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“Interpersonal factors should not be underestimated”

An interview with Dr. habil. Gernot Barth and Bernhard Böhm, directors of the Steinbeis Consulting Centers for Mediation of Business in Leipzig and Vienna

The intercompany transfer process usually revolves around the sharing of knowledge and technology. Dr. habil. Gernot Barth and Bernhard Böhm explain why communication and even emotions are also important in the process and how any conflicts that arise in the process can be resolved.

Hello Dr. Barth, hello Mr. Böhm. When you think about knowledge and technology transfer between companies, and business mediation, the two topics don’t immediately seem to have much in common, but in what ways are they connected?

Barth: With knowledge and technology transfer, the channels of communication are often extremely complex. Of course the main priority is to share knowledge and information, but as it is often the case with processes like this, interpersonal aspects such as trust, fairness, communication, and appreciation are also important. Also, company cultures can be completely different. So one thing that can happen if there’s no moderation with transfer projects is that there’s conflict and things start to escalate. This is where business mediation can be helpful. This can be prophylactic, in parallel to the process, or when something actually blows up.

Böhm: I think you also have to think about what happens when there’s “unwanted” knowledge-sharing, for example with a joint venture. Companies often become embroiled in lengthy legal processes, and this pushes their attempts to move closer to the actual goal – of working together on new innovations and markets – into the distant future. This is where it really makes sense to enter mediation because it helps find quick solutions for both parties. But whatever the circumstances, it’s recommended that both parties bring in patent attorneys. That said, a business mediator can provide help and guidance with procedural aspects, and this helps identify more integrated approaches than if you get involved in confrontational negotiations in court or between legal departments.

Conflict has been around for as long as human beings have trodden this Earth. There’s conflict in all areas of life with others, so it’s also encountered in intercompany transfer. What’s the best way to deal with conflict, and what are the particular challenges you face?

Böhm: The first step is to get everyone to agree to bring in help from outside and establish a level of trust with a mediator. Then of course it’s important that the different parties involved in the process meet up personally and talk. I know this sounds trivial but the thing is that people involved in these kinds of processes communicate in different ways. In practice, this is usually the biggest challenge. The challenge is to articulate concerns, goals, and expectations in such a way that the “other side” understands them and can respect them, and this makes it possible to find a viable and lasting solution.

This then provides a basis for a functioning relationship, and with knowledge and technology transfer the idea is to just get a relationship up and running to solve the actual tasks. When the mediation meetings happen, all the different people might start talking about their expectations of the specific transfer process. What’s important is that everyone who’s involved in the process takes part in this. One particular challenge is getting the communication process to work beyond the hierarchies that are in place or beyond people’s allegiances to the different companies. So it’s perfectly normal for things to get quite tense in these situations – especially if the different companies around the table are actually competitors or have different cultures like universities, research bodies, corporations, and SMEs. What’s important then is that on a communication level, everything is kept as transparent and fair as possible. Another important tool of the trade for mediators is that they don’t get pulled in by one side or the other, but remain impartial and neutral.

Barth: In the same way, fear and power games also play an important role in intercompany knowledge-sharing. From our experience, the fear of losing out on something or existential fears are not brought to the surface in business; if anything it’s taboo to talk about them because it might come across as looking like you admit you have a weakness. A lack of recognition that something is your “own know-how” could also be important. The emotions are there, but they’re under the surface, and they dictate how people behave. You often notice this in a line of argument that seems irrational, but they’re based on a deep-seated motive that stems from people’s emotions. These kinds of situations are a rich breeding ground for a spiraling escalation of conflict in which different scenarios can develop based on diverging opinions, and this hampers knowledge-sharing.

Of course there’s also knowledge transfer within companies when, for example, somebody leaves the company or a team is reorganized. The question that then arises is which knowledge should be shared with whom. A decisive factor in such situations is implicit expertise and how this affects the successful continuation of a business. This is also where a mediator can stand alongside a team or individual workers to provide explanations or moderate.

Intercompany transfer brings together different people with a broad spectrum of specialist knowledge. To mediate between these people, do you sometimes need shared knowledge from other (Steinbeis) companies?

Barth: Of course, we spend quite a bit of time preparing for consulting projects. Our networks, experts, and specialists are really important to us in this. They come from different areas and we’ve spent the last ten years building up our network. Looking specifically at the Steinbeis Network, we’d actually like to exchange even more ideas in this area.

Böhm: It’s generally an advantage if mediators have a good overview of the way things work in a certain sector of industry and they’re prepared for any potential conflicts that could flare up. That said, we’ve also found that it can be helpful if the person doing the mediation can stand back and look at things from the outside in. The mediator is, so to say, unencumbered when it comes to sectors of industry, structures, or actual subject matter. Often the fact that the mediator has to keep asking questions brings up some unexpected ways of looking at things and different approaches for the people involved.

With advancing levels of digital transformation and the trend toward Industry 4.0, knowledge and technology transfer between companies is becoming more and more important to business. What impact will that have on your work as mediators and consultants?

Barth: The world of mediation also keeps coming back to the possibilities of so-called online mediation. We see the development of online tools for use in mediation as a positive thing. We were already looking at the technical feasibilities of online mediation five years ago as part of an EU project, and we’ve done some pioneering work in this area in Germany. Five years ago, one of the difficulties we encountered was the unreliable nature of broadband internet connections. There’s been so much criticism about the slow rate at which the broadband network has expanded that even in Germany things are now much better in terms of technology. Of course, videoconferencing technology has also moved on and it doesn’t use up so much capacity. This is a really important technology for business mediation. So using digital media will become more and more important in the future, especially for consulting projects, coaching, and mediation processes. We’re really sure of this.

Böhm: Of course for a mediator, it’s important to ensure that processes run smoothly and there are no interruptions when you’re solving conflicts, which is a really sensitive time. This will need to be practiced and rehearsed. You also have to think the whole time about confidentiality issues. Even if a lot of communication and knowledge-sharing now takes place through the internet – for example with the support of wikis – you mustn’t underestimate interpersonal factors. Conflicts that were originally triggered by emotions owe their existence to the nature of human beings, and this is also reflected in interpersonal communication.


Dr. habil. Gernot Barth and Bernhard Böhm are directors of the Steinbeis Consulting Centers for Mediation of Business in Leipzig and Vienna. Their Steinbeis Enterprises specialize in dealing with conflicts, mainly within companies, but also collaborative projects involving more than one company or public bodies/government administration. They also help managers and their co-workers in situations of conflict by providing conflict coaching and supervision.

PD Dr. habil. Gernot Barth
Steinbeis Consulting Center for Mediation of Business (Leipzig)

RA Bernhard Böhm
Steinbeis Consulting Center for Mediation of Business (Vienna)