How an Innovation Manager helps to drive Digital Innovation at Schaeffler [Strategic Partnership Insights]

As part of our Digital Innovation Blog, we also shed light on – among other things – the various roles and profiles that deal with digital / emerging technologies. Since 2019, I have been working closely with Schaeffler as an innovation and technology consultant in the field of digital innovation. More specifically, with Christof Heurung, who plays a central role there as an Innovation Broker. 

We thought it is worthwhile to share some of our project and partnership insights and experiences with you and the wider innovation community. Especially when you are interested to become an Innovation Manager yourself. To give you some insights into Christof’s work, we conducted a short interview with him.   

Here you can read more about what Christof said about the role and how an Innovation Broker at Schaeffler works to address the topic of emerging technologies. In addition you can find some project examples and tools that you can use for your own innovation projects. 

Enjoy reading the article 🙂

About Schaeffler

Schaeffler is a leading global supplier to the automotive and industrial sectors, the Schaeffler Group has been driving forward groundbreaking inventions and developments in the fields of motion and mobility for over 75 years. With innovative technologies, products, and services for electric mobility, CO₂-efficient drives, Industry 4.0, digitalization, and renewable energies, the company is a reliable partner for making motion and mobility more efficient, intelligent, and sustainable. The technology company manufactures high-precision components and systems for powertrain and chassis applications as well as rolling and plain bearing solutions for a large number of industrial applications. The Schaeffler Group generated sales of approximately EUR 13.9 billion in 2021. With around 83,000 employees, Schaeffler is one of the world’s largest family companies. With more than 1,800 patent applications in 2021, Schaeffler is Germany’s third most innovative company according to the DPMA (German Patent and Trademark Office)

As part of their Digitalization strategy, Schaeffler has launched various initiatives like a comprehensive digital / ERP transformation. User Experience is another crucial topic within Schaeffler’s digital transformation. In this context digital innovation plays a major role.

Digital Innovation as part of the Strategic Partnership between Schaeffler and SAP

We have had the pleasure to work with Schaeffler in this field for quite some time already (far beyond existing SAP products). Thus, we thought it might be worth sharing who drives digital innovation at Schaeffler. And what it really means to be a digital innovation manager at a company like Schaeffler. That’s why we have conducted an interview with Christof Heurung, who is responsible for both the strategic partnership between Schaeffler and SAP (article in German) and to drive digital innovation at Schaeffler.

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Schaeffler has pioneered motion for decades – now the company can build upon this know-how in the digital world

What is a digital innovation manager?

Christof, how is your job description at Schaeffler and how would you characterize your job?

Christof: My official job title at Schaeffler is Digitalization Strategy Professional. I cover several different responsibilities, including activities related to digital innovation, i.e., what new technologies are being developed in the market and how can we adopt them for Schaeffler to leverage their potentials. In addition, my position involves working with my colleagues in the strategic digitalization team to coordinate and advance a wide variety of topics in the context of digitalization throughout the company and with our partners like SAP. My day-to-day work is very varied and consists of a lot of communication activities. I therefore have the pleasure to cooperate and collaborate with many different contacts from divisions, functions, and regions at Schaeffler with whom I develop my topics further.

Since when does the role of a digital innovation manager exist in your organization?

Christof: I can’t answer that exactly, but the formal innovation activities in IT started about 8 years ago. At that time, we at Schaeffler began to take a closer look at the topic of information technologies as part of our overall innovation strategy. Over the years, the focus on IT innovation evolves into the topic of digital innovations, where IT is one dimension together with Business activities and Data. It was a great opportunity for me to be one of the driving forces behind these activities from the very beginning on.

What exactly is your part of the job in the context of digital innovation?

Christof: My task in the context of digital innovations consists of various sub-tasks, all of which contribute to advancing the topic. I see three main tasks in this.

First, designing the necessary processes for dealing with digital innovations, so that the various activities are synchronized, and the involved people are linked to each other, both within the Digitalization & IT units and with the entire innovation management at Schaeffler.

Second, the advancement of our Digital Technology Radar. This contains the digital technologies we see as relevant for Schaeffler, bundled in search fields, arranged according to the degree of maturity of their adaptation at Schaeffler. To this end, I manage a network of technology experts across the company and at our ecosystem partners, and together we ensure that the appropriate topics are identified and that we make progress together.

Third, our annual Digital Innovation Day. Here we offer our employees the opportunity to take a look into the future, and to get inspiration on digital innovations. We bring our internal experts and those of our partners on our virtual stage and broadcast the event to all our sites worldwide.

What does a digital innovation manager do?

Promising ideas don’t usually fall out of the sky. How do you identify good ideas?

Christof: That’s right, most of the time ideas don’t knock on the door, but rather want to be discovered. This detective work requires creativity, communication and, above all, a certain degree of persistence when it comes to implementation. I’m supported in this by my good network, through which ideas are either brought to me or into which I feed ideas I have by myself or receive from others. In the end, chance plays a role from time to time, but active communication, interaction and going through the world with open eyes are, in my view, essential prerequisites for identifying good ideas and give coincidence a helping hand.

How do you select and choose different ideas? Isn´t it hard to select them all at once.

Christof: In principle, the procedure is analogous to other decision-making processes. Resources are also scarce here, so it is a matter of focusing and prioritizing and making decisions. We try to demonstrate the value of a technology for Schaeffler and compare this with the effort and possible risks. An agile approach helps here, synchronizing and re-adjusting again and again, keeping the big goal in sight but react flexibly to changes when stepping forward. And, to recognize that certain things no longer make sense and stop them. We target to try things fast and learn fast. Finally, the gut feeling of those involved certainly also plays a role that should not be neglected.

Do you take a systematic approach in your innovation process? If so, can you tell us a bit more about it?

Christof: Yes and no I would say. We scan certain sources that we use as a basis for inspiration, we leverage established networks to bring people together and we promote exchange, and for Schaeffler as a whole, innovations played and play a key role in the company’s success, so we benefit from a positive underlying mood for innovation here. However, some things also happen through informal networks, and my many years of experience help me here, as do numerous connections at Schaeffler and outside.

Innovations often affect many different areas of a company. What percentage of your job is communication and facilitation?

Christof: I would say that in terms of digital innovations, the majority of the time is on communication and facilitation. An SAP colleague described me as an “innovation broker” and I think that sums it up quite well. I have neither the knowledge nor the time to deal with digital innovations in detail. That’s why I try to set impulses and motivate and network others. It is also important that we report on what we have achieved. This all succeeds sometimes more and sometimes less successfully, but all in all I am satisfied with what we have established and achieved at Schaeffler in recent years.

Who are the most important sparring partners and stakeholders for you as a digital innovation manager / or as you said: “innovation broker”?

Christof: From my perspective, the most important stakeholder is my boss Jürgen Henn, who is responsible for Strategic Digitalization at Schaeffler. He gives me a lot of support, creates the necessary room for experimentation and is full of ideas what can be done with digital technologies. That is essential, because digital innovation needs top management support. Other stakeholders are the decision-makers for Digitalization & IT in the divisions, functions, and regions at Schaeffler; here, too, I am well connected and can repeatedly provide input and promote joint activities. For my work, I spar with my direct colleagues as well as my network of technology experts, not to mention contacts at partners such as SAP.

Note from Andreas: Interested to hear more about how Schaeffler and SAP work together in the context of digital innovation? Listen to our podcast: Paving The Way For Digital Transformation and Innovation Through A Strong Strategic Partnership

What tools do you use in your daily work? Is there anything in particular that helps you?

Christof: To be honest, we don’t have a specific tool in use, apart from office applications that are used for visualization and presentation. I think it’s important that we share knowledge, spread it and connect people so that we bring digital innovation forward and show again and again that it’s worth investing in digital technologies at an early stage. Maybe I could mention the usage of Technology Readiness Levels which we have integrated into our Digital Technology Radar to better reflect how mature the technology is and how far we are with adoption to Schaeffler.

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Six search fields for Schaeffler to drive technology-led innovations

Can you tell us what kind of topics you are currently working on or what were exciting topics in the past?

Christof: I’m happy to give you a little insight. Everything around artificial intelligence continues to be important for us. We have already set some impulses in this area in recent years, for example the digital assistant together with SAP and our customers and users are already using the first solutions based on AI, e.g. our OPTIME solutions. I am personally excited about the development of the Metaverse. Here we are in early exchange with our partners, even if we cannot yet assess the potential exactly. Finally, I would like to mention quantum computing. Perhaps the topic with the greatest potential for change, even if it is often difficult for me as a computer scientist to understand that there is no longer just 0 or 1, but both and much in between. In any case, it remains exciting!

Note from Andreas – What Schaeffler does to explore and drive AI topics: Schaeffler amongst others is a member of the KI Park e. V. – an incorporated society that has the purpose to foster real-life applications in the field of artificial intelligence.

And if you want to read more about the Metaverse: Business in the Metaverse: Overhyped yet Underestimated?

How we address technology topics as part of the Schaeffler and SAP strategic partnership – an example

Here you can see the result of our Digital Assistant Innovation project.

The image below shows how we designed the Digital Assistant use case before we built it. This is a nice example that illustrates how agile project methodologies, tools and a user-centric way of working are used in digital innovation projects. The tool we used to create the storyboard is SAP Scenes. You can use the tool for free and get it here: SAP Scenes

More about how storyboarding can help you to communicate your innovation idea? Follow up here: Storyboarding 

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Storyboard as a prototype to communicate the digital assistant innovation idea

What are the requirements an innovation manager should meet?

How does one become a digital innovation manager?

Christof: That’s what happens when you’re not gone fast enough when one is wanted. No, seriously. At the time, I was in IT strategy and the topic of IT innovation became more important in regards to IT Innovation. So, it was on me to care about IT Innovation and I then grew more and more into this role, our processes developed further, and even today digital innovation is still an important component of our digitization strategy.

In your experience, what is the most challenging part of your role?

Christof: Phew, the biggest challenge? Motivation is an important topic. On the one hand, inspiring people who have little time to spend on innovations to get involved despite their limited time. On the other hand, convincing stakeholders to invest in innovations and giving their employees the freedom to do so. Successes from the past help here, even if they are no guarantee for the future. The second aspect is certainly the issue of time, especially for communication and synchronization. Every now and then, I would like to see the time reverser of Hermione from Harry Potter. Maybe we should include this topic in our radar? (laughs)

What skills should a prospective digital innovation manager possess?

Christof: I think there are a couple of skills that are important, I´d like to say it is important for a digital innovation manager to have some experience in the context of digital technologies, so that people take you seriously. A good network is important, too as well as creativity in brainstorming and a certain friendly tenacity in implementation. Not to forget communication, both for the simple presentation of complex issues, but also to motivate people and get them excited about the topic of innovation. In my opinion, there isn´t the one super-skill you need, it is a combination and at the end it depends on passion for your job, then almost anything is possible.

Thanks a lot Christof for your time and your detailed answers for the community here. It was a pleasure to check-in with you about your role as a digital innovation broker at Schaeffler. Looking forward to exploring further topics with you.

Thank you to Leonhard Kühn, who while at SAP helped conducting the interview.

You want more details about the role of an innovation manager? Then this might be a good read for you: digital innovation manager

Do you have points that interest you and that you would like to ask Christof? Let us know here in the comments and we will answer your questions.