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How intelligent networking changes our working environments

Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkes about digitisation and new value-added communities
Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkens
Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkens
Chair for Work, Human Resources and Leadership, Ruhr University Bochum

Digitalisation allows running new business models but also implies a broader socio-technical systems change. Particularly well-known examples result from the platform economy such as Car2Go or Airbnb: customers don’t receive a product, but rather a solution tailored to one’s individual needs, e.g. mobility. The solution provider adds value by digitally coordinating the offer – he provides availability without ownership of the means of production.

Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkens
Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkens, Head of the Chair for Work, Human Resources and Leadership at Ruhr-Universität Bochum

New potentials for value creation resulting from digitalisation can also be exploited by manufacturing industries. By using data from own domains, as well as from other contexts there are new possibilities to identify trends and customer needs much earlier and more precisely with the help of data analytics. Service components can also be expanded on a digital basis. That is the reason why there is a strong belief in highly-developed Western economies to gain competitive advantages from socalled product service systems (PSS). PSS describe an integrated customer solution of products and services. For example, customers receive, instead of agricultural machinery, a complete harvest logistic integrating geo-data, or a constant room climate instead of an air-conditioner. These examples from business-to-business illustrate that solution providers can gain high margins as they absorb risk components of the customer in their business models.

For realizing new business models, the product development process has to change considerably.

Prof. Dr. Uta Wilkens, Chairholder of Human Resources and Work Process Management at Ruhr Universität Bochum
Transformation towards value-creation systems
Fig. 1: Transformation towards value-creation systems

For realizing new business models, the product development process has to change considerably. This concerns sensor technology, which is of central importance for integrated service components. It also concerns the cooperation with the customer during the entire development process. Due to value co-creation with the customer the boundaries between development and sales are becoming increasingly blurred. Moreover, product development anticipates the whole production process in the virtual twin. This also means that the focus of adding value shifts from production to the development of the integrated solution (see Baars/Lasi, 2016). Operational sub-processes cannot be optimised separately; rather they merge into the value-creation systems (see Fig. 1).

Cooperation in the Ecosystem
Fig. 2: Cooperation in the Ecosystem

Value co-creation means that customers and other external stakeholders participate with their expertise as members of
the ecosystem. Solution development is of mutual interest and leads to new forms of co-working and organizing. Product development teams work in cross-organizational settings (see Figure 2). These new forms of work organization go hand in hand with increasing job demands for all members involved. They need to cooperate for creative problem solving activities but remain subordinated in different formal management systems. They need to combine their knowledge with external partners and at the same time have to protect it as the cooperation partner can also be a competitor. The parties need to achieve mutual understanding but at the same time keep their own company interests in mind. This requires high competencies to act in virtual, networked cross-organizational settings. Faced with novel problems, project employees must be able to competently convey their expertise in heterogeneous teams, deal with high complexity, and need to be open for team-based learning and development processes (Wilkens et al., 2017).

The question arises as to which transformation process companies or network partners have to face?

Looking at the results of the IAO Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart (2016), it becomes obvious that companies sited in Germany are preparing for Industrie 4.0 when it comes to manufacturing, assembly, production planning and logistics. To date, only a small proportion of the 498 companies surveyed is looking into the transformation of product development (18%) and services (17%). One-third of the surveyed companies are preparing for change with regard to organizational structures and employees skills. In most cases, however, exploratory processes are still taking place.  

The question arises as to which transformation process companies or network partners have to face in order to be able to act successfully as a partner in a value co-creation community. Is there a need for disruptive transformation or are there gentler forms of change? In the discourse on digitalisation, the mainstream proposes disruptive forms of change. For companies, this would mean pursuing new spin-offs and start-ups, greenfield experimentation in small enterprises with altered forms of organizing and cooperation. At the end of the day this could imply that only parts of the workforce are involved in firm development and that the participation of employees’ representatives is reduced. A possible alternative is the gentle slope approach (Herrmann/Wilkens, 2017), which ex explores the forms of change that lead over a gentle hill with only mild steepness. This is to say, the transformation will not proceed effortlessly and entirely evolutionarily, but that firms can take accompanying measures in order to gain experience and confidence in dealing with new forms of organizing and participation.

Is there a need for disruptive transformation or are there gentler forms of change?

This requires new project-oriented areas of experimentation with changes in governance and new forms of partnership between companies, including those that compete in other areas. Employees’ participation from the very beginning is another crucial point. New techniques can only be learned if one intentionally unlearns other techniques and is willing to accept that these are mastered only imperfectly at the first attempt. The gentle slope approach can especially be pursued if one starts early with new forms of organizing and value co-creation.

The HARTING Technology Group provides excellent conditions for the gentle slope approach. Here, corporate and personnel strategy are interconnected. In-company training and personnel development are oriented towards new forms of cooperation in competence-based learning scenarios. This approach can also be further developed with network partners. New project formats, e.g. for market communication, are already pursued in an ecosystem across language borders consisting of local subsidiaries with alternating lead functions. These are the most valuable experiences enhancing the further development of the HARTING Technology Group.

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