“There is still plenty of potential [...]

A discussion with Professor Rainer Göppel

Professor Göppel, you head up a Steinbeis enterprise in one of the most economically dynamic regions of Germany, where science and business pull successfully in the same direction. The Ulm region stands for research and development, the basis for knowledge and technology transfer à la Steinbeis. What impact does this climate of innovation have on the work done at your Steinbeis transfer center?

It’s true to say that the Ulm region is a hive of research and development activity. There are currently 15,000 students enrolled at Ulm University of Applied Sciences, Ulm University and Neu-Ulm University of Applied Sciences. The district of Oberer Esels berg, which is officially allowed to bear the title “Town of Science,” offers nearly 10,000 jobs in research and development. Steinbeis is active in the region with a variety of Steinbeis enterprises. It must, nevertheless, be pointed out that there is a variety of economic activities happening outside the “Town of Science” district. The Danube valley is a large industrial area which is home to many other innovative international companies.

Everything is in place here for business to collaborate with economy and science. It’s particularly attractive for students looking for internships, with plenty of opportunities to write about innovative topics for their thesis at local companies.

Our Transfer Center benefits from these opportunities in two ways. Firstly, as some of our customers are based in the immediate area, the distances are short, so communication and collaboration is straightforward. If you need to travel to the client at short notice or meet at the transfer center, it’s easy to set this up and make it happen. In addition, I’ve gained many new insights into current issues and the future business needs through my lecturing at the university and the supervision of student projects and their theses. These insights have a direct impact on the portfolio of services and the type of support offered by our transfer center.

You have founded the TMS Management Systems Steinbeis Transfer Center in 1996, and still stand strong at the helm today. What would you describe as the milestones your center has passed over the years?

Looking back, I wouldn’t point to any particular milestones, if anything I’d say it has been a continual process of developing our portfolio of services. Not long after our transfer center was set up, it became clear that management and engineering topics should not be dealt with in isolation; rather, they should be considered jointly, in fact they must be. To develop innovative products or technical processes, one needs the right organizational infrastructures. By contrast, if existing organizational infrastructures are effective and efficient, they create space and provide leeway for new concepts and different ways to create products or organize production processes. Focusing on individual topics is usually insufficient.

Another important decision and development for us was starting to provide our customers with qualification training and advice. We’ve been running open seminars and in-house company seminars for years; not just to share our expertise and experience, but also to offer advice and coaching services.

Many of our existing customer contacts arose and then grew after somebody expressed interest in a specific topic, originally while on one of our open seminars. This was then typically followed by an in-house seminar, matched specifically to their requirements, culminating in a jointly planned and jointly implemented consulting project.

Your Steinbeis transfer enterprise focuses on advisory services, training and continuing professional development in the fields of management and engineering. Customers are central to your work: their specific needs, developing concepts based on these needs, putting these concepts into practice, then realizing tangible successes and providing long-term benefit. Which projects and services are currently in strong demand from companies?

The projects we’re currently working on for our customers relate to management issues like process management, project management, innovation management and product management. These kinds of topics are nothing new to most companies, but they assume and recognize that there’s still plenty of potential to exploit in these areas, and often they’re right in this assumption.

The fundamentals of process and project management are usually understood and have been implemented. What companies are interested in is their own, current level of maturity and how this relates to management issues. As a consequence, maturity models and evaluations in these areas are currently hot topics. Topics like innovation and product management are more recent management disciplines, so companies are more interested in learning about these processes and techniques. They also want to introduce them. We’ve recently had a number of inquiries specifically about product management and have been asked if we could help planning and introducing the right processes and methods once the organizational changes have been made within the company.

Interestingly, we were approached about these topics after the organizational changes had already been implemented at the company. In the engineering area, we’re currently getting a lot of inquiries about target costing. The companies are particularly interested in systematic ways to design products and analyze concepts, but also useful ways to connect or link them.

Oscar Wilde once said that the future belongs to those who recognize opportunity before it becomes obvious. Which opportunities and challenges do you see for your Steinbeis enterprise in the future?

The challenge currently relates in defining and developing existing and potential synergies between the two areas of management and engineering. This affects things like integrating engineering methodologies into business processes and organizational structures, and, coming the other way round, the processes and organizational infrastructures that need to be in place to make proper use of engineering methodologies.

From our experience, many engineering methodologies are not just applicable to engineering tasks, they can also be applied effectively to areas revolving around administrative tasks. There is still plenty of potential to be exploited in this area in the future. But often, the most interesting challenges arise when the telephone rings at our transfer center and somebody asks for a new task. 

In and around Ulm

The Ulm region is an attractive area for science and business with a long and successful history. The inventions and production processes of pioneers of industry – like Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger (who built the first semi-rigid hang-glider) and Conrad Dietrich Magirus (a name now synonymous in Germany with fire protection) – quickly positioned Ulm as “The Best in the South.” Another ingenious inventor from Ulm, who had little to do with industry but deserves a mention, is Albert Einstein. He was born in Ulm.

The area is still a hotbed of research and plays a pivotal role in research and development. But translating ideas into innovations takes time. Steinbeis supports this process, with quick and specific market-based knowledge and technology transfer, and through its work with Ulm University and Neu-Ulm University of Applied Sciences. There are also Steinbeis experts working outside these universities.

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