Interpersonal communication as a prerequisite for successful intercompany transfer
Connecting and keeping others informed are the most important forms of social interaction. Exchanging ideas with others, sharing what you know, and learning from one another are central components of a successful transfer process. Especially in modern times, with so many different kinds of digital solutions all around us, it’s important that personal communication is not neglected and it must never be forgotten. This is why know-how transfer between companies is also transfer between people. Reiner Lohse of the Göppingen Rural District Association of Economic Development and the Promotion of Innovation explains how this works.
Classic know-how transfer is, by nature, about research and development bodies such as technical universities, traditional universities, and research institutions sharing knowledge regarding topics such as technology, management, or organization with enterprises involved in business. For example, a company may be given expert advice or it takes part in symposia. It is also becoming more and more important that companies share knowledge among themselves and talk about different topics, share know-how, provide support and advice, or form alliances to add value together.
This is where organizations like the Göppingen-based WIF come in. The WIF is a rural district association that promotes economic development and innovation. The Steinbeis project manager Reiner Lohse is the appointed managing director of the WIF, which provides access to innovative services through the Steinbeis Network. The WIF has organized a variety of platforms for promoting bilateral exchange as well as regular workshops. Its services are targeted at different groups within companies and matched to local requirements. Importantly, meetings are always moderated. The work of the WIF has always reflected the importance of exchanging experiences and transferring knowledge between companies, for example on a senior management level but also among specialists and middle managers. To promote its ideas, the WIF formed a variety of entrepreneur and innovation circles, a circle that operates on a regional level, and a project working group.
Its origins go back to 1998 when, based on an initiative started by skilled health workers, it was recognized that a network was needed. Going by the name Health Wave, the common goal was to organize a healthcare trade show to raise the visibility of individual players in the local economy. The trade show was repeated in the same way several times, and was later successfully handed over to a trade fair organizer. The initiative picked up momentum when it participated in the ECOfit funding program in 2005. This program has existed ever since. It is run by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of the Environment, Climate Protection, and the Energy Sector and looks at environmental protection for companies and organizations. Each round lasts around one year so projects under the program have a time limit. An important part of the program consists of between six and eight workshops, mainly for specialists in related areas of business. The events look at various aspects of environmental protection such as energy saving, waste management, the use of water, clean air, etc. Aside from actually sharing knowledge, another important aspect of the workshops comprises speeches aimed at sharing experiences. The whole idea is to learn from one another. After successfully completing their ECOfit project, companies on the program receive a certificate and may call themselves an ECOfit Enterprise. The project was repeated in 2011 and 2018.
Based on previous experience, the 2013 WIF program set up a so-called business circle. This company meet-up acts as a regular, cross-sector convention of business leaders (especially owners), laying a priority on a personal and safe exchange of ideas on the overarching issues of business management. Discussion does not go into individual topics relating to specific companies. The group is invitation-only and new members have to be voted in by existing members. Six meet-ups are organized per year by agreement among the members. A particular emphasis lies in friendly and supportive advice. This usually involves a systematic consulting session in which the members answer questions in turn according to an agreed discussion model. This makes it possible to receive advice on issues relating to business management and other key topics and think up solutions together. The friendly and supportive advice is shared in groups of ten. The idea is for members to come with questions relating to the business, actual problems and certain “cases.”
By comparison, the innovation circle set up in 2016 consists of a group of specialists from companies, so the discussion topics are of a specialized nature. The groups meet up two or three times a year and each meeting revolves around a thought-provoking talk, a debate, and a tour of a business. The participants at the event change considerably due to the length of the members’ list and as a result, there is less emphasis on openness, commitment, and trying to solve problems. Despite this, people also form friendships at this market of opportunity and hear recommendations, which in some instances are followed up by the WIF. There are numerous positive examples of this. There is a further group worth mentioning on a local level, which was formed by neighboring companies in an industrial zone. This strong community has existed for over 30 years and from the very beginning, a culture of mutual support fueled a sense of openness and trust. Although the members of the group are all involved in mechanical engineering and machine construction, they are not competitors and they have enough common interests. The members also organize company walkabouts, resulting in new ideas and an exchange of views.
All of the described groups are moderated by the WIF, which has drafted a list of underlying principles, fundamental effects, and even success factors based on its experience with transfer between companies:
- Group members meet up on a level playing field. Independent of their position at the company, whether a member is a student, business founder, senior manager, or CEO, everyone is welcome to make a contribution and is taken seriously, contributing to the colorful mixture of information. This mixture is extremely beneficial and often results in different ways of looking at things. Innovations are often the result of overlaps between different sectors of industry, technologies, and value chains.
- Self-organization is an overriding principle. Group members participate on a voluntary basis, arranging the schedule and thus the frequency and duration of meetings, topics, the agenda, and how topics are dealt with. The first meeting usually defines whether members want talks, open discussion, or workshops. It’s not possible to force certain results out of meetings. Although meetings are organized by the members, they still need a moderator who helps with preparation, procedures, discussion guides, and documentation of results. A good way to stimulate discussion is to talk about cross-sector or pre-competitive topics.
- The more detail members go into when talking about new insights, exchanging views on technology, or discussing company-specific topics (even confidential ones), the more important it is to provide a “forum of trust.” Trust takes time and has to evolve. If need be, joint activities with an emphasis on leisure make it easier to get to know one another and explore and deepen areas of overlap. As well as trust, further important ingredients of successful partnership are commitment, a willingness to open up, openness regarding personal topics, honest feedback for others, and an atmosphere that allows for critical questioning.
- It is important to focus on the potential offered by the group and make good use of this so that members can offer each other mutual support but also profit from this themselves (adding value). If there are knowledge gaps resulting in an imbalance, this will not work in the long term. There needs to be a potential win-win situation.
- In addition to meeting everyone, members need to take the opportunity to forge direct (bilateral) contacts with others.
- Every group is different and the experiences of one group cannot necessarily be transferred to other groups.
Reiner Lohse is the managing director of WIF GmbH (the Rural District Association of Economic Development and the Promotion of Innovation, Göppingen) and director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Technology and Innovation Management, Göppingen District. The WIF supports and advises local companies in the rural district of Göppingen on topics relating to innovation.