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“The issues with skilled workers are more of a threat to innovation than the lack of time”

An interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Thomas Ritz, entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics

Innovation at SMEs: Theoretically, the millions of small companies in Germany should be predestined to come up with disruptive ideas. They are near to customers, they have flat hierarchies, and they have quick decision-making. In practice, innovation projects run into walls caused by time-consuming everyday business and, in particular, the shortage of skilled workers. Professor Dr.-Ing. Thomas Ritz at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics has been considering how digital transformation could also help SMEs free up space to engage in innovation.

Hello Professor Ritz. Your Steinbeis Enterprise sees itself as a provider of innovation services and an extended workbench for SMEs. What exactly do you mean by that?

The SME sector in Germany is tremendously productive and innovative. But companies often focus on the day-to-day business, so they struggle to accommodate big transformation topics such as digitalization. Another difficulty they have is coming at multi-faceted transformation issues from different angles. We see ourselves as an extended innovation department, so we’re like a workbench for medium-sized companies. We work alongside these companies and look at innovation issues from different angles.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles when it comes to sharing know-how and technology with SMEs?

Obviously one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of time. What we often find is that SMEs are extremely eager to innovate, but ultimately they lack time, and also they lack inspiration regarding what exactly constitutes a new or profound paradigm shift. As business terms, “transformation” and “change” are omnipresent at the moment. But often the underlying thinking is fuzzy. We also use the projects we work on together to inject momentum and offer medium- to long-term prospects. I’d like to explain what I mean by that by using the example of digital transformation again. Actually, we’ve been digitalizing companies since the 1970s, by adding “little bits” of digitech to the things those companies were already doing. The focus in the past lay in improving the efficiency of existing processes. But as a paradigm, digitalization is about much more than that. So, for example, when a new business model comes along and suddenly lays bare information that was previously inaccessible, it unsettles the previous way of thinking. This is where we input with new ideas, to allow the companies to draw on their own experience and values – and work out where they stand on such issues. Transformation projects often touch on social trends, but they’re not part of the core business at companies. So we also bring that viewpoint to the table.

For a long time, you’ve been working with innovative and interactive systems used in information logistics. What developments do you think have had the most lasting impact on this area?

The way I see it, there were two trends that became the main drivers of innovation in interactive systems in the last 15 years. One is networking, which is possible these days thanks to internet technologies. We can basically connect everything with everything these days. The other trend is the way interactive systems have found their way into lots of different areas and many levels of society. The advent of smartphones means that interacting with machines is no longer niche know-how, but quite normal. As a result, we’re now fairly accustomed to connected systems; they’re seen as simple and convenient. Instead, we wonder why interacting with machines is so easy in our private lives, and why when it comes to the work environment the thinking behind lots of applications still somehow got stuck around the time of the new millennium. In the area our Steinbeis Transfer Center works in, we focus on coming up with interactive systems that ultimately achieve a high level of innovation, but also gain good user acceptance.

What are the issues that occupy SMEs at the moment, and in what ways can your Steinbeis Enterprise help them with those issues?

SMEs are dealing with all of the transformation issues we currently see in society. So for example there are mobility issues, and they don’t just affect companies working in the traditional vehicle-making sector. Travel is now taken for granted, but it’s also undergoing major upheaval. And then SMEs are worried about energy issues. The focus at our Steinbeis Transfer Center lies in the innovations or the changes that will come about as a result of digital transformation. Time and time again you realize that digital transformation offers tremendous opportunities – something that was really amplified by the coronavirus pandemic – but also, it restricts you. We’re currently entering a much better play area for discussing these topics, because digital transformation has resulted in a wealth of experience with innovations – much more so than before the pandemic. So in those terms, we can also make innovation processes much more participatory, because more people have now experienced these things – good and bad.

Your services also include consulting on innovation. Do SMEs even have time to look into this right now, with one crisis following in the tracks of the other?

I’ve already described this lack of time as a general problem among SMEs. It’s important that we in Germany have funding frameworks that allow us to work alongside SMEs in driving innovation. Funding programs can be used to give SMEs more time. It’s not as if SMEs aren’t open to the idea of working on innovations. Because they have the right structures in place – structures that are pragmatic and involve less admin – often one of the defining features of SMEs is their ability to make innovations happen really quickly. The current crises could be an opportunity; they highlight the issues we need to pay more attention to. The prosperity we enjoy mustn’t be taken for granted.

Another big problem, besides lack of time, is finding the right people to work on innovation projects at companies. In times of skilled worker shortages, this sounds a bit like an overused statement. But with innovation projects, you really need experienced people who are also willing and able to look to the future – and have the competence to think about technical, legal, ethical, and other aspects. The intense crises at the moment show that the issues with skilled workers are more of a threat to innovation than the lack of time.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Ritz (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics (Aachen)