An interview with Dr.-Ing. Jürgen Jähnert, managing director of bwcon GmbH
TRANSFER magazine asked Dr.-Ing. Jürgen Jähnert, the managing director of bwcon, an enterprise in the Steinbeis Network, why transfer between companies is becoming more and more important as a process, especially with regards to digital transformation.
Hello Dr. Jähnert. Most people you ask about knowledge and technology transfer think first about transfer between companies and research institutions, but they don’t really think about company-tocompany transfer. Why do you think that is?
We’re currently seeing a trend toward lots of companies moving away, step by step, from mainly product-centric thinking and action, and replacing it with thinking and action in product-service systems, socalled hybrid bundles, and often this shifts the process of adding value into after sales. In essence, their thinking isn’t new but for lots of companies it’s a major challenge, especially those that owe their success as an enterprise to their focus on innovative products. Given this, the topics of knowledge and technology transfer need to be reconsidered or redeveloped. This is because the interplay between research institutions and companies has worked brilliantly in Germany until now, mainly by focusing on specialist disciplines. But we now face an extremely rapid convergence process involving different types of technology and more often than not, this is making it possible to add value in different ways. As a result, because value chains are normally linear, usually with clearly distributed roles, it’s becoming necessary to think in terms of value chain networks. It’s perfectly feasible for companies that basically compete against each other to collaborate every now and again. This is the exact area where transfer – and I’m consciously not saying technology transfer – will become more important between companies. In addition to transferring technology between companies, experience with corporate culture and value models will be transferred, as will knowledge. This means that companies will need a certain ability to be open; they’ll need a re-engineering process and this will provoke resistance, especially among traditional companies. Public funding programs are also not sufficiently prepared for such multidisciplinary approaches. Too often, multidisciplinary thinking is taken to mean using different technologies; it’s not enough about involving different specialist cultures. As a result, the multidisciplinary transfer that does happen will first revolve around transfer between business enterprises. In the medium term, it’s perfectly possible that the pure technology projects of the EU, federal government, and individual states also start to look at scientific issues related to the humanities. That said, we’ve not got that far yet.
Why is transfer between companies especially beneficial to small and medium-sized businesses?
Small and particularly new companies are agile and adaptable, and they’re in a position to react quickly to different market conditions. Bigger firms, but also smaller, established companies, have fixed processes and they often have a different (better) way of looking at quality – and they’re in a much, much better position to enjoy economies of scale, and this makes products in a global market more appealing and, ultimately, more successful. Building value creation networks – with several smaller companies from different areas, that think in agile terms and work together on new services or new combinations of products and services – will become more and more important in the future. Continuous growth in the platform economy makes it possible to approach global markets in a really short space of time. Logically speaking, this also means that the competition will be knocking on your door much more quickly with its own services. If you keep thinking through this process, the cycles within which products or product-service bundles are successfully launched in the market will become increasingly shorter. So it’s the small and medium-sized enterprises that have to be at an advantage here, together in networks, assuming they have a culture that’s open to such ideas. Whatever happens, lots of different options will open up for such alliances or value creation networks in the near future.
What do you think are the challenges when transferring knowledge and technology between companies? And what are the differences here compared to transfer between companies and the scientific community?
The economy can still be described as excellent at the moment, although there are one or two indications that things are slowing down in terms of industrial workload. At such times, companies often become a bit sluggish in terms of underlying thinking and action. Digital transformation means that companies will have to think differently. But to do this, not only do they have to be open and prepared to think in terms of value creation networks; often a different company culture is needed. “Power and control” will be replaced by “let them get on with it” and “collaboration,” which also means you need a different error culture, maybe a different management culture, but in any case a different approach to the topic of technology transfer. It will still be imperative that emerging technologies are transferred into companies in the future. But I’m certain that this won’t be enough to safeguard the success of companies, not like it has been until now. Another important factor will be an ability to leverage several different technologies that work together as part of a process of convergence, and these technologies will need to find new ways to add value. Thinking in completely new ways and getting a traditional company into disruptive value creation means, first and foremost, overcoming resistance within the company and getting people to sign on to a transformation process. This isn’t about using the right technology, it’s a question of the key players in the company knowing their own organization so well that they can motivate their colleagues to adopt the new way of thinking. This is because creative innovation processes are not something the senior people at the company can prescribe. At this stage you would also expect lots of new collaborative relationships to spring up between different companies. And then the question is how the companies or the people involved in their processes will interact with one another.
Coming back to your question. Companies, no matter whether they’re big or small, need strategies that define how they will deal with the challenges of digital transformation, including issues relating to intercompany transfer. They also need the entrepreneurial courage to systematically implement these strategies. Transfer between firms on the one hand, and science and academia on the other, is generally easier for a company. There’s less work to do in terms of the company culture so the business is under less pressure to change itself.
What will intercompany transfer be like in the future? And what role will omnipresent digital transformation play?
Digital transformation will still be an extremely uncomfortable experience for a large number of companies – especially when new market players virtually appear out of nowhere in a traditional market and burst in with a disruptive value model. By then, at the latest, companies will need to have left their comfort zone and adopted new ways of thinking about things. Often there will be little time by then to do much about the situation. Digital transformation is leading to a new pact between young, agile, and smaller firms and the bigger companies already established on the market. It will be especially interesting to see how and in what ways the big companies deal with small companies. In essence though, you have to say that these change processes aren’t exactly new – every new technology has had the potential to cause a certain degree of disruption until now. Digital transformation is nothing more and nothing less than a catalyst for a further transformation process that opens an amazing door to opportunity for lots of companies. But only the agile, quick, and creative ones. What we’ll see are agile value creation networks – loose alliances between companies who collaborate as befits the situation in order to quickly get back to competing with one another again. We’ll find there are firms implementing some parts of their strategies within the company and other parts of their strategies with other companies. In the medium term, we’ll need to focus more on interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary issues, even in research. Also, digital transformation is forcing companies to think about their workforces’ fear of the future, change management, new forms of value creation, and their own corporate culture. When a country like Germany, which is so passionate about technology, starts believing it can only solve the challenges of the future through technical competence, you find yourself in a dead end. So traditional technology transfer will be rethought and redesigned. In other words, cutting-edge technology is “only” crucial at the moment, but it’s no longer enough for securing business success in the long term.