German Innovation Insider: Holding the Brakes on Digital Innovation

German innovation gets trapped in the very mentality focusing on building quality products ‘Made in Germany’ that the country got well known for. Holding on to vertical product improvement, however, obstructs crossing industry barriers, convergence, developing game-changing business models, and coming up with breakthrough innovations with potential for exponential growth and returns.

Germany – Land of the ‘Hidden Champions’

A recent research study of the Centre for European Economic Research confirmed Germany leading by far with 1,550 hidden champions.  Companies are commonly considered a hidden champion if they are no. 1 or 2 on the world market, make less than EUR 1.5b revenue and their name is not overly well unknown in the general public.

Note that mid-size companies make up 80%(!) of German industry and resemble the backbone of the German economy altogether. According to the Berlin School of Economics and Law, 90% are focused on B2B.

germany-celebrates_(latintimes.com)
Champions not only in world football (image: latintimes.com)

See if you recognize a few examples for hidden champions that are leading global players:

  • Dixi / ToiToi (portable toilets)
  • Spennheiser (headphones)
  • EBM-Papst (motor and fan manufacturer)
  • Enercon (wind energy)
  • Krones (bottling machines)
  • Recaro (car and airplane seats)
  • Trumpf (laser cutters)

Inside the Vertical Tunnel View

Among the 1.500+ market leaders only two German companies are leading software companies (Software AG and SAP).  The vast majority focuses on more tangible product innovation leaving this digital industry somewhat isolated, underdeveloped and vulnerable like an economy’s Achilles’ Heel.

You get a good sense for a vertical bias in product innovation, when you read German open job postings for innovation lead position of sorts:  As an innovator in an automotive company, you require a solid background in engine engineering, for example, or as an innovation leader in a chemical consumer goods company, you will not be hired without in-depth knowledge of adhesives, for example.  It becomes painfully obvious how the vertical product innovation fosters a mindset of inbred solutions and can miss out on transformative opportunities beyond the own domain, bridging and converging industries.

3D-printed-German-car(partsolutions.com)
3D-printed car (image: carpartsolutions.com)

Point being: Innovators are usually hired from within a vertical industry. This leaves little room for creative influx from the outside.  Since meaningful innovation ‘happens’ at the cross-roads of disciplines in a horizontal cross- pollination of different industries and domains. This inflexible German practice lends itself to incremental improvement of products rather than disruptive transformation of businesses, entire industries or even across industry arenas.  Within a vertical mindset, ecosystem cross-pollination withers and innovators are less suited, prepared, capable, or enabled to disrupt.

Digital Transformation “Made in Silicon Valley”

When it comes to digital transformation, German companies got disrupted and steamrolled mostly by large-scale digital disruptors coming out of the United States from either California or the East coast technology ecosystems with huge global impact and a different approach:

  • The world’s largest taxi service owns no taxis (Uber)
  • The most popular media owner creates no content (Facebook)
  • The largest movie house owns no cinemas (Netflix)
  • The largest accommodation provider owns no real-estate (Airbnb)
  • The largest software vendors don’t write apps (Apple, Google) and so on.

The above examples differ from traditional products not only by bold out-of-the-box thinking but also by paying close attention to the customer.  Their business models rest firmly in the digital world with a software business and an internet backbone.

Uber and Airbnb offer digital platforms – that’s it, no tangible goods.  Nonetheless, they shake up the established industries of transportation and hospitality in ways unheard of.  They also reap exponential returns by creating new digital arenas that generate highest recurring revenue in the digital space.

Digital Industry (telecitygroup.com)
Digital business has arrived (image: telecitygroup.com)

Missing the Digital Train?

Back in Germany, its 1,500+ hidden champions flourish in a robust economy, so Germany must be doing something right overall with a vertical focus set on tangible quality products within industries.  Good money is still made in Germany by holding a steady course of vertical product improvement.

This practice also goes hand-in-hand in hand with protecting and not challenging enough the traditional sales-driven business models to avoid cannibalizing the status quo for next generation innovations.  It reminds of the Kodak-Eastman story having invented the first digital camera but rejecting the technology in order to protect the business around the existing analog film products – and we all know what happened to Kodak.

A Digital Transformation Divide

Truly putting the customer in the center and embracing digital business requires a radical transformation of the existing business and its operations.  The critical interface between IT and Marketing, for example, often is not well developed in Germany, where traditional companies lack understanding of the digital potential and struggle with developing new, digital business models in time.

It is not a question but painfully obvious that -with the current mindset and strategy- Germany misses the train on digital transformation.  While the world moves online, many companies in Germany failed or simply ignored the emerging technological opportunities to develop digital business models consequently, in a structured fashion and timely.

Failure_to_Innovate(bobmaconbusiness_com)
Germany is missing the digital innovation train. (image: bobmaconbusiness.com)

In fact, German companies practically ‘gave up’ across entire industries including media, travel and retail.  In a recent wake-up call, the German government asked companies and industries to focus on digital transformation in a widely proclaimed initiative called “Industrie 4.0” ‑ a race to catch up internationally.  And catching up is much needed: the narrow German ‘inside focus’ presents a vulnerability to be exploited by foreign disruptive players.  The gap widens steadily as the competitors advance fast, build up huge resources and become increasingly experienced to develop and apply digital transformation with new business models.

pessimism_quote(notable-quotes.com)
(image: notable-quotes.com)

Pessimism with an Insurance Mindset

The high level of disruption and uncertainty does not come easy to less flexible German mindset:  Having experienced hardship many times during the not-all-that-distant history, Germans tend to seek and value predictability and safety.  Anxiety and fear of the unknown forms an undercurrent in the mindset of German society, which is expressed by seeking refuge in insurance policies to prepare for any unknown future events.

As an example, not only do Germans over-insure their daily lives with a myriad of insurances, Germany also holds on to one of the largest amounts of hospital beds and bunkers per capita. You find more hospital capacity in the Berlin-area alone than in all of their neighboring country, The Netherlands!

In general, start-up funding is not as easy to come by as in the U.S., for example, where venture funding is a more common practice.  When I arrived in Germany a year ago, I came across a serious government program that ‘supported’ a new start-up or entrepreneurs with grants tied to a projected positive return-on-investment (ROI) within the first year.  Now, building a profitable business from scratch within in year is an unrealistic goal.  Consequently, the desperate entrepreneur in need of funding would have to submit a bogus business plan right of the bat, which is a set-up for disappointment down the road.  So, either the government program is not meant serious (unlikely) or is designed by people not knowing the first thing about starting a business (likely).

senior-woman-confused-by-tablet-computer(sheknows.com)
Reluctance to embrace technology? (image: sheknows.com)

Techno-Fear and Over-regulation

Overall, the German mindset tends to be more critical regarding new and unfamiliar technology.  Seeking to avoid risk comes with a tendency to ‘over-regulate’ in the sense of applying regulations just because it is possible to regulate rather than because it is necessary to come up with regulation.

Since a long time, Germany has the strictest data privacy laws.  Domestic law protects the individual by granting them the right to control their personal data online and offline.  These regulations are rooted in the country’s dark experiences during its Nazi-past but is also is a reflection of the outspoken suspicion among the broader population towards digital data technologies and their application.  Thus, Germans tend to be more reluctant to share personal data on social media out of fear of exposure and losing control.

The protective (domestic) legislation means well but can only be effective in a closed system, which the (global) internet is not.  In a digital world international boundaries are artificial.  Given the nature and proliferation of digital technology and interconnectivity of people around the globe, keeping up the aspired high standards proves increasingly cumbersome if not impossible.

The German island can hardly be defended effectively over time.  It may protect the citizens from some harm locally but in return also isolates them and denies them access to the benefits of a technology that ever progresses globally.

Losing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Given a rather pessimistic Germany mindset that is reluctant to fully immerse in the digital world, digital-resistant citizens appear poorly prepared for ‘moonshot’ visions, embracing the opportunities of Big Data Analytics or the vast potential of the Internet-of-Things (IoT).

German innovation death(deskmag_com)
Reluctant to start up a business (image: deskmag.com)

The present German ‘generation of heirs’ inherits the wealth created by their parents’ generation during the famous post-WWII decades known as the economic “Wirtschaftswunder” boom.  Very much in contrast to the U.S. or Asia, many Germans do not share the venturing spirit anymore.  They show reluctance to trying out something new such as building a business as an entrepreneur for several reasons:

  • Firstly, Germans tend to prefer a detailed plan before actively exploring an opportunity and strictly sticking to the plan during implementation. Besides the favorable element of thorough planning, this approach also reflects a deeper fear of failure and seeking a sense of security and predictability.  Deviating from the plan is often interpreted as a failure.
    But then, which plan ever is perfect and stands the test of a dynamic reality? Sadly, the debate then quickly tends to turn to finding a culprit when things go sour rather than making adjustments to keep moving on.
  • Secondly, German hesitation and even a good amount of pessimism roots in stigma of a business failure, which seems to stick more in German society than in the United States. More than 9 out of 10 start-ups fail, but when a startup fails in the U.S this does not automatically translate into personal failure of the leader.  It is much more seen as a learning experience, while a German CEO gets easily branded loser.
    Surrounded by the ‘insurance thinking’ mentioned earlier it will be hard for the former CEO finding support for a future business or even employment in Germany after a venture failed. In consequence the German CEO is more motivated to beat a dead horse rather than cutting the losses and move on.

Summary – Brakes on Digital Innovation in Germany

For all these reasons, visions tend to be smaller in Germany.  They are more designed to control risk than seizing exponential business opportunities.  Thinking too small, not disruptive enough and too focused within an industry prohibits to compete with the digital global players that emerged with exponential business models, such as the Googles, Apples, Amazons, Airbnbs, Ubers, and so on out there.

Brake-damage(dba.com.au)
Brake damage ahead! (image: dba.com.au)

What keeps the brakes on the German innovation machine is the in-bred mindset and vertical tunnel vision with a focus more on products instead of customers, and the risk-avoidance and fear of applying digital technology to its full potential.  It traps many German companies in a self-limiting disadvantage compared to American or Asian competitors, which prove more venturous, flexible and generally optimistic.

The U.S., in particular, entrepreneurs come not only with a more flexible and optimistic mindset, but can also tap into unique startup eco-systems in place (Silicon Valley, Boston and NYC areas primarily) with easy access to bright minds, cross-pollination and venture capital.

Outlook

There remains demand for physical, quality products in the future, such as the machinery, tools or cars we value today as Made in Germany, so the 1,500+ hidden champions look into a bright future.  Their reluctance to embrace the digital age, however, and transform to embrace new digital business models, however, may steadily push them to the sidelines as industries and arenas change beyond their input or control.

Join me at eyeforpharma’s Value Beyond the Pill Summit, Philadelphia, December 3, 2014

Join me for eyeforpharma’s Value Beyond the Pill Summit 2014 and come to my talk on “Build an intrapreneurial ecosystem to ensure your innovative services deliver the value required by patients” at 2:10PM on December 3, 2014.

Why attend other than hearing me speak?  🙂

The topics are around delivering patient value and reimburse your services by innovating your business model. A new way of healthcare is here; services are now an essential part of patient care and will help the pharma industry to make a bigger impact as a healthcare provider. Learn how to put successful services in place to gain better access, reduce costs and help your end-user, the patient. Find out what the most innovative and forward-thinking companies are doing to differentiate their brand in the most competitive times pharma have ever faced.

The Value Beyond the Pill Summit is held at the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District Hotel, 400 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA, on December 3-4, 2014.

See the full speaker line up and agenda in the event brochure.

 

 

 

 

Diamonds in the Rough: Identifying Talent

It is not without irony when a leadership team complains about their talent.  As the saying goes, “Leaders deserve the talent they hired.”

Looking into the Abyss – Not kidding!

Let me give you an idea how bad it can get. Here is a real-life scenario I was asked at address as a consultant not long ago:  A global leadership team identified the need to diversify their management across a distributed, global division.  Business results were lagging, bureaucracy stifling and fresh ideas nowhere to be seen let be implemented.  Despite an outspoken commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, the ‘corporate immune system’ and ‘group-think’ resisted much needed change with repercussions for those questioning the status quo or thinking differently out loud.  Data-driven paralysis by analysis was the daily mode of operation. – You get the picture.

The leadership team had tried filling open positions by hiring the usual ‘best and brightest’ with a focus on expert skills and solutions they would bring from their previous employer – it did not solve the problem.  It was common practice to hire staff for their expertise, primarily; the term used was “to hit the ground running.”

As if the situation was not bad enough already, the brightest brains have left or where about to leave.  They so drained the ‘leaky pipeline’ of talent even more.  Since we know that “talent attracts talent” also the opposite appears quite likely.  Thereby, the quality of leadership team overall weakens and entails the nasty downstream effects for the staff and the organization as a whole.  Obviously the situation was home-grown, which added a sensitive political dimension the whole situation.
The blunt question stuck with me, does the top leaders actually know what talent they need?  What are their criteria for ‘talent’ when they search, so you would recognize it when you see it?  And, do they have the guts of hiring someone who actually looks at things and truly thinks  differently, comes up with unorthodox solutions and possibly has a very different profession background, career path and experiences?
Let’s leave this ‘case study’ here and step back to look at the bigger picture.

Fighting the wrong battle?

Sadly, there were many hidden assumptions at work that never surfaced or articulated.  For example, the steepest careers were made by employees sharing the same professional discipline as their leaders, so the assumption was that only a specific professional background would qualify a candidate.  Another ironclad assumption was that talent is hard to find – after all we read about this “war for talent” raging out there, as Steven Hankin of McKinsey coined it so dramatically, right?

I respectfully disagree.  While it makes sense to hire from the outside for certain purposes such as short-term for specific skills or experience for a project or long-term for the right mindset and development potential, for example, it makes little sense to me to neglect the talent you already have.  My take was not that there is a lack of talent but a lack of being able to identifying talent.

Talent Mismanagement 

It seems that talent acquisition and development have eroded from an an art form to a dry and rigid process that -obviously- doesn’t work all that well for this organization.  Little attention was paid to talent identification and retention within the organization or mindset and cultural fit of candidates, for example.

Here are just some examples for common practices that inhibited internal talent to develop and grow – and eventually drove employees away:

  • Internal applicants for open positions were in practice only considered when the already did the job they applied for.  How is this supposed to work? Where is the potential for existing staff to develop and seize opportunities?
    We know little about new hires but we a know a lot about our existing employees. What may look like an advantage for the employee often plays out the other way: This knowledge can induce a bias and limit our employees getting opportunities when we may still see them as ‘corporate infants’ despite many years of tenure; like parents who can be blindsided of their kids growing up and being ready for the challenge that we tend more easily to entrust a stranger with.
  • Graduates fresh out of college were preferred over employees meeting the job requirements, for a trainee rotation program, for example. This was despite the fact that the company often had paid for the employees’ advanced degrees.  These employees came with relevant work experience and existing networks within the organization which minimized on-boarding efforts.  They already knew the company culture and what to expect. So these employees would not get the job despite their qualifications. – How crazy is that? I call this ‘talent mismanagement.’
    Take an even closer look: These employees went back to school in parallel to their day job, family, etc. They had proven their tenacity and commitment to develop personally as well as for the company over years – and are denied a chance to apply their new skills.  What a waste! No wonder the talent pipeline leaked!

Three ways to identify talent you already have

Traditionally, talent identification is seen as a top-down process where executives pick employees from their pool based on who they believe has potential.  The selected ‘talent’ then receives training, development or career opportunities to prepare them for their future leadership role. This was the model applied leading up to the sad situation of the case study above. It favors a bias of group-think and appointing or hiring people like yourself instead of focusing to find the best person for the job.

What if we looked at and selected internal ‘talent’ differently?  What if we leveled the playing field to allow any employee to prove themselves and then select talent based on merits?

Here are three proposals on how to identify talent you already have within your organization but overlooked in the past:

  1. Look closely at your employees who went back to school or underwent a significant challenge on top of their core job to learn and develop themselves, such as the ones mentioned above that graduated with advanced degrees in parallel to their day work. This are tough cookies, self-starters, driven to self-improve and seeking career opportunities; ignore them and they will leave.
    Read also:  How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm?
  2. Build a School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company as a merit-based pipeline for leaders, talent and change agents.  Our battle-hardened graduates have experienced resistance and found ways to form diverse teams and build supportive networks on their way to implementing their ideas.
    Read also  How to create innovation culture with diversity! and  Innovation drives Diversity&Inclusion 2.0
  3. Seed-fund ideas that meet desirable criteria for disruptive innovation for a proof-of-concept by introducing, for example,  Angel Investing within the Company – Insights from an Internal Corporate Venture Capitalist. We have seen colleagues returning with more great ideas after their first one got funded. It works like releasing creative breaks and empowering employees to take charge.

Meaningful change is likely to meet resistance within the organization. It takes determination to change established talent management practices. It takes guts to walk the walk despite a general intellectual agreement.
Time will tell how the above case study plays out for this particular organization, i.e. if the recommendations made will be adopted – or if this consulting appointment degrades to just a feel-good exercise without consequences, since taking action requires real leadership.

Innovation drives Diversity&Inclusion 2.0

The traditional world of corporate Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is being disrupted by a new take on D&I and combining it with innovation and talent management.  What some perceive as a threat to the D&I establishment may just be the next step of evolution that could invigorate and drive D&I to new heights.

Though not an entirely novel approach (see also How to create innovation culture with diversity!) the new thinking gains traction.  As this could play out in different ways and only time will tell what worked, here are my thought on where we are heading.

Struggles of the  Front Runner

Many traditional D&I programs, let’s call them “version 1.0” of D&I, struggle transitioning beyond a collection of affinity groups, tallying corporate demographics and competing for D&I awards to post on their webpage.  In these traditional D&I programs ‘diversity’ is often understood to be reflected by more or less visible differences among individuals at the workplace while ‘inclusion’ translates to supporting defined sub-populations of employees through, for example, establishing affinity groups.

The United States is seen as the front runner of the D&I movement.  D&I has been around in the U.S. corporate world for decades.  For historic and demographic reasons it hones in on removing obstacles for minorities at the workplace supported also by strict legislature and execution; exercising Affirmative Action, for example.

This legacy in the U.S. lends itself to an inside focus on organizations that became the backbone of the traditional D&I programs.  It comes down to the question ‘what can or should the organization do for specific groups of people’ defined by ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, faith, disability, war history and so on.  Apparently, it still is work in progress as, for example, Silicon Valley just recently got on the public radar, which stirred up the debate afresh along the lines of D&I 1.0; see Google releases breakdown on the diversity of its workforce.

Stuck in the ‘Diversity Trap’?

The inside focus and minority messaging of D&I 1.0, however, can be limiting when D&I erodes to a process of ‘doing things right’ by pushing for quotas, ‘checking boxes’ and inflating variations of terminology perceived as ‘politically correct’.  This can in fact be different from ‘doing the right thing’ for the company overall, its employees as well as the affinity groups and their constituency.   It should not surprise that Affinity groups can be (and often get) stigmatized and perceived as self-serving and self-centered social networks without significant and measurable business impact.

Under this paradigm these D&I 1.0 programs struggle to get serious attention, support and funding from executives beyond operating on a minor level to ‘keep the lights on’ more for public image purposes than business drive.  The fundamentals seem to get forgotten: in the end, a business exists to generate a profit, so less profitable activities are likely to be discontinued or divested.  It’s a symbiosis and to say it bluntly: without healthy business there is no D&I program and no affinity groups.  When this symbiosis get lopsided, D&I 1.0 gets stuck in the trap.

D&I 2.0

“Diversity” is catching on beyond the United States in Europe, for example, where many countries do not have share a highly heterogeneous demographic composition, for example.  Here, companies can start with a fresh approach jumping straight to D&I 2.0 – and many do!  It reminds me of developing countries installing their first phone system by skipping the landlines and starting right away with mobile phones.

The 2.0 internal focus corresponds to hiring workers that truly think differently and have different backgrounds and life experiences some of which overlaps with D&I 1.0 affinity roots.  In addition, there is also an external focus putting the staff to work with a clear business proposition and reaching even beyond the organization.  So here a candidate would be hired or employee promoted for their different thinking (2.0) rather than more visible differences (1.0).

While need remains for affinity groups to tend to their members needs within the organization, the “new” D&I 2.0 opens to shift focus to go beyond the organization.  It goes along the lines of a statement President John F. Kennedy became famous for and that I tweaked as follows: “Don’t ask what the COMPANY can do for you ask what you can do for the COMPANY AND ITS CUSTOMERS.

D&I 2.0 gears towards actively contributing and driving new business results in measurable ways for the better of the employees as well as the organization and its customers.  A visible indicator for D&I 2.0 affinity groups helping their constituency beyond company walls is affinity groups identifying and seizing business opportunities specific to their constituency.  They translate the opportunity and shepherd it trough the processes of the organization to bring it to fruition.  For example, affinity groups are uniquely positioned to extending and leveraging their reach to relating customer segments in order to identify ‘small elephant’ business opportunities; see How to grow innovation elephants in large organizations.

The D&I 2.0 approach demonstrates sustainable business value which is why D&I 2.0 sells much easier to executives. It makes a compelling business case that contributes to new business growth, the life blood of every company.

Challenging Transition

U.S. companies stuck in D&I 1.0 are hard pressed to keep up with the D&I 2.0 developments and overcome their inner struggle and resistance.  With decades of legacy, D&I 1.0 programs in many organizations lack the vision and ability to make a compelling business case, to develop a sound strategy as well as capability and skill to implement it effectively.  This is the requirement, however, to truly see eye-to-eye with senior executives and get their full support.  This can become a serious disadvantage in the markets relating to products and customers but also in attracting talent.

In the end, the saying holds true that “talent attracts talent” and all organizations compete over talent to compete and succeed.  Therefore, a D&I 2.0 program combines business focus and talent management while tying it back to the core of diversity and inclusion: Fostering diverse thinkers and leveling the playing field for all employees.  This requires a level playing field that offers the same opportunities to all employees, which is the real challenge.

How do you level the playing field effectively in a large organization?  How this will be implemented becomes the differentiating success factor for companies transitioning to D&I 2.0!

Here is a example 2.0-style for a level playing filed that has its roots in the D&I affinity group space yet opened up to include the entire workforce.  It empowers and actively engages employees while leveraging diversity, inclusion and talent management for innovative solutions with profitable business outcomes.  It may take a minute or two to see the connection between D&I, talent and disruptive innovation but it is at work right here in the School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company.

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Previous posts relating to innovation and employee affinity groups / employee resource groups (ERG) / business resource groups (BRG):

Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG)

Here are my Top 10 posts for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) / Business Resource Groups (BRG):

1.  Why do companies need business-focused ERGs?

The answer is as simple as this: Because it makes good business sense!

2.  Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

The increasing diversity of employees at the workplace led to employees gathering along affinity dimensions like birds-of-a-feather to form networking groups within organizations. The next step goes beyond affinity and establishes employee resource groups (ERGs) strategically as business resource and powerful driver for measurable business impact and strategic innovation bottom-up.

3.  How to start building a business-focused ERG?

Let’s start with what it takes to found a successful ERG on a high level and then drill down to real-life examples and practical advice.  What you cannot go without is a strategy that creates a business need before you drum up people, which creates a buzz!

4.  Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine!  (part 3 of 3)

While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

5.  How to create innovation culture with diversity!

Strategic innovation hands-on: Who hasn’t heard of successful organizations that pride their innovation culture?  But the real question is what successful innovators do differently to sharpen their innovative edge over and over again – and how your organization can get there!

6.  “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)

What every new employee resource group (ERG) requires most are people: the life-blood for ideas and activities!  But how do you reach out to employees, help them understand the value of the ERG and get them involved to engage actively?

7.  Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!

What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military?  – More than you expect!  A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans to action and prevent established activists from burning out.  The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation?  Next-generation ERGs listen up:  Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!

8.  Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG

If you are planning to found an ERG or are a new ERG Leaders, you might find the attached Q&A helpful.

9.  How to attract an executive sponsor?

10.  Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This  youngest generation at the work place (born after 1980, also called Millennial) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?Don’t miss my Top 10 Innovation posts and Top 10 posts for Intrapreneurs!

The OrgChanger tag cloud

Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!

What do Generation Y (GenY) oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERG) share with the military?  – More than you expect!  A constant supply of active members is the life-blood for any ERG to put plans to action and prevent established activists from burning out.  The U.S. Army faces a similar challenge every year: how to attract and recruit the youngest adult generation?  Next-generation ERGs listen up:  Let the U.S. Army work for you and learn some practical lessons!

The U.S. Army brand

Everyone knows the U.S. Army. This American icon has been around for well over 230 years!

The ‘U.S. Army’ is more than a well-known military force. We recognize it as a brand.  Just like ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘IBM’ portray and advertise a certain company image to sell its product, the U.S. Army needs to constantly appeal with a unique value proposition for new recruits to enlist. The ‘product’ offered if what the recruit expect to get out of it along the lines of ‘what is in it for me’ (WIIFM).

From this commercial perspective, it seems only natural that the U.S. Army hires world-class advertisement agencies to help meeting recruitment targets.  Marketing and advertisement gained importance especially since the U.S. Army turned into an all-volunteer force in 1973. This is similar to a voluntary ERG membership.

Aiming at a moving target

We distinguish four generations at the workplace today. Each comes with different motivations and characteristics.  The collective personality or zeitgeist influences each generation’s behavior and values.  These need to be considered to adapt and effectively connect with each generation in its own way to maximize their potential and productivity for the better of the organization overall.

You can easily find this spectrum of generations reflected in the historic recruitment campaigns of the U.S. Army.  The U.S. Army ‘brand’ changes over time and adapts to appeal and attract fresh recruits.

Let’s take a look at these recruiting campaigns for the four generations before we move on to extract the practical benefits for ERGs today:

1.  Veterans, Silent or Traditional Generation (born 1922 to 1945)

"I Want You"
Uncle Sam

I admit, in practice this campaign hardly affects today’s ERG anymore since most of this age group has already left the workforce by now.

Nonetheless, using the ‘propaganda’ flavor in this message proved very successful in both WWI and WWII.

‘Uncle Sam’ captures the essence of a generation of disciplined conformers with much respect for authority and an ingrained understanding that duty to the country is an obligation.

2.  Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)

The U.S. Army became an all-volunteer force in 1973, which changed the recruiting game entirely.  Not being able to rely on a general draft anymore, the U.S. Army needed a new approach to attract a steady stream of voluntary recruits.

This coincided with an upcoming new generation of the younger Baby Boomers generally characterized as full of optimism and thirst for social engagement.  To tackle the new challenge of effective marketing, the U.S. Army brought in a professional advertisement agency.

"Today's Army"
Who expects "Today's Army" to be a fun crowd playing football?

The first ads to the “Today’s Army Wants to Join You” campaign (1971 to 1980) suggest membership in a nice group of people sharing many similarities.

Also women were now encouraged to enlist. It’s all about optimism, getting together and being involved!

This was a gutsy and somewhat liberal first step to attract a volunteer force.  Though thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ it did not work out all that smoothly as indicated by changes following quickly.

"Join the People who Joined the Army"
All serious in 1973

This ad (1973 to 1976) is like a pendulum swinging back to the opposite extreme!

Tone and focus changed dramatically in this newer version of “Join the People” emphasizing the seriousness and commitment of being a soldier while also highlighting personal benefits.

The message is clear:  No more playing around here, responsibility and duty is back, no more football on the beach!

Finally, the U.S. Army settled on a more balanced campaign.

"This is the Army"
Blends people & duty

Here is an example for “This Is the Army” campaign ads.  The headlines read “In Europe You’re on Duty 24 Hours a Day, but the Rest of the Time Is Your Own” or “Back home, I wouldn’t mind doing the work I’m doing here” influenced also by a loss of military reputation after the Vietnam war.

One campaign or another, the U.S. Army missed its recruitment goal by more than 17.000 in 1979.  This announced a new generation, GenX, coming with a different background and values that required the U.S. Army to re-think and find a new approach.

3.  Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)

Birthrates cut into the recruitment pool. In addition, the smaller Generation X turns out to be tough to target.

This generation came with inherent distrust of authority originating from geopolitical change as well as changes in western society and family structures.  Despite GenX’s dominant drive for independence and self-reliance this generation is also looking for structure and direction in life.

6 Be all you can be ad
Personal growth

“Be All You Can Be” (1980 to 2001) emphasizes a personal challenge and an opportunity for self-development, i.e. taking charge of your fate to become a better individual.  Note that the “we” is gone,  it’s all about “me” for GenX.

The benefits offered by the U.S. Army included significant education support.  (The U.S. military remains the largest ‘education organization’ in the U.S. in terms of funding tuition, in particular.)

3 "Army of One" logo
Self-reliant GenX

The succeeding “Army of One” campaign (2001 to 2006) hits the true core of the independent GenX by underlining the single person in their message.

However, the campaign was also short-lived because a focus on the independent individual appeared contrary to the idea of teamwork that any military organization relies on and cannot work without.

The U.S. Army made more use of TV advertisement to reach GenX, a generation brought up in front of a TV.

Facing demographic decline, recruiting advertisement reached out into Spanish-speaking ‘markets’ (in a campaign known as “Yo Soy el Army”) to tap into the increasing Hispanic population.

4.  Generation Y or Millennials (born 1981 to 2001)

The ongoing “Army Strong” campaign builds on a proposition of lifelong strength through training, teamwork, shared values and personal experience.  – What a change from the previous focus on independence for GenX!

“Army Strong” also suggests contemporary leadership, personal empowerment and strength building that found on shared values.
(Read more on managing Generation Y at Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?)

Here, ‘strength’ is meant literally:  The U.S. Army overhauled the fitness training to ‘toughen up’ this generation.  Weakened by a more tranquil lifestyle (such as video-gaming),  GenY-ers often lack experience with physical confrontation that is unavoidable and crucial for effective warriors.

Army Strong
"Army Strong" since 2006

Perhaps confusing for older generations, “Army Strong” caters to GenY’s interest in making a difference not only in their lives but also for their extended communities.  Work is less central in this generation while individuality and leisure value high.

The campaign milks the social ties deliberately addressing not only recruits but also the people who love and support them, i.e. the people who influence the recruits’ decisions such as family and friends as well as the broader public.

Print ad for "Army Strong"
GenY pride and social values

Consequently, the U.S. Army presents itself more as a responsible and somewhat selfless social service in advertisements by highlighting how soldiers serve for their communities and for their nation beyond executing force during a conflict.

The U.S. Army adapts its spectrum of communication channels to keep up with GenY, a generation for which technology serves as extension of  their personality and their physical selves.  Constantly online and connectedness with an appealing adventurous fun-factor, the U.S. Army is present across the entire landscape of noteworthy social media these days – it even entertains its own video game to warm up GenY.

Targets on the demographic curve

Next-generation ERGs and the U.S. Army both aim to attract a specific demographic:  The U.S. Army targets 17 to 24-year-old recruits, looking at the lower end, while ERG typically look for the older end, i.e. young adults with professional training, perhaps a college degree and some work experience.

Thus, the U.S. Army’s target demographic starts just a few years younger than the typical employees entering the (civilian) workforce, so the U.S. Army operates a bit ahead of the age curve that becomes relevant for ERG membership recruitment.

Let the U.S. Army do your research!

Using this time difference to their advantage, next-generation ERGs, in particular, benefit from the U.S. Army doing the heavy lifting with regard to generational research.  With the U.S. Army’s advertisement contract worth more than $200 million each year (or $2,500+ per recruit) don’t fool yourself:  an ERG will never have funds anywhere close to hire a top-notch advertisement agency for attracting new members … unless you are perhaps the guys who invented Google or so…  J

From a next-generation-ERG’s perspective, here is what you can reap:

  • Target Characteristics

Using its marketing dollars, the U.S. Army identifies the characteristics of your future demographic for you – for free!  Look at how the U.S. Army is targeting today.  It gives you a clear picture of what the characteristics are of your next ERG generation tomorrow.

The U.S. Army shares its findings publicly.  This includes a sharp outline of the specific characteristics of the youngest employees that enter your workplace now or it in the near future.  So, keep an eye on the U.S. Army’s next recruiting campaign and time is on your side!

  • Trial-and-Error without getting hurt

It gets even better.  The U.S. Army provides you with field test results on whether their findings hold true in practice:  The U.S. Army’s annual recruitment figures serve as success criterion for the recruiting campaign.  These figures are available in the public domain and found easily online within seconds.

  • The early warning signal

If the actual Army recruitment figure exceeds or falls short of the target figure (somewhere around 80.000 recruits each year), you get an idea what worked and what did not.  The latter reflects not only that the campaign lost effectiveness but may also indicate that the next generation has arrived with a changed set of values and characteristics.  – Use this as a free early‑warning system for your ERG!

Note that over the past five years the U.S. Army’s number of “accessions” (=recruits) exceeded the “mission” (=target value); note though that the “mission” bar was lowered in 2009 and 2010.

When the U.S. Army misses its recruitment target in the future, the next campaign is just around the corner.  A significant change in the core message targets the next generation.  So, here comes your next lesson and opportunity for the ERGs!

Back to the Future?

If the U.S. Army is not for you, don’t worry.  Choose any military branch of your liking – they all face the same challenge.  You don’t need to love the military to learn from it, and the lessons are valuable.

As a general yet effective approach to strategic innovation, keep an eye on industries and organizations that face similar challenges earlier than you do.  Learn from them and prepare your business and ERG for the change.

Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine! (part 3 of 3)

While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

An alternative and sustainable way to tap deep into your employees’ creative potential and turning it into solid business value is by forming an employee resource group (ERG). A well-crafted ERG serves as a powerful and strategic innovation engine for your organization!

Losing the innovative edge?
It is the large companies that seem to struggle with innovation most. When companies grow they tend to become less innovative. When this happens we see great talent turning into under-performing employees. – Why is that and is there a way out?

Stuck in mental models of the past?
Remember the heavy dinosaurs that finally got stuck in the pre-history tar pits and starved, too heavy to move themselves out of the calamity? Mental models are the tar pits that companies grow to get stuck in – unless they find a way to shed (mental) weight and think nimble again to survive.

The mental models often originate from days past when the business started and flourished with initial success. The models worked when the company grew back then but models out-date easily over time. At some point the company began to work harder to standardize its processes to ensure the output is delivered reliably and predictably and costs are driven down: the focus shifted from innovation to efficiency. Specialized and refined business functions create increasingly complex and bureaucratic processes, ‘standard operating procedures’ rule the course of action. Things don’t move fast here anymore. Improvement ideas from employee on the floor hardly make it to the top executives and starve somewhere in between, probably in the famous ‘idea box’…

> For more general insight on complexity as a leadership challenge, read this: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?

This focus on incremental efficiency also traps R&D departments to a point where true creativity and innovation get stifled, the innovative output drops. In short, the larger a company the less it innovates. Sounds familiar?

Many companies chose the dangerous and seemingly easy way out in buying new ideas from the outside through acquisitions and hiring ‘new talent’. The danger lays in applying this practice too broadly and becoming reliant on this practice, i.e. getting trapped in a vicious and reinforcing cycle. This practice also alienates and frustrates the more seasoned employees who feel underutilized and –quite rightly so see their career opportunities dwindling. Soon enough the sour side of the hire-for-innovation practice for employees becomes transparent also to the newer employees and drives them away in frustration. This organization just found the perfect recipe to turn top talent into poor performers!

Don’t waste your human capital
Bringing in fresh brains to an organization may justify mergers, acquisitions or hiring at times – but not as a strategy for continuous innovation and without also at least trying to tap into the innovative capacity that lays dormant within the organization.

Don’t write your staff off easily by following blindly the common yet wrong assumption that an employee loses the creative spirit after a few years and that new hires would be more innovative than whom we already have working for us. Haven’t we hired the best and brightest consistently in the past? Well, then this logic doesn’t add up, right?

Ask yourself: have you lost your innovative edge? Will you personally be more innovative once you change to another employer? – I don’t think so either. The good news is that even if you don’t believe it, changes are that managers and human resource experts of your new employer do, at least the ones who follow the outdated mental model! – But then, how long can you expect to last there before you get written off? It’s like getting on a train to nowhere.

Derailing the train to nowhere
But seriously, the seasoned employees’ intimate knowledge of the organization and its people can hold enormous potential for innovation not only under financial considerations but also as a morale booster for staff. Getting personally involved more and engaging them in driving change again actively leads the way to measurable and favorable results for the organization. These employees are the people who know your business, your markets, your customers and where to find resources and short-cuts if needed to get things done! Remember the “Radar” character in M*A*S*H who creatively procured whatever his unit needed by knowing how to play ‘the system’ and navigate the cliffs of bureaucracy on unconventional routes?

So, how can you motivate and (re-)activate your employees to come forward with brilliant ideas and getting them implemented to boost the organization’s profitability? How can you spread new hope and direct the enthusiasm to practical and meaningful outcomes for the company and the individual employee alike?

Facing organizational barriers
There is no shortage of good ideas in the heads of employees. Too few of them, however, actually get picked up and implemented since organizational barriers have many dimensions the need to be overcome first. Here are some examples:

  • A vertical barrier effectively disconnects employees from the executive level which hold the (financial and other) resources to make things happen. Penetrating this barrier means to connect the people within the organization closely and effectively again. > Readers of my previous post What does take to keep innovating? (part 1) will recognize that an executive champion is needed who brings together the technical and business champions. If you feel intrapreneurial and consider becoming an executive champion, check this out: How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2)
  • The horizontal barrier separates business functions and operating units that evolved to become silos or manager’s ‘fiefdoms’ of sub-optimized local productivity often with lesser concern to the overall performance of the organization. What you are up against here is often enough beyond specialized deep expertise but also defensive egos and managerial status thinking that led to a comfortable and change-adverse local equilibrium. As an intrapreneur you bring a much needed yet disruptive element to the organization. Since you are rocking the boat you can get caught up in ‘politics’ easily. Functional managers and their staff may perceive you as throwing a wrench into their well-oiled and fine-tuned machine that could jeopardize not only their unit’s efficiency but also their personal incentives for keeping operations running smoothly. > For more insight on the tension field of management vs. leadership check out Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?
  • Another barrier relates to the perceived value that your work creates for the organization, so let’s call it the value barrier: When you start acting intrapreneurial, you may be seen as someone wasting resources, incurring additional cost or generating questionable value (if any value at all) in the eyes of executives and other managers.

Therefore it is of critical importance to clearly demonstrate the business value your work adds to the organization. Based on an unambiguous success metrics the value proposition needs to be communicated clearly and frequently especially to executive management to gain their buy-in and active support.

These and possibly more barriers are a tough challenge. Now, I assume you are not the almighty ‘Vice President of Really Cool Stuff’ (that would be my favorite future job title!) but hold a somewhat lower rank. Perhaps you got stuck in the wrong department (the one without the Really Cool Stuff).

So, where do you start to innovate and ‘rescue’ your organization from a looming train-wreck scenario?

Breaking down barriers by innovating from within using ERGs

A vehicle I tried out quite successfully over the past years was forming an employee resource group (ERG). This grassroots approach has the power to crash right through the vertical, horizontal and value barriers while driving change effectively and sustainably through the organization as a strategic innovation engine.

> A previous post discusses the business model behind the ERG approach in more detail: Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

Here are the first steps on the way to founding an ERG:

  • Identify a business need and build a business case, i.e. a clear value proposition aimed at executive management convincing them of the need and benefits of forming an ERG within the limits of company policies. Attracting an influential executive sponsor to gain buy-in is a key requirement for instituting an ERG successfully. The sponsor serves as a political and resourceful ally, an experienced advisor and advocate but also ensures strategic alignment of the ERG’s activities with the broader goals of the company.Since executives value their time more than yours, keep it short and to the point. Think executive summary style and offer details separately for those who chose to dig deeper and to demonstrate that you thought this whole thing through. If your organization already has a distinguished officer or departments with a vested interest in employee engagement for example then connect, collaborate and leverage your joint forces. > More on how to build a case study for an ERG at: Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG
  • Get organized! Seek voluntary members and reach out to future constituency of the ERG. Active members are needed as the driving force and source of ideas that the ERG turns into business projects aimed to innovate and energize the organization.
    The first ERG I founded was “NxGen”, which stands for the “Next Generation at the Workplace”. The NxGen ERG has a generational orientation but is open to all employees regardless of their age or workplace generation. Nonetheless, from the start mostly the youngest employees (Generation Y) drove NxGen. In many cases they did not know of each other as the GenY-ers were spread thin across the various business functions of the company.The GenY-ers, in particular, found a forum in the NxGen ERG to get to know each other in the first place. We then focused on goals based on shared values or needs to build a strong support network within the company. At all times we kept the ERG open and inclusive to interested employees join from other workplace generations.

    The ERG offers its members a safe environment to discuss issues and ideas. It also serves as an informal forum to find coaches and mentors for personal development or specific projects and initiatives. Active ERG membership allows less experienced employees to quickly acquire new skills and test them in real-life by running a project hands-on even in areas outside of their job description or business function to address needs close to their heart with tangible business value. Here, the ERG serves as a very practical leadership development pipeline and safe ground for experimentation within the organization.

    > More on the virtues of Generation Y as I experience it in NxGen under: Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

  • Get active by launching business-focused projects. Again, you are targeting management and executives in particular to build credibility and thereby become more effective over time.Start with feasible projects of high visibility and short duration that address a significant business need with a clear and quantifiable success metrics. For each project seek executive sponsorship at the highest level you can attain from the business area that the project affects. Make sure to communicate your successes broadly and frequently to kick-start the ERG. Stick to a clear, specific and unambiguous metrics for your success; if you can tie it to a monetary ROI the better, as this is the language of business. > More on establishing a success metric under: Driving the ROI – where to start your projects metrics?

    Showcasing and celebrating your successes as an ERG motivates the already active members, keeps attracting new members and builds credibility among executives to keep the ERG wheels turning as a strategic innovation engine for your organization.

On a personal note
The example of the NxGen ERG is very real. NxGen was nationally recognized as best-practices ERG within 5 months (!) of its founding and became a valued and frequent sounding board for C-level executives within one year. The ERG has no funds of its own yet runs projects and initiatives nationally and internationally that already shifted the company culture and opened it more for change.

References and additional reading