Meet, Connect, Dance

Networking Entrepreneurs

The ‚#iDea. Company infuses start-up-spirit at Siemens – by bringing people together beyond established hierarchies and across borders so they can pursue new ideas parallel to their daily roles.

The buildings at the Siemens Campus in the Munich suburb of Neuperlach, linked together like giant Lego blocks, are interspersed with a large number of trees – elms, sycamores, oaks, beech, and ash. A different species waves in the wind in front of each building. As for the green lawn below the trees, that has drawn less attention until now, but soon it may be dotted with small huts that could have come straight from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “These will contain nicely appointed rooms where meetings will be held during the day,” says Thomas Luister, Chair of the Siemens Idea Company, which is behind the plan. “Then, in the evenings, co-workers can meet on the wooden terrace for a drink and talk over new projects. Staying overnight will also be an option.”

The unusual project the #iDea. Company is currently working to achieve is aimed at restoring some of the start-up spirit to the huge corporate reality that Siemens has grown into since its days as a start-up in 19th-century Berlin. Since 2016, the #iDea. Company has been working with volunteers, drawn from very different divisions, to turn an exciting variety of projects into reality. It encourages a dynamic community that goes beyond the established hierarchies. “It goes without saying that Siemens has lots of initiatives that call for innovation,” notes Luister. “Examples are Quickstarter, from Corporate Technology, which provides support for in-house ideas, or the 3i Programm, which offers prizes for ideas submitted by employees. What we are doing, however, is encouraging a start-up culture by bringing people together from all areas within Siemens. Today, we have a network of over 50 active participants in seven countries - and we're continuing to grow.”

A turbo-style hackathon

One of the first projects by the #iDea. Company were the Siemens Hackathon Days 2017, where 1,700 programmers gathered on-site and online for two days of marathon sessions during which they developed software applications. These included methods of detecting unwanted drones or developing customized train seats that can be adjusted to the passengers’ preferred sitting positions before they arrive. “The individual projects weren’t the key focus from our perspective,” says Jayne Biles, who is in charge of communications in the Idea Company. “The most important thing was that we brought Siemens employees together. And of course, we wanted to take this success model further.”

This exercise was followed a year later by Futureland – a turbo-style hackathon with the theme of “Make Digitalization Work” – two days, 5,000 employees from all Business Units, 257 teams in eight locations, developing relevant ideas that ranged from Blockchain to artificial intelligence and the IoT platform MindSphere. This event, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Handelsblatt Diamond Star Award for Innovation, resulted in a number of actual invention disclosure reports.

New ways of working together

The thinking behind the hackathons, however, involves more than just creating a short-term festival atmosphere among employees. “The principle is to create a new way of working in such a large company with many hierarchical levels, in which small teams take ideas from the initial concept through to implementation in parallel with their real job,” Luister explains. “With #Idea. Company everybody participating decides for themselves what to contribute and where. This leads to a dynamic self-organized structure, without hierarchies, without central control. This kind of approach is new for Siemens.” The company benefits long term, as Luister points out. “Employees make important experiences and are much more motivated overall, because they can try out new things and gain new qualifications in addition to their actual job.” Examples of role models are companies like Google, which encourage their employees to spend a part of their working hours on innovations that are important to them, under their own responsibility. 

This new self-image, developed over the past three years, also means that the #iDea. Company has improved its ability to assess its core skills: “If people have developed a new application for the 5G wireless standard, we can possibly point them in the right direction,” Luister observes. “But our most important task is to enable people to find new ways of working with each other, which means more than just organizing hackathons. It also means arranging parties and promoting technologies that will bring the people together.”

Elegant solutions for needs of the community

So now the former library at the Neuperlach campus hosts after-work events organized by the Idea Company, with the theme of “Meet, Connect, Dance.” The in-house start-up also promotes social tools, like a “couch surfing” app, currently being developed, which will enable employees to arrange to stay over with co-workers instead of booking into faceless hotels. The #iDea. Company has also begun offering services for events. “Traditionally, these events involve engaging an expensive caterer,” Luister says. “But if we join forces for a barbecue, we not only save costs but we also bring people together.”

That’s why the inventions sponsored by the #iDea. Company also don’t have to be spectacular showpieces. The innovation can simply involve identifying a need on the part of the Siemens community and finding an elegant solution for it. A barcode app, say, which makes it possible to share all contact information quickly via mobile phone, avoiding the need to hunt around for a business card. The InstaGauge app is another example, which employees now use for about a thousand surveys each month. Or TaskMarket, an app that lets users quickly locate expertise within the company for all kinds of tasks a team may require. And it also helps to extend #iDea. Company’s network.

Tilling the fields for innovations

Granted, applications like these are also available on the open market. “But often we can’t use them in-house as they stand because of security considerations or for reasons of data protection,” says Biles. “So we deal with new ideas for apps in exactly the way that we want to encourage within the company – with minimum red tape, flexibly, and backed by the commitment of our co-workers,” she comments. “And it also demonstrates the change in culture that we are promoting.”

With its mission of bringing people together, the #iDea. Company has clearly struck a chord. In July, for example, it added its support to the “Siemens Transformation PopUp Week,” organized by employees, in which participants were able to give virtual presentations on their visions of how Siemens should evolve in the future. More than 5,000 employees around the world took part. More than a dozen other comparable projects, including Futureland 2, are in progress. That means a lot of work, but standing still is not an option, notes Luister: “You have to keep tilling the fields where innovations will thrive.” (ab/fk)


Author: Hubertus Breuer

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