In May 2022 Petr Štros gave an interview to
CIO Business World telling what's in the store at Cleverlance.
Since 2019, Cleverlance has been part of a group of technology companies united under the Aricoma brand. The original plans were that you would build a large international organization, ready for expansion into foreign markets. How is this vision being fulfilled?
This is a huge and key topic for us.
The goal of making the company a European technology supplier has not changed at all. We are standing on the threshold of great things, of which Cleverlance will be a significant part.
What does building a European supplier mean to you?
There are a lot of American and Asian providers on the market but really big European players are missing.
Do you mean with the EU flag?
No, with the European flag. We want to have the flag of Europe, but to do business worldwide, to be proud that we are from Europe. In the United States, for example, Europe is still considered a mark of quality, so why not take advantage of that? Today we are at the beginning of our European journey. There are currently around three and a half thousand of us in Aricoma, we want to grow at least threefold, only then will we be big enough to operate in the European context. For me personally, it is interesting to take part in it, to give meaning and contours to the expansion. The target customer is Europe, it is our home address, we certainly will not even resist exporting our services to other continents.
Why is it so important for the growth of a company to be part of a large international group?
Our business is connected to digitization, which has two parts – customer and delivery. The delivery part is problematic all over the world due to the lack of people who would be able to deliver all the required services within the framework of digitization. It is no longer possible to do it with just one company from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
That is why we are part of Aricoma and why we opened branches in Germany and Spain. We need to expand our options. But even there, of course, we have problems finding skilled people at a reasonable price who will fit into our company culture. And we need a lot of them.
Many of our potential customers in Europe and around the world are really large and as such expect their partners and suppliers to be large companies as well. Cleverlance, even though we are huge with a thousand employees, is not big enough for them. Big companies simply don't like small ones, so Aricoma's size, when it grows to the strength of at least ten thousand employees, will be a springboard for us to new large international customers.
So you're finally delivering on the strategy Cleverlance was founded with? That it will be a company that will primarily serve the foreign market.
Those were the original assumptions. But after the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000, we had to reorient ourselves to the Czech market. After a while Czech clients started asking us to go abroad with them on international projects. So we went beyond the borders again. We started to rebuild our positions on the German market. But nothing will ever change about the fact that the domestic market has become key for us and we'll never leave it, nor our Czech clients.
Which foreign markets do you prefer?
We are starting in Germany, we already have offices in Munich with salesmen and technicians, now we are trying Austria and eventually we will go to Switzerland. These countries suit us best with their mentality.
How does Spain, where you opened offices in April, fit into the expansion?
Because we are looking for a solution to the critical talent shortage problem, and in addition to expanding our reach, we need English-speaking people. We looked around Europe and found an ideal place in Valencia that offers thousands of technically educated university students every year at a reasonable price, so it was an obvious choice for us. Let's hope it goes well. We want to have 20 people there within six months and 100 within a year, thereby starting a major expansion into Europe. Our goal is also tenders from the European Union.
But it is not easy to get such tenders. You have to go through a series of checks and tests, sign a framework contract with the European Union.
That's right, we've already gone through all that and we've been officially promised that we'll be one of the 8 companies that will sign such a contract with the European Commission. The contract will set barriers for the supply of services, people or technology for any European company that falls under the European Commission. The contract is for five years and the amount of money contracted is huge.
And this is also possible only because we are in ARICOMA Group, because one of the monitored elements was of course our size and stability, which Cleverlance alone would not be enough for, although our knowledge and capabilities are.
So that contract gives you automatic access to European Commission contracts?
No, it gives us the opportunity to participate in tenders for contracts from the European Commission, we will be able to apply for contracts in competition with the other seven companies that also have this framework contract. For the fact that we are actually only a Czech company in quotation marks, this is a phenomenal success.
What are your expectations for the impact on Cleverlance?
We expect our turnover to triple at least within those five years.
Of course, we would grow even without the contract with the European Commission, but not nearly as fast.
Cleverlance is establishing itself very much in the digital economy service. What do you think is the situation in this area?
The world simply needs #digitization or #digitaltransformation, it doesn't matter what buzzword we call it. For now, as a world, we are only in the initial phase of the next act of the digital future.
Undoubtedly, we need tools to build a digital environment that allows us to acquire and use data, communicate with third parties, and then work with all that knowledge. But there are so many of them that it is simply not humanly possible to process them all. Therefore, tools are created to process them, which tell you what you should do on the basis of this data, how you should behave, what to buy, what to sell... But even with automatic data processing, you are soon overwhelmed by the reduced outputs. There's just too much.
And what can be done about it?
Change the approach completely. From an attitude of machines telling us what to do, you need to move to a system that offers advice on how to do better what you think is good for your business.
Therefore, you or your systems must learn to take only the one tiny particle that interests you from the processed #data and continue to work with it. In a week you can take another part and alternate it as needed. As a customer, you have to put yourself at the center of your data and only get what you need and want, not be overwhelmed by the volume.
Today, however, it still essentially does not work that way. When that time comes, it will be very interesting. We want to be both a data platform supplier and a user when the system recognizes the customer's feelings in advance and offers him exactly what he needs.
What do you mean by that feeling? Do you mean his current business need?
No, needs can already be found and satisfied by today's artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms. But recognizing those feelings will be more girlish for the AI, we are only very slowly heading down a very difficult path there. No one even knows yet how to incorporate such an ability into algorithms. First, AI has to really be AI, and then all these things can be incorporated into it. The question is also whether AI will ever really reach a state where it will be intelligent.
What limits it today?
Mainly hardware, when there are quantum computers, we will be in a different situation. Today we are really at the beginning of this journey.
And thanks to Aricoma, we can embark on that journey and work to create the future. Because the future of the digital economy does not end with building a platform for smart intelligence. An additional layer of blockchain will be needed on top of the AI layer.
How does blockchain fit into this?
I'm not talking about cryptocurrencies, those are completely out of the question. I am referring to pure blockchain technology, which itself offers a safe, unassailable and trustworthy space. Trust is key in business, and so will blockchain in the future. And we are gradually trying to make these technologies available to our customers in the future.
How are you trying?
We have our own blockchain research department where we test our stuff. It's really pure research, classic blockchain science. It is still early for practical use, it will take years. But without science, the future would not come. We are a technology company, and this is exactly the field for us.
When we talk about artificial intelligence, the European Union wants to regulate it in a fundamental way. How do you look at it?
Now, if we set some frameworks for AI behavior, it's not entirely out of the question. I think that is correct, but it depends on the size of the playing field that the EU wants to define. It's a hard nut to crack, because we can't see into the future, it's hard to build future guardrails. If the playing field is too small, we won't be very competitive, if it's too big, there won't really be any regulation and it could happen that the whole thing gets over our heads.
Will Skynet or the Matrix come?
I don't believe that AI will take over us, but it can go over our heads. We're not going to like that anymore, so we have to have some way to stop it. Let me give you an example for drivers - if you drive aggressively, such an overpowered AI will conclude
that you are dangerous to the environment and will stop you at every traffic light you meet on the road. Even if you calm down and drive sensibly, he will still run a red light just out of inertia, because you were simply a risky driver. You won't like that. Therefore, it is necessary to have the rules set in advance, and I note that I am not a fan of regulations. But in this area, you can't rely on everyone to self-regulate.
But won't such rules limit the competitiveness of European companies?
I think the whole world will follow us in this, just like for example with GDPR. Everyone feared it as the scourge of mankind, and in the end nothing really happened.