Companies revolving within a narrow, closed-off sphere may end up disappearing sooner rather than later. Efficiency and organic growth no longer guarantee survival, nor is it enough to simply streamline one’s teamwork. An exciting, future-shaping strategy is emerging from the world of IT project management and software development: agility. So how does it work? And what is there to consider?
There’s no escaping the radical changes transforming today’s workplace as digitisation takes hold of its every aspect. In his article, “Agile Unternehmen”, Friedhelm Böttcher posits that work as we know it is being entirely dismantled and rebuilt. Background tasks, for instance, are increasingly handled by machines, sometimes with distinct “personalities,” without users ever knowing it. And specific tasks such as prototyping and testing, which for decades were performed by in-house R&D departments, are now being outsourced to small, specialist firms. Technology such as 3D printing is replacing entire process steps. And relationships with customers and providers are being redefined solely through new evaluation and feedback tools.
Creative knowledge work is rapidly becoming a key factor of business success, while routine tasks are losing traction. Meanwhile, businesses are becoming ever more interwoven with human interaction. Multi-company projects are enriching or, in some cases, replacing traditional work models. These are all changes that affect employees, too. Flexible work hours are a prime example of a trend that seems to be here to stay. And, according to Böttcher, the paradigm shift is gaining speed, ushering in a whirlwind of change. The usual toolbox of innovative products, services and sales systems is now simply inadequate.
Dr Friedhelm Böttcher is a coach and consultant with a focus on new business creation and innovation management. Having graduated with a doctorate in chemistry, he held a senior position in the industrial sector for over 12 years. His current work aims to develop agile, innovative companies. Böttcher is the managing director of Contarix GmbH, as well as co-founder and spokesperson of the business network future_bizz. He also teaches strategy development and decision-making at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein, Germany.
What differentiates an agile company from its peers?
Above all, agile companies accept that the world is constantly changing, and that this change touches all realms of life, especially business.
Agile companies are masters at conscientiously defining who they are and how they work—on an operational, strategic and organisational level as well as in relation to other companies. Rigid rules are abandoned in favour of principles and guidelines. Self-organisation and individual responsibility are highly prized. Agility means learning and creating within an environment that promotes open feedback. If someone knows how to do something, let them do it, even if it means colouring outside the lines.
But what if that’s not enough?
Then agile companies find someone to collaborate with, be it external experts, other companies, organisations or universities. In short, they put their diligently cultivated network to use. A multi-company ecosystem gives agile companies access to the expertise of others, as well as the opportunity to offer its own in return. Partners complement one another and vitalise their respective businesses through intelligent cooperation. They support each other by supplying specialist skills to foster growth on both sides. New relationships have a stimulating effect; they open up new perspectives and activate hitherto untapped capabilities. In some cases, these constellations even bring together erstwhile rivals, initiating a new generation of competition that takes advantage of cooperation to produce even better results. And customers are sure to take notice.
How does one become agile?
There are five areas a company must tackle if they want to become agile. They must be able to identify trends, adopt a cooperative leadership approach, embrace direct communication, manage complexity and systematically structure their work through projects. Two of these areas are particularly tangible. The first is the ability to perceive changes, which requires observing not only your environment, customers and technological tendencies, but also how others respond to your actions. The other area to focus on is the frequency and quality of your communication, which has a crucial impact on how well you handle future challenges. Priority must be given to direct, in-person communication, even with all the technological capabilities available through web conferences, Skype, chat services and conference calls.
[Silicon Valley as] the centre of the virtual world hates nothing more than virtual communication. [...] Remote relationships are frowned upon.
Dr Friedhelm Böttcher
Companies located close to universities have a particular geographical advantage. A current, broad-based study shows that 75 percent of university heads generally view collaboration with nearby companies as positive. No other cooperation partner even came close to matching this favourable rating. The bottom line is that it pays to find a way to overcome your limitations—before others beat you to the punch.
Companies Who Have Pushed the Limits.
Through its global Technology to Business Center, Siemens has been working closely with start-ups for over 15 years. Its aim is to identify and foster innovation early on through a different sort of philosophy: “We’ll deliver the problem.”
Rolls-Royce runs some 30 Research and University Technology Centres (UTC) around the world. Each of these centres collaborates with a university partner on a specific key technology for aircraft engines—investing directly in PhD positions, equipment and practical research projects.
For years, Procter & Gamble has partnered closely with the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. It has also pursued specific projects with start-ups and even attracted retired experts from other companies to help with product development.
Kinshofer and Vemcon: The first, a manufacturer of construction equipment, benefits from the expertise of the second, a five-person specialist in technology to control mobile implements. What’s in it for Vemcon? Its partnership with Kinshofer allows it to present its know-how at major trade fairs such as the BAUMA.
The Swiss Federal Railways and JustBook present another case of two partners who, despite their vast size difference, have built a mutually beneficial relationship. While the transportation giant is able to test new methods of marketing, the start-up benefits from its partner’s vast influence.