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Faster, more agile, more complex: Digitalization demands a lot from employees. But how exactly can you convince 13,400 people that there is a lifetime of learning ahead? The answer to this question is provided by Mischa Kohler, Head of Learning and Development at Trumpf, the laser specialist from Ditzingen.

By Anke Henrich

Mischa Kohler © TrumpfMr. Kohler, Trumpf is viewed as one of the most innovative companies in the German mechanical engineering industry. What must your employees know today for Trumpf to continue to be successful tomorrow?

There are hardly any dependable scientific studies on this subject. We asked our own managers and selected exemplary companies as our benchmark. It’s clear that technical expertise and the strict focus on customer demands are absolute necessities. However, colleagues across all levels must also be aware that change is necessary and they need to be ready to take on more responsibility themselves. Furthermore, they have to work in changing, interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams more often than in the past. The openness to and readiness for a lifetime of learning are also prerequisites across all levels. It is better to get a head start than play catch-up later on - and this applies to both people and companies.

But not everyone has a thirst for knowledge. How do you inspire people to change?

We start with our 1,400 managers and train them in workshops. Once they have understood the opportunities, linked them to their own experiences and internalized them, they can then actively promote this transfer to their employees - and set an example.

What are the major challenges here?

We have completely revised the development of our employees and managers worldwide by implementing innovative methods and programs and are establishing a new culture of learning. This is a huge investment, with regard to both time and money.

And what about the employees who feel overwhelmed by the high demands?

Our intention and our approach are to convince the employees. To this end, we have put all our training programs to the test and have been steadily increasing the budget for apprenticeships and further education for years. We know that our international competitiveness depends on this. Our collaborations with high-quality, external providers are also a key to success here, as both the amount of new knowledge and its complexity are increasing rapidly. Without collaboration, even experts can lose track in this high-tech world.

What specific programs do you offer to the Trumpf employees?

We offer around 100 standard seminars, 25 innovative methods and approaches, and soon also an international learning management platform. Each employee is given a budget of 1,000 points per year to be used on further training and education. Those who use digital and innovative learning formats can save up to 75 percent of their points by completing their training courses online rather than in a classroom. This allows us to create additional incentives for Learning 4.0. However, we make it clear: We offer a lot, but in return we expect all employees to be ready to take on additional responsibility for their professional growth.

Do target agreements motivate employees to go about their tasks with more zeal?

I’m skeptical. Target agreements only motivate very few people to deliver top performance. I find that motivation through conviction is more permanent. Our employees know that our support is not an empty promise, as Trumpf has issued an employment guarantee. We are not using digitalization as an argument to reduce jobs.

Many companies are starting flagship projects which receive huge budgets, attention and praise. This can often lead to other teams feeling left behind. How does Trumpf deal with the potential issue of rival camps?

We have seen this issue as well, particularly between the camps of analog versus digital, or fixed hierarchies versus agile structures. We won’t be able to completely change this. There will always be divisions within a company where a traditional hierarchical structure is simply the more sensible option, with one example being the division responsible for reporting financial figures. Contrastingly, when it comes to the development of a new laser, an agile sprint approach is often the better option.

And how are you dealing with this issue?

By motivating all managers and supporting them in broaching this topic, as well as in entering into discussions with their superiors and their peers.

So, there is no elephant in the room, which everyone can see, but everyone ignores?

We are trying to prevent this through transparency, mutual respect and clear decisions on which approach is best and when.

Germany has a good reputation when it comes to engineering apprenticeships. Despite this, many companies complain about graduates' lack of practical skills. Do you agree with this?

The graduates are very open and have an affinity to IT. However, there are clear deficiencies at universities and other educational institutions when it comes to hardware and networking equipment. Investments from the Digitalpakt (an initiative from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the federal states to improve the digital equipment in schools) are urgently necessary. Study regulations are already changing to reflect this, but not always as quickly as technology is developing. Universities and higher education institutions could give the graduates much more of a boost – as is the case in Norway.

What are the Norwegians doing better?

I was able to experience it first-hand as a student there myself: Research programs at technical universities are so good that companies are aligning themselves with the universities to a far greater degree than here in Germany.

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