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Agile Work, Innovation Trends & Cooperation

Agile work means shifting old habits. Professor Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl, who heads the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, shares her insights on innovation trends, post-Corona work and why cooperation is key

There is currently an increasing debate about how the work world in post-Corona will change – whether it is a question of presence culture, travel frequency or remote leadership. Which trends do you think are really sustainable and which won’t last?

I think that the crisis has taught us to embrace digital technologies more by simply forcing us to try them out. Technological acceptance is one of the most important factors for the success of an innovation. Through the trial and error method, we have learned what guarantees of success, for example digital meetings and deal breakers are. We can base on this. Nevertheless, humans are social beings and there will be more situations where we appreciate personal presence. Especially long travel times, which have many disadvantages for efficiency and climate protection, can be avoided. How the situation will develop in the area of daily work is currently difficult to estimate. While some large companies and institutions have already announced that they will only be able to resume their on-site presence after implementing vaccination or medication, others are currently beginning to normalize their operations or have even been in regular setting all the time. From my point of view, we have to get used to the ‘new normal’ and decide accordingly: Does it make a difference whether we are on site or in the remote office? In doing so, we must not get stuck with old habits, nor should we make a decision based on uncertainty. We have to get involved in the ‘new’ and that means more than just developing different routines. It also requires increased communication and possibly new management styles.

Why do we need crises as drivers of transformation at all – given that the advantages of agile (or let’s say: more agile) work are obvious?

That is correct. Agile work has many advantages – if it is approached consistently and holistically and if everyone really gets fully involved. But has the crisis automatically transformed us into agile working? In my opinion, this requires a significant effort and the redesign of existing processes, which may not be possible in times of crisis. But what the crisis has actually achieved is that we are breaking out of familiar routines and trying out new approaches. And this is exactly what needs to be implemented in the times of crises as drivers of transformation. They bring along the need for change. For true shift to agile work, however, we have to put the crisis aside and strive for our will to transform. As a first step we may also need to invest – in change, in the necessary framework conditions and in the possibility of making mistakes in the early stages and learning from them.

“Agile work contradicts routines that we have all known for a very long time”

Asking psychologically/anthropologically: Does agile work correspond to the human nature (and if not, does that explain the resistance)?

First of all, agile work contradicts routines that we have all known for a very long time. The last decades were dominated by hierarchies and by leaders who told us how to act. Reorganizing it is not easy both for the employers, who at the beginning certainly have to give up what they have worked for, and for the employees who suddenly take on completely new roles and deal more with self-organization. A change makes sense if everyone is prepared to accept it and get involved. This in turn means radically questioning everything and not sticking to old routines, otherwise the change is doomed to fail. ‘Partially agile’ does not work – the concept and the human beings are not made for this.

If you now look specifically at Germany, you can see that our country is culturally particularly difficult to deal with, regarding these issues in contrast to Asia, especially China. Beyond the assessment of the political system, why is this country so innovative?

Germany has a long tradition of developing new technologies. Historically, Germany owes its prosperity to industry and its ingenuity. As a result, it is deeply rooted in the belief that innovation means progress and prosperity. However, this openness to innovation must be initiated anew for each technology. People are not generally open to new things, but in Germany we have always managed to inspire enthusiasm for them and thus created strong hidden champions in many niches. This is particularly true for the currently highly innovative sectors in the manufacturing, automotive industry or mechanical engineering. In the current ‘Innovation Indicator’ which we, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) together with the ZEW, have been collecting for many years on behalf of the BDI, Germany continues to rank fourth among the most innovative economies. However, this is precisely where the difficulty vis-à-vis the emerging Chinese innovative power comes into play. According to this indicator we are ‘mediocre’ in all areas – this is how we maintain our overall good rating. We seem satisfied with what we have and perhaps don’t even feel the unconditional pressure to try out new things with courage and willingness to take risks when “things are actually going quite well”. But change and innovation always come with risk and the necessary investment; with taking action, because they promise the path to success. If things are going quite well, why even risk throwing the current business model completely overboard? China, on the other hand, wants to catch up and overtake. It is prepared to take that risk and to also make the necessary investment. Even now, in the Corona crisis, China has a clear government objective of innovative strength. We, on the other hand, must continue to remain hungry and pursue a common vision, in order not to be ‘passed through’ the ranking of the most innovative nations one by one. According to the latest Bloomberg Innovation Index, Germany is even in the first place, but the clear warning here also is that innovation is moving away from manufacturing and towards services – this is where Germany must invest.

“A change makes sense if everyone is prepared to accept it and get involved”

What, in return, nevertheless gives hope for the future here? Are there any initiatives, companies or even specific individuals, who provide decisive impetus?

In my view, the keyword here is cooperation. It is important to bring all the relevant players together. And that means not just the ‘usual suspects’. Initiatives that promote exchange are profitable in this context. Knowledge exchange between industrial partners and universities can have a positive effect on the work of both sides. Cluster initiatives can help to facilitate the start of cooperation. They bring together local companies from the same industry. Universities and colleges provide support in product development. Especially in the field of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, the Cyber Valley Initiative in Baden-Württemberg is creating an ecosystem of research institutions and large companies that is unique in Europe. Such initiatives give hope for trend-setting developments for the future. Individual companies or individuals can, in my opinion, inspire us with their visions or courage and thus provide impulses. But we can only find solutions to the great challenges of our time by working together.

What would be, in your opinion, the most important changes and tools, in order to achieve significant change?

In order to be ready for the future, we must start with the basics. We have to create opportunities for the major focus topics to place them more into applied (!) research, and better yet, earlier into school and university education. In addition to the technical aspects, entrepreneurship and start-up skills must be taught. People who have a brilliant idea should be supported in putting it into practice, because they set a good example and possibly promote all of our strivings for innovation. At the same time, I call for us to work together to develop a vision for the future. We need to know where the road should lead and why, so that we are prepared to take it with all its consequences. Here I see the responsibility in politics but also in each individual.

Professor Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl heads the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI in Karlsruhe and holds the Chair of Innovation and Technology Management at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, Technology Management and Innovation at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). She works on the formation conditions of innovations and their effects. She has repeatedly been named one of the 100 most influential women in German business. She studied garment engineering and business administration and received her doctorate and habilitation from the Technical University of Munich. In business and politics she is a valued expert in the focus topics of digitization, innovation and futurology.

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