How do today’s big companies make sure they aren’t suddenly caught out by upstart start-ups from Silicon Valley?
It’s a question many chief executives running Germany’s biggest companies have been worrying over for some time.
They had a chance to discuss ideas with others at this year’s Innovation Forum in Frankfurt, sponsored by Handelsblatt and Goethe University. The meeting drew together representatives from industries including rail, steel, pharma and healthcare.
The managers discussed their approaches to innovation with Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart at the event which was attended by 600 people.
Many of the chief executives there had decided the best way to better new competitors was to take a look for themselves and visit the companies, often former garage firms now worth billions, whose strategies threaten the old order.
These included Christoph Franz, president of the management board of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche; the head of Deutsche Bahn, Rüdiger Grube; Gisbert Rühl, CEO of the steel company Klöckner; and Jens Baas, managing director of the Techniker Krankenkasse (TK).
What matters for innovation is inspiration, many agreed. But how could they transform traditional company structures to enable new ways of thinking and working?
Mr. Rühl, the chief executive of Klöckner, described how the steel maker’s digitization strategy is making processes with suppliers and customers simpler and more efficient thanks to digital solutions. In this it is aided by its new Berlin start-up Kloeckner.i, a unit tasked with fostering digitization together with experts in e-commerce, online marketing and business intelligence departments. “We’ve built up a group of people from established start-up companies who are helping us attack our current business model,” Mr. Rühl said.
He conceded that it was only during a visit to Silicon Valley that he had been forced to rejig his world view. After all, he said, it might not seem likely that his industry would be challenged by the digital world. But: “When the concentrated power of Silicon Valley becomes aimed toward a particular industry, then things get tight.”