The “digital transformation” has emerged as an ongoing topic in recent years. More and more enterprises are reviewing their value-added processes in search of potentials for “digitalization.” The debate revolves around efficiency gains, automation, networking and the development of digital business models. The topic remains one of considerable importance for medium-sized enterprises – particularly because of the various uncertainties involved. This was the point of departure for the first SME Forum (“Forum Mittelstand”) of the year 2018, held April 17 on the Vallendar Campus of WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, entitled “The Digital Transformation as a Practical Task in the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise.”
After welcoming remarks by PD Dr.-Ing. Sven-V. Rehm, Interim Chair of the Chair of Business Information Science and Information Management at WHU, and Ralf Lawaczeck, Managing Director of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Koblenz, the organizers turned the floor over to Dr. Armin Lau of Schaeffler Technologies AG & Co. KG. In a vivid lecture on the topic of future-oriented innovation management, the expert for innovation management explained his company's methodology and mindset. As his remarks already made clear, the fields of digitalization and innovation are closely linked. Schaeffler has a separate Innovation Strategy Department in which trained employees focus exclusively on developing new ideas. Innovation, Lau explained, is a direct investment in an enterprise’s future. Systematic interdisciplinary thinking is welcome within his company, where it is deliberately used to create synergies among the various departments: “It’s hard to think outside the box from within your own four walls,” as Lau says.
Proactive and interdisciplinary is also the approach of Dr. Bernhard Albert, founder and Managing Director at Foresight Solutions, who supports Foresight projects for strategy and innovation and works closely with small and medium-sized enterprises. In his remarks, he reported on concrete experiences with Foresight projects carried out with SMEs. Particularly noteworthy success factors for Albert are the Open Innovation approach that shares ideas publicly and encourages others to participate; and cross-industry innovations, because up to 80 percent of the innovations today already combine existing knowledge.
Milan Vukas also seeks to tap existing knowledge. Alongside his work as Key Account Manager at quintly GmbH in Cologne, he has created a non-profit association, Wesseling Digital e.V., that actively and directly involves the citizenry in the work of digitalizing his home town. His lecture, entitled “Mastering Digital Transformation Together: How an Association is Networking Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises in the Digital Lab,” made it clear digitalization projects do not necessarily need mushrooming budgets or specialized units to succeed. Often, all it takes is genuine passion and a concrete vision. In Vukas’ case, this was the hope of developing ideas together locally rather than hire professional consultants who would predefine the future on the basis of general concepts. To accomplish this, he networked individuals, enterprises and associations in Wesseling. With his fellow volunteers, he offers coding camps and programming courses for children and adolescents, organizes do-it-yourself workshops and advises small businesses locally.
The future of his home town is also close to the heart of Johannes Utsch, of Koblenz. In his presentation, “How I Can Use the Idea of a Startup to Promote Transformation to the Digital Age as an Entrepreneur,” he offered practical examples drawn directly from the region. Convinced that startups and SMEs can learn a great deal from each other, and frustrated that partnerships are still far too rare, Utsch and his business partners founded Eck.ventures GmbH. The company’s mission is to provide professional assistance, in the form of capital and knowledge, to startups in their early stages. Utsch and his team also provide support to established companies that seek to tackle individual innovation projects in the style of a startup.
The SME Forum has set itself the goal of regularly providing small- and medium-sized enterprises with practical and competent information on the latest scientific findings, thus making a concrete contribution to bolstering the economic and innovative strength of local firms. The next SME Forum is planned to be held in June 2018.