An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur Wolfgang Müller
Wolfgang Müller has been an active member of the Steinbeis Network for over 30 years and is passionate about networking. Working through his three Steinbeis Enterprises, he helps SMEs become members of networks and form networks themselves. In an interview for TRANSFER magazine, Müller describes how networking can be made to succeed and the benefit companies stand to gain from networks – especially SMEs.
Hello Mr. Müller. How are networks formed, and when in your view can a network be described as successful?
In principle, there are two ways to become part of a network: Either there’s a network out there already for you to join, or you set up a new one. If you want to become an integral part of a network that already exists, you have to do your homework and find out if it offers what you’re looking for. If you set up a network yourself, you have to ascertain which topics it should cover, who you’ll be joining forces with, and whether you can trust them. This is because networks are about trust.
If you organize a network and put in more money than you get out of it, it’s a bad deal. With a successful network, all members participate more than they pay in. You usually spot this, because people enjoy it and are successful. Among other things, success is reflected in the fact that you achieve a defined goal at a certain point in time. This contrasts with networks that are purely about information, which are a success if information flows properly. Another sign of an effective network is that individual members are successful. Although in my view, the most important outcome of networking is that information of value is exchanged. This immediately translates into know-how that’s essential for business decisions.
The scale of a network is also of central importance to its success. If there are only two of you, it’s like you’re married or it’s collaboration, but it’s not a network. On the other hand, if a network has 500 members it’s impossible to know everyone. In such situations, there’s no basis of trust for business processes to keep going. If you have 30 members, some of whom you might have known for years, you can gain a feel for people and work out how to assess information. In turn, the value this offers is an indication of the success of a network. So I tend to advocate working in smaller networks.
How does forming and working in networks fit in with your Steinbeis Enterprise work?
We set up a lot of networks on a project basis, by which I mean we have a specific task at hand and try to bring people together so we can work together on a project. The advantage with temporary networks is that there’s a defined finishing point, and this is a good basis for judging if you’ve achieved your objectives. When we initiate networks, we usually also manage them. It’s like a fishing net: There are knots, joins, and sometimes things get a bit dilapidated. When they do, you need someone to repair them and provide help. Or we set up networks with customers we’ve known for a long time and enjoy a relationship of trust with. And in networks like the Steinbeis Network or the DTI – the German Association for Technology Transfer and Innovation – we’re partners, so we give and take.
Quite a lot of your customers are SMEs. What do they stand to benefit from the networking philosophy, and what influence does digital transformation have on this?
One of the features of an SME is that management’s basically responsible for everything – sales, material procurement, and so on. So they neither have the people nor the time to run a network, let alone several networks. It’s a shame, because networks provide information. The way to solve this is to find a network that’s able to provide the company with exactly the information it needs – but also the other way around: a network the company can provide input to, within a very short time, that’s of benefit to the others. Clearly, digital transformation is of benefit in this regard, because it allows people to communicate quickly and store knowledge.
Most networks offer benefit, but they also entail risk. What sort of things do companies need to be particularly careful about?
As with any business process, there’s a risk that information might be disseminated. For example, if there’s a rumor that a company’s not doing well at the moment and it disseminates through the network – a point comes when it harms the business. If there’s no basis of trust, there’ll be problems.
When you start a network, it’s crucial that there’s harmony within the team that sets it up. If it’s like a never-ending battlefield, nobody will enjoy it. Networks have to be designed in such a way that they can actually be run properly from a project management point of view. If they get too demanding for the project managers, they won’t work. To overcome these issues, it has to be clear from the outset who’s going to do what, invest which resources, and at what cost.
Networks aren’t organized along hierarchical lines. What does that mean for decision-making and governance?
That brings us on to the topic of democracy. Democratic structures are important for networks – you’re allowed to make suggestions or vote, and you don’t have to agree with everyone on everything. Imagine you have a network consisting of nothing but dominant people – it would be difficult to work out a structure that will keep everyone happy. If there’s no democracy, you get one or two leaders and the rest just join them. That’s not what I’d call a successful network.
What does it mean to you to be a member of the Steinbeis Network, and what benefit do you gain from it?
The Steinbeis Network is very special. I’ve not seen anything like it over the last 33 years. It comprises small, self-sufficient units that are specialized in different fields. Of course, I don’t know every individual Steinbeis Enterprise, but that doesn’t matter – ultimately, what matters is that there are ways for me to get to know them, and that I can do that in the shortest possible time. So over the years, I’ve succeeded in establishing close and lasting relationships with many Steinbeisers, but also with temporary contacts just for one project.
Wolfgang Müller (interviewee)
Steinbeis Transfer Center: Economy, Start-Up, Commune (Villingen-Schwenningen) | www.steinbeis.de/en/su/0054 | www.steinbeis-innovativ.de
Steinbeis Transfer Center: Infothek (Villingen-Schwenningen) | www.steinbeis.de/en/su/252 | www.steinbeis-infothek.de
Steinbeis Innovation Center Know-How+Transfer (Villingen-Schwenningen) | www.steinbeis.de/en/su/1280 | www.siz-wt.de