An interview with Frank Graage, director of the Steinbeis Research Center Technology Management North East
If networks are to be a success, what’s the best way to manage them? What benefits does this bring about – and what risks? TRANSFER posed these and other questions to the Steinbeis entrepreneur Frank Graage, who knows networks from his own first-hand experience.
Hello, Mr. Graage. One of the main areas of work at your Steinbeis Enterprise is EU research, plus innovation projects, especially when it comes to management. An essential element of this is how to form and run networks. Why are networks so important to European collaboration?
The companies and research institutions in our region often lack professional partners with specific expertise. This can be found in other European regions. So one of the priorities is granting access to knowledge and technology, and allowing people to get to know potential clients and partner regions. Networks keep contacts going over time, and connections can be kept in place even after a project has finished. This strengthens international visibility and makes it easier to kick off subsequent projects, since it’s no longer necessary to start from scratch and work out which partners to work with or what different development goals people are working to. It also helps minimize barriers, whether they relate to languages, different cultures, or structural factors. As a member of the Enterprise Europe Network, we’re in a good position to match up people who are new to European collaboration. We can pre-filter contacts and contact requests from other countries. This is particularly helpful for really small SMEs, which don’t have the resources to look after their contacts in such networks on top of their everyday activities.
Networks have been a fixed part of everyday business for a long time. But with the current trends of globalization, the increasingly rapid rate of technological advance, and the breakneck speed of information exchange, networks have to be more and more flexible. What impact does this have on companies? And what role does professional network management have to play in this?
Network management comes in various shapes and sizes. It depends a lot on the aims of a network and the structure of its members. With more technology-oriented innovation groups, we see network management as a way to recognize different opportunities, and it should facilitate communication with the different parties in the network so they can quickly react together to new developments.
The role of network managers is thus not just to look after the administrative side of things but also – or mainly – to pinpoint trends in a sector of industry or between different sectors of industry. Their specialist reference points are then the experts in the network.
With networks there are not just benefits, they also entail a whole host of expenditures and risks. That’s nothing new. But what do you see as the main risks posed to individual companies?
Compared to the benefits that can be enjoyed from a network, there are far fewer risks. Even if you do perceive certain risks, another thing you can say is that networks actually help to minimize risk because collaborative approaches allow lots of different parties to become involved. People can spot potential errors together. They can also bear the risks on many shoulders. The way I see it, the challenge with such networks is to ensure that they don’t lose their focus, by which I mean the jointly defined purpose of the network. Each company has to occupy an unmistakable position and make its interests clear. There are lots of reasons to network, like an interest in gaining access to know-how, or new applications, or partners for development. Or a firm may want to enhance its reputation. One thing that’s important is that people keep an open mind about the aims of a network and that they adjust to developments. As with any kind of relationship, these relationships have to be looked after, and it takes communication to ensure the network won’t break down.
Your Steinbeis Enterprise doesn’t just help other companies to set up and manage networks, it’s also an active member of these networks itself. If I could play devil’s advocate, do you ever get any work done?
If you’re a service provider, networking is part of the job. There are research and development partners who are happy to help provide the service because we take care of coordinating the specialist tasks carried out by all the different people and take the load off their shoulders when it comes to organizing things and administrative tasks. We have a saying for this: You do the research, we take care of the rest. For us, networking is a bit like taking care of collaboration, defining topics, finding funding, supporting others with finding partners, moderation, and organizing groups.
We are and always have been an advocate of the Steinbeis Network. It’s really easy to kick off collaboration with Steinbeis colleagues. For example, I successfully applied for a major consulting project in Tunisia with three Steinbeis Enterprises and we pulled it on board and implemented it. We still exchange notes about new developments and possible shared projects. Coordinating this has always been fun for me, although I’m aware that deriving satisfaction from a coordination function also depends a lot on your personality. At the moment I’m closely involved in a project with the new Steinbeis Consulting Center “Ressource Management.” We’re setting up a ZIM network for an integrated, multitechnology application for bioeconomics and renewable energy. Linking up the different value chains will probably make the individual technologies easier to market. We can’t say more about it at the moment, but the network will help companies access new application areas.
The pace of economic innovation has accelerated significantly, resulting in hyper-competition. What can company networks do to support their members with the challenges they face – at home and abroad?
One thing we’re noticing is that it’s becoming more and more important to work across all sectors of industry. The opportunities presented by such technology systems, which is what some people call this, are something that can be exploited by introducing new business models. Networks can play an important role in promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, and they help develop new business models for working together. I believe this is where network management has a broader role to fulfill. The conventional setup with transfer partners from business and research is typically industry-specific. This makes it necessary to cast industry sights in different directions and look at other key players. To solve this, depending on the type of technology this has to be approached across different regions or internationally.
Take for example the technology needed to achieve environmental sustainability – in global terms we’re way ahead when it comes to experience. This is where networks and network managers have a role to play in ensuring international transfer takes place and the new technology systems function. In global terms, the conditions in Germany are not extreme either in terms of the environment or population growth, so the areas applications can be used in and the potential offered by knowledge and technology are relatively limited. In other countries the climate and socio-economic conditions offer much greater market potential, and this needs tracking.
Frank Graage is director of Technology Management North East, a Steinbeis Research Center. His Steinbeis Enterprise offers its customers support with the management of EU research and innovation projects in the fields of health care, biotechnology, environmental technology and renewable energy, consulting and coaching on internationalization and innovation management, seminars and training courses on applying for EU funding, the management and application of research findings, and gaining access to partners through the Enterprise Europe Network and the Baltic Sea network ScanBalt.