An interview with Steinbeis expert Nicola Westermann and Michael Pahl, Innovation and Network Manager at embeteco
As part of a staff training project backed by the state of Lower Saxony through money provided by the European Social Fund (ESF), a team at the Co-Innovation Academy, a Steinbeis Consulting Center, has been working with embeteco to develop a portfolio of services for an efficient project management office (PMO), not only with the aim of supporting cooperative research projects, but also to accompany SMEs during transformation processes by designing and developing data-driven business models. TRANSFER magazine spoke with Nicola Westermann (Steinbeis Consulting Center: Co-Innovation Academy) and Michael Pahl (embeteco) about insights gained during the project, especially when it comes to the culture of learning and training within companies, the importance of this culture to innovation capabilities, and the services that have been developed by the two partners.
Hello Ms. Westermann. Hello Mr. Pahl. For companies, the ability to innovate is more important than ever. The culture of learning and training within the company is becoming more and more important in this respect. In your view, what are the key success factors of a future-oriented culture of learning and training?
Nicole Westermann: A future-oriented culture of learning and training is indispensable for a sustained culture of innovation. Our Innovation Skills training to become an Agile Innovation Manager places emphasis on learning integrated with the workplace and projects. We combine management consulting shared by our innovation experts with needs-based training of the employees based on their own projects at the company. Significant elements of the course are made flexible and can be self-managed by the participants. The most important milestones of the project are determined by the curriculum. We also involve managers at the company, who act as mentors. This allows the companies to directly influence the planning, delivery, and successful completion of projects.
Michael Pahl: A crucial aspect for me in fostering a culture of lifelong learning in companies is strong support from senior management and their active participation. Managers should not only communicate the value of staff development, but also embody and exemplify this themselves by actively accompanying the process, and by acknowledging and appreciating the effort being made through regular feedback. Being actively involved ensures staff training isn’t just seen as a one-off thing, but as a continuous process integrated into everyday work. Managers can serve as role models and demonstrate that lifelong learning and personal development are central to the success of the company.
What role does agility play in this approach?
Pahl: In a world of insecurity and rapid change, agility is a key success factor in dealing with complexity and uncertainty. By accepting uncertainty and having the courage to embrace new ideas and methods, agility fosters an environment that strengthens a company’s ability to innovate. With agile methods, assumptions are treated as a basis of decisions and actions, and at the same time people are encouraged to challenge assumptions and explore them through a process of continual learning and feedback. The decisive factor here is a culture within the organization or innovation processes that sees “wrong” assumptions as insights rather than mistakes. Agility is thus more than a methodical approach; it’s an attitude of being resilient in dealing with continuous change.
How important is the emphasis on practical application to a future-oriented culture of learning and training?
Westermann: It’s absolutely crucial to emphasize practical application, and in principle this applies to all aspects of learning and training. This insight is nothing new, but it’s still not being taken into account enough within the overall continuing education space. We’re convinced that transferring know-how into business practice is a decisive element of a sustained culture of learning and training. It’s why the format of our staff training includes a dedicated project path, from start to finish. Even before the process begins, an individual concept for a project is agreed and coordinated with the company providing the project. In the course of the online training, the employees go through different steps of the project in keeping with their level of knowledge. During the transfer phase, which dovetails with the modules, they complete further project tasks, supported by our experts, and then present and discuss their results at the end of each module. This also goes for developing innovation skills, such as design thinking competences, which can be used to test a product or service that’s been developed, as an actual product with end users, and then iterate it.
Pahl: For me, adopting a practical approach to teaching agile methods like design thinking is indispensable as an element of the long-term teaching of methodological skills. It’s no use to anybody sending staff to design thinking seminars based on fictitious case studies if it’s not possible to dovetail things directly with day-to-day work or tackle the actual challenges faced by the company. Then the skills that are acquired often go unused, or are even forgotten. Those kinds of experiences not only frustrate people, but they also fuel reservations regarding other, similar forms of training. The way I see it, learning on the job raises motivation and methodology skills, and it also heightens a sense of responsibility and entrepreneurial thinking among the people involved.
Is there anything you find particularly important when it comes to your training and the services you offer?
Westermann: As a provider of staff training, we see ourselves as a service provider to the business community. As a result, because the demands faced by companies have changed, both the role and the vocational profile of learning companions must change, as must the formats of staff training. The design of our training is based on the social blended learning methods developed by John Erpenbeck and Werner Sauter, and we’ve developed it to be a perfect match with vocational and corporate training. The learning arrangements still provide staff with structure and orientation, and at the same time they’re an opportunity to use the so-called empowerment framework as a means to solve the challenges of frontline business through personal initiative. This provides certainty, while at the same time supporting the development of a future-oriented culture of innovation and learning within companies. On top of that, it’s also an excellent tool in times of skilled worker shortages, in order to ease the transition of talents into new areas of responsibility – collaboratively, efficiently, and effectively – and help them realize their potential.
A decisive factor for me is that staff training doesn’t end up with concepts being developed or people just doing consulting work for their companies. Instead, employees develop their first, agile, innovative product – end to end – which can be introduced to the market immediately after training. There’s significant benefit in receiving the support of our experts, who incorporate their own experience into the coaching. By the end of the training, developing innovation skills by working on actual company projects produces tangible results and quantifiable value not just for the company, but also for advocates of the projects.
Pahl: For us at embeteco, the co-creative process of enhancing existing business models or developing new ones is a key prerequisite of entrepreneurial success. The services developed for the training project provide us with a systematic perspective on the needs of potential customers. At the same time, skills acquired in the process are then service elements of the developed offerings. Through the services offered by the PMO for parties engaging in collaborative research – i.e. consortium partner searches, funding applications, project management, and workshop facilitation – but also through the range of services for planning and developing data-driven business models, the acquired innovation skills deliver additional value in managing the complexity involved in these projects. This leads to discernible bottom-up motivation, and at the same time it facilitates practical developments in the methodological skills of staff.
The Innovation Skills initiative was funded by the European Social Fund under the German SER program for more developed regions. Funding period: 2014-2020, in keeping with the directive on awarding grants for the vocational promotion of measures under the Further Education in Lower Saxony – Individual Further Education program.
The next round of training to become an Agile Innovation Manager will start on October 9, 2023.
Nicola Eva Westermann (interviewee)
Steinbeis Consulting Center: Co-Innovation Academy (Stuttgart)