“These are times of constant change”

Managers receive training at Steinbeis University Berlin

Engineering firms simply can’t find the staff they need. But moaning gets you nowhere. You have train the people you have. So SMEs like Elektror now train their own staff in partnership with the Steinbeis Career Center at Steinbeis University Berlin.

Business can be fascinating. Employees at Elektror Airsystems experience this first-hand every day. Whether in the firm’s own staff training academy, specially designed by an occupational psychologist. Or in the management accounting department, where a Steinbeis University Berlin graduate is setting up new sales divisions. Or in the after-sales department, run by another employee who is soon to receive his Masters of Science from Danube University Krems. The common factor here? Promising projects and bright prospects – for the company and people’s careers.

Clear goals and high expectations: Elektror, which manufactures industrial radial fans and side channel blowers, has made training its people a way of life. Staff are rewarded for their personal development. The next generation of managers can select from a wide range of degrees and certificates offered by the Steinbeis Career Center (SCC) in partner ship with Elektror. Like the modular St. Gallen Management Seminar. Or part-time bachelor's and master's degrees. Or even a PhD.

Whatever titles staff gain and whatever they choose to study, it has to be useful to the firm. Human resources manager Pia Eberspächer explains: “Their qualifications are always relevant to the skills needed by the company – and to the person’s job“. There’s no pressure – staff don’t have to enroll. And the program isn’t restricted to young employees at the start of their career. Patricia Kuppinger, Director of the SCC, highlights this: “Elektror’s oldest graduate on the St. Gallen Management Seminar was 53. This really demonstrates how the scheme caters to individual requirements.” Students taking the St. Gallen Management Seminar work through a series of case studies to prepare them for different managerial challenges. The course spans ten modules, each lasting two days. As the students come from different fields, a particular emphasis is placed on thinking outside the box. “The course allows relationships to develop between the students, which can benefit the companies too,” continues Kuppinger. A great opportunity – education and networking in one.

No surprise, then, that the “talent management” scheme at Elektror is a real motivator. The annual budget set aside for further education – currently around 200,000 euros – is a clear indicator of the initiative’s popularity. A good dozen employees have graduated from the St. Gallen Management Seminar course so far, and around the same number have earned a master's degree. All the more impressive when you consider the company only employs 210 staff.

Based in Esslingen near Stuttgart, Elektror’s headquarters will soon be moving to nearby Ostfildern – while production is based in Waghäusel in the Rhine valley. There, in the former state of Baden, managing director Ulrich W. Kreher has launched a new integrated production system. Workflows are analyzed and optimized continually. Productivity and turnover are growing steadily. And administration will soon to be optimized too. The aim? Lean, waste-free workflows. Pia Eberspächer explains: “Earlier, staff just did as they were told to. Now they’re part of the process, and can contribute.” Working with continual change is part of Elektror’s corporate culture – something almost all staff embrace. “Our employees enjoy being part of change, having their own say, and contributing with their own creativity,” explains Eberspächer. “It takes a lot more than professional competence and technical ability to drive a company forward.” Social skills and the ability to lead are vital – but what does this all boil down to? Entrepreneurial thinking.

It’s skills like these that the company will need when it moves to its new headquarters near Stuttgart Airport. Pia Eberspächer looks forward to the day when Kaizen moves to the new office to optimize workflows there. “It’ll be a great opportunity for all of us to develop our skills – and make our jobs more fulfilling,” she enthuses, summarizing the benefits. In her view, process-oriented thinking is increasingly important: “In a few years’ time, we won’t work in departments any more, but in processes.” The new HQ will allow the company to test future plans. Although Elektror will still have its old departmental structures – at least initially – the move will allow the firm to switch the focus to processes. Key processes will be tested and analyzed: their development, their workflow, and how well they integrate with other processes. One key area examined in workshops was the firm’s contract workflow. Value streams were analyzed and modeled as a process. Improving areas like these is what motivates the Elektror team.

The aim of these latest organizational and educational moves is to strengthen the firm’s standing in Germany – and ensure Elektror remains attractive to talented employees. Staff turnover at Elektror is almost zero, apart from older staff entering retirement. Just another sign that the firm has the right approach to organizational learning.

Here, the key management skills that Steinbeis has taught Elektror staff have been invaluable: “perfect for SMEs and companies of our size“, says Pia Eberspächer. Elektror has now been working with the SCC for over a decade – just one of around 5000 SMEs the center maintains contacts with, notes Kuppinger. She adds that Elektror’s staff training system places the firm “in the highest levels of organizational learning”. Small firms often struggle to afford upscale staff training – but Elektror’s management is paving the way for them to do just that. The engineering firm has set up its own academy in partnership with the SCC. Staff from other SMEs will study learning processes and learn practical ways to drive business forward. Elektror’s roomy new headquarters – an elegant, contemporary steel and glass construction – makes for the ideal location. This further education academy will become a separate line of business in the summer of 2009.

Pia Eberspächer wants to grow the academy into a broad-based educational platform, focused on the needs of smaller firms. The St. Gallen Management Seminar offered by Steinbeis will be key in doing this – along with BBQ, a non-profit educational institute, and the Münchner Management Forum, a coaching and executive development firm from Munich. The more partners, the better. Eberspächer’s dream is nothing less than an all-encompassing, multidisciplinary academy for further education – providing exactly what businesses require. So a wide range of courses will be vital.

Lofty goals – but they haven’t just been plucked out of thin air. So where did it all begin? Managing director Ulrich W. Kreher is the role model for his staff when it comes to staff training. Having studied at Steinbeis himself in the mid 1990s, he is paving the way for others to follow. Coming from a technical background, he broadened his outlook by studying business administration and management – highly relevant to his job – and completed a bachelor’s degree and a master's degree on the St. Gallen Management Seminar. After graduating, one thing was clear: he wanted his employees to have the same opportunities. His aim: to build a cohesive team, with everyone pulling in the same direction – allowing “networked thinking” to develop. SCC Director Patricia Kuppinger has no doubt: “It was this inspired vision that brought Elektror and Steinbeis together.”

Dietmar Kieser
Source: Industrieanzeiger 12/2008

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