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“WE NEED EXPERTS, BUT AT THE SAME TIME THEY SHOULD BE GENERALISTS.”

An interview with Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Haas, Director of the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Transfer Technologies and Integrated Systems (SITIS), and Oliver Brehm, Director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Innovation and Organization

In an era of digital technology, will people become superfluous one day? Steinbeis experts Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Haas and Oliver Brehm believe strongly that digital transformation will not be possible without people – and that if anything, human factors will actually be central to the success of digital transformation. An essential aspect of this, however, is that companies prepare their employees for the new situation. How, and the role played by staff training concepts in this, was the subject of an interview carried out by TRANSFER with the two experts.

Hello Professor Haas. Digital transformation and the increasing level of convergence between different fields of technology and sectors of industry are considered the most important factors when it comes to Economy X.0. Do you agree with this assessment, and if you do, what challenges and opportunities do you envisage for small and medium-sized enterprises moving forward?

Yes, I do agree with this assessment. And it raises a question for companies: What structural changes will this lead to and how should we deal with them if we want to get transformation to work? Big companies are much better prepared for this than the smaller, medium-sized ones. As an example, I’ll just point to two areas that show the particular challenges SMEs now face: one is staff training and the other is technological advancement. Dealing with these challenges properly could deliver benefits on a number of fronts: more flexible production, quicker turnarounds, and more effective plants in general.

You’re smiling, Mr. Brehm. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely, I agree entirely with Mr. Haas. Although I would say that as a rule you have to look at the fine detail when it comes to Economy X.0. I think I speak for all when I say we prefer to see humans in the product development process as the hidden success factor of digital transformation for small and medium-sized companies. The companies may have limited resources, but they should still get on with their daily business by working with the best of the best; they should safeguard the market viability of existing business models through state-of-the-art technology; and at the same time, they should still develop new business models. That’s going a bit further than just performing a balancing act. Not only that, but at small companies this all affects the same people.

So even in times of digital transformation, people remain the ultimate resource. But lots of employees tend to shy away from the challenges that arise with increasing levels of digital technology. A question for you, Mr. Brehm. What should companies do about this?

Big companies already have their own academies or training concepts, and these are usually matched to long-term HR development. Most SMEs don’t, and they often have little understanding of the fact that staff development should be part of this, as a fixed ingredient of business development. Undergoing further training has not been something that goes without saying. But now, people – not just managers, but also the workforce – are realizing that this has to change. At first they find this quite unsettling. But it’s important that companies take this anxiety seriously and involve people in planning staff training concepts as early on in the process as possible.

In July, we organized a convention on human factors in an era of digitalization, so we took a look at this topic. But if I’m honest we weren’t really surprised at the outcome of the event: Everything is dictated by a balancing act – we need experts, but at the same time they should be generalists. We need to find a way to ensure people communicate on an interdisciplinary level within heterogeneous teams, even if individual team members speak a completely different language. People need to be in a position to work on an abstract level and deal with the sometimes conflicting interests of hard specifications and agile methods – without bumping into things. Some people have lost touch with this willingness to move outside their own comfort zones, inch their way right up to the border, and maybe even strike upon a completely radical new solution. So a culture of staff training needs to develop within companies. But if it does, it has to happen quickly, or it won’t be geared to change. This is one area where I see extremely good opportunities for companies, especially small ones, to score points in the future.

Professor Haas: If companies should be planning their own staff training concepts, will this require managers to possess certain competences? Are they up to it?

Not really, no. But they can bring in help from outside, in the same way they do with financial advisers, legal experts, and classic business management. That said, the idea that they may have to get help from skilled workers trained in teaching skills is a new concept for lots of people. And then comes the next difficulty: Lots of these experts are difficult to find in the market. Until now, teaching skills, or vocational and technical teaching skills, haven’t focused on the stages of personal or working life that people have already been in for years – these people want and indeed should receive training all their lives. For some years now we’ve been looking into the topic of “technical training in an industrial context” because there’s a need to explore this field – not just on a theoretical level but also in practical terms – to be ready for the challenges that are coming.

Mr. Brehm: What methods do you apply when you’re working on a project in the field of HR development and management consulting?

From the many projects we’ve worked on over the last 20 years at our Transfer Center, looking at things like CAD and PLM systems, we’ve developed a method for implementing sustainable change within companies and gaining broad acceptance from employees. We call it smart benchmarking. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an innovation relating to a system, an organization, a process, or a technological innovation – we’ve made our approach so systematic that training, finding solutions, and implementing change is practically in the hands of those people who are affected.

Professor Haas: To what extent is technological progress really a challenge for German business? Haven’t we already been a pioneer in this area for years?

Our pioneering role is not something that can be taken for granted. For example, useful indicators for the ability of a country to innovate are patent registrations and the number of publications. But if you look at these figures in relation to the size of the population, we’re lagging behind in terms of publications compared to other EU countries like Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden and a few others. The share of globally relevant patents is also higher in countries like Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan. And that’s despite the fact that spendings like gross domestic investment in research and development have doubled in business in the last 20 years. So we can’t afford to sit back and wait, we need to do more research, more intensively, at the universities. But for that to work, we need a different overall setup and structural changes at the universities.