear: for example, Hollywood stars or leading sports personalities (on this point I would invite you to take a look at "Future Wealth" by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer, published in Italy by Franco Angeli). For most, however, the question is not clear at all.
Although we are in a post-industrial society our economic and management outlook is still very backward and anchored to a vision, rhythm and pace that are typical of industry. Essentially, our mental capacity has not kept pace with reality but our "abstract" vision, which remains outside the time of reality, still exerts a strong influence on us and causes us to miss important opportunities. We would still like to go on using production lines to manufacture products, because we do not understand that this is simply not possible and consider what is actually our real core business - culture, art and tourism - as being merely residual. There is some evidence to indicate the opposite: for example, the marvellous literature festival in Mantua [4] and the philosophers' festival in Modena [5]. Events such as these are attracting growing numbers of people, including at the international level, and all in spite of the manipulatory and mindless trash shown on our TV channels. In short, people are showing that they have previously unsuspected resources that are enabling them to hold their own in a country like Italy that has such an important cultural history and heritage. That said, it is ridiculous that it should take an American to point this out to us but, to quote Jeremy Rifkin again, his last book on the European dream speaks of Europe as the great laboratory of the future, not least in the face of the waning of the American dream, and lists those features of culture and wealth distribution that after so much time are still to be found here in one form or another and enable us to conceive of a better future for mankind.

Part two (2004-10-16)

4. Wrapping and content
The relationship between brand and company brings to mind that period in design history when, thanks to technological development, the outer casing of objects became "unhitched" from their content. When the content of a "writing machine" was transformed from a bundle of levers and mechanical parts (which required the machine to assume a given shape) to an assembly of electronic parts, this implied a choice - and great freedom - for those working on the design of the casing: aesthetic or practical considerations? Fashion or ergonomics? Much of the space inside the casing remained empty because the internal parts had become so much smaller. Even now, the design process of any given object tends to shift, first in one direction and then another. The value of its shape and its content often do not coincide, and yet they are interdependent.
It's strange that the question of intangible assets seems to concern content (the value of the individuals involved in a company) only to be expressed in a declaration of form (a logo without any real support for change in terms of quality and responsibility).

That's interesting, not just in terms of objects but also of companies. It's absolutely amazing to see how little attention companies pay to places nowadays. In the industrial era not just firms but districts too were built for a "mono-functional destination", as Toefler would say. (The latest book by Richard Sennett, "Respect", published in Italy by Il Mulino, is most interesting in this respect).
We need only think of Detroit, Arese or even Ivrea. The last of these is remarkable for the particular care that Adriano Olivetti devoted to the working environment and its ergonomics.
Meanwhile, the aesthetic qualities of objects have undoubtedly become "economically" important in post-industrial society, and here Italy has played a vital role - taking it as given, naturally, that all the technical features are perfect. The Swatch came into being after the Japanese invented a timepiece that was 125 times more precise than we needed. And this is where the "economic difference" comes to depend on whether or not an object is good to look at. The same can be said for the objects made by Alessi or Frau etc (even in the case of a Ducati or a Ferrari we say that they are beautiful as objects, with their speed, at these levels, being considered as a commodity). Their value derives from their aesthetic qualities. Naturally, all of this is understood strategically much better abroad than it is here, but that's par for the course.
Logos can "decline" or cause damage when the underlying fundamentals are missing. I see Parmalat as being a good example, but without going into the details of that dramatic case it is significant to note that when the managing director of a company changes, its share prices go up or down.

5. Emotions and "non-places"
Another question that comes to mind is what Marc Augé calls "non-places": airports, shopping centres, chains of "merchandise" shops, theme parks that "mimic" existing places in other latitudes...
If it is difficult to distinguish between original and induced emotions; if "non-places" exist not just at the level of markets and capital, but also at the existential level; and if unsustainable models have exhausted the planet's possibilities: is the "monetisation" of individual creative value a step nearer to catastrophe or a signal of a major change of direction?

Let's pin our hopes on the second option. Although I think, as we were saying, that with great difficulty, and without too many illusions, people are reacting and seeking greater authenticity. It is as though even those people who are most poorly equipped culturally had had enough of the greed of the market. And as a result, the disaffection that we are finding with advertising and the models it proposes are starting to be "productive" in a human sense. In short, there are signs of "social intelligence" that previously just didn't exist. The market is now attempting to take over these "emotions" or "disaffections", and at any rate to encompass them in monetary terms. There will either be a humanisation of the market or else, naturally, human sentiment will become even more "monetised". I would like to hope that the former will be the case.
The key issue, however, is not the instruments but the models. The arena that deals with models is politics and unfortunately, for several years now, in Europe and much of the rest of the world politics has not been attracting the best minds.

6. Personal and common interests.
In the face of a lengthening timelag in capitalising on our country's intangible heritage and of personal interests that are unwilling to enter into play to achieve common interests, how important is training, or cultural growth, in schools?
It seems to me that although there is fertile ground here (as you too point out, this also emerges from the public's great enjoyment of literature and philosophy festivals), there is a lack of people who are able to imagine and achieve structures and events to support this impetus. As if the timelag in the institutions also existed in recognised activities...

I'm a trainer by profession and for many years now have been working on the training of trainers. So I believe in training. I think that Italy's economic future could benefit greatly from training people who would work on the country's intangible assets.
Naturally, this is much more difficult than training people in office or factory work.
If we consider cultural assets, tourism or festivals, these are all "systematic" activities, which means that training in this sphere is much more complicated.
We need only think of our own personal experiences. If I visit a city and stay in a hotel where I'm treated really well, but then go out to buy a newspaper and the newsagent is rude to me, my "memory" of that trip will no longer be such a good one. So, if I'm planning to train people in this sector, I need to train the newsagent and the staff of the hotel at the same time, and so on. This training model doesn't exist here in Italy...

7. Pre- and post-industrial.
You speak of an "'abstract' vision outside the time of reality" and indeed there is an abyss between the listing of David Bowie in the stock exchange and the production of a theatre show in Italy (anything but a production line, here we're talking about crafts). But this is also one of the features peculiar to Italian and European culture. Our ad hoc way of doing things, our tendency to personalise and aspire to the one-off piece as the highest possible attainment, is both the dramatic, anti-economic problem and at the same time the (intangible) wealth of our culture. In your opinion, what road should we be taking to turn this drama into a story with a happy ending, and this wealth into something more tangible?

Our "uniqueness" comes from our history, the workshops of the renaissance and all the experience that has unfolded over the centuries. There is one thing in particular that we need to re-member: that our skills do not lie just in the hands of designers, but in those of the people handling and having a true feel for their materials. People who work with their hands and know how to make things. These qualities are not "delocalisable", but much more should be made of them. And this is where training has a major role to play.
In Aleph, Borges tells of a barbarian, Droctulft, who rampages down Italy to destroy Ravenna but instead is stopped in his tracks, spellbound by the marbles, the archways, by all of the city's architecture. He is deeply moved by all this and understands that his mind is not even capable of "grasping" all that beauty. At that point, he decides that instead of destroying Ravenna he will lay down his life for it. In short, he dies for something intangible and for him almost incomprehensible. As I said earlier, they have a better understanding abroad of our "uniqueness".it is up to us to translate it into wealth.

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  3. 3] /it/pagine/2008/01/roberto_panzarani.html
  4. 4] http://www.festivaletteratura.it/
  5. 5] http://www.festivalfilosofia.it/festival/Viewer
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A conversation with Roberto Panzarani by Tommaso Correale Santacroce
Index of pages of Argomenti: September 2004 and October 2004.
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Articles by:  Redazione FGB
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