Ask the experts: Answers to key questions about digitalisation in the skilled trade sector.
9/12/2022 Experts Know-how

Ask the experts: Answers to key questions about digitalisation in the skilled trade sector.

In conjunction with the term “digitalisation”, business operators generally ask similar kinds of questions: What’s the story behind the digitalisation of work processes in companies? What’s important? How can I convince my staff? What do I gain from having access to vast amounts of data and project knowledge at any time in the cloud? What solutions are even possible for my company? How do I implement digitalisation from a practical standpoint? And who can help me in cases of doubt?

Heiko Fischer from 100 PROZENT DIGITAL provides answers to these questions.

Mr Fischer: A tough question to get us started. What specific benefits does the digitalisation of work processes, data, information and knowledge offer a company, its customers and its staff?

Digitally mapped processes make businesses more efficient, transparent, and responsive. The crucial factor is the use of internet-based technologies, i.e., mobile apps, cloud-based industry-specific software, and automated data communication with business partners like suppliers, banks, accountants and ideally also (private) clients. Certainly, there are a lot of companies that have their own server and so with the right configuration, “cloud-like” results are also achievable in these circumstances. However, according to our definition, they do not represent the ideal digitalisation scenario.

As a business operator taking their first steps into digitalisation, how do I identify those work areas that should be digitalised first? And how do I approach this?

The first step is to know and understand the processes at your company. This necessitates detailed documentation of who does what, when and why. We always recommend mapping your processes in writing. This is the analysis of the actual status, based on which you determine your target status. That’s where you would like your company to be, in digital terms, in around 18–24 months. And from this, you can produce your own digital timetable that is the foundation for all further measures and investments.

Without this kind of plan, there is a significant risk of the project failing, if factors not previously considered emerge in the middle of the turnaround, for example. This can result in expensive changes or negate the efficiency of the new digital processes. A good digitalisation plan of course also contains your choice of suitable software and hardware tools. And finally, you need an implementation strategy for the concrete introduction of the technology and any training of personnel that may be necessary.

And for those who do not have the necessary time and knowledge for this kind of analysis and planning, there are fantastic information service providers and consultants available nowadays who really know what they are doing and can provide support. Incidentally, all this is also subsidised by the government, covering up to 50% of the costs.

Can you describe a specific example of the digitalisation of a work area?

Take the digital construction file, which allows you to put an end to the paper chaos and associated stress. In this kind of – ideally cloud-based – system, all documents and information belonging to a project are automatically collated via apps and interfaces. This includes orders, photos, bills of quantities, working hours and machine times, documents, memos, communications, warranty documents, invoices and payments.

Apart from saving time and other resources, the digital construction file simplifies collaboration between various parts of the company, such as between office and assembly teams, but also with third parties like suppliers, customers or the building authority.

For example, you can respond to inquiries about the status and progress of a project immediately and in detail, regardless of where you happen to be. Moreover, evidence of expenditures and materials used can always be documented. Appointments become more reliable and are always transparent. Large piles of paper, lost memos or documents and time-consuming gathering of information can be consigned to history.

When using a cloud-based solution for the digital construction file, you should always also obtain a contractual undertaking from the provider that your documents are being archived in a tamper-proof manner.

How important is it to dispel any anxieties and concerns on the part of your staff – and what is the best way to approach this?

One of the biggest challenges is to get your personnel “on board” in the event of extensive changes. If you don’t do this, digitalisation projects can quickly fail.

In my experience, you must explain to your staff the purpose of the change and the advantages for their work and the entire company. You also need to make time for this and undertake several rounds of talks and presentations. In the case of mobile fitters, for example, one approach that has proven effective is either to send someone from the company management or the IT service provider to spend a bit of time on the construction site and demonstrate what information needs to be input when and where.

The expectations of the next generation have also changed significantly when it comes to their ideal employer and working methods and include sustainability, enjoyment of work, autonomy, collaborative working, and innovation. These are important elements that a modern skilled trade enterprise must demonstrate to be attractive to a new generation of workers.

Part of this includes the boss asking staff for their opinion on relevant issues – such as digital tools and their suitability – and incorporating this feedback into decisions. Often, your team will have very valuable things to say, and this information source should not be disregarded. Decisions will then need to be made on a case-by-case basis as to how the information received is ultimately integrated into the overall workflow.

To what extent are digital working practices an argument that business owners can use to successfully promote their companies on the job market? 

Innovative work practices are already being very well received in the context of customer generation and support. And naturally, smartly developed and implemented digital working methods are also extremely attractive to young professionals and forward-thinking skilled personnel.  Ultimately, they make the work much simpler, more innovative and less stressful. This facilitates the search for recruits.

Why (and how) can every skilled trade enterprise benefit from cloud services regardless of sector, discipline or size?

Conventional software solutions are generally tied to server structures within the company. These need to be purchased for a lot of money, maintained, and updated from time to time. The fact that the data is located on servers on your own premises does not make it any more secure.

When it comes to data security, a server cabinet in a skilled trade business can never compete with a good, accredited data centre. And in respect of data privacy, there are numerous GDPR-compliant cloud solutions available nowadays.

Modern software should therefore come from the cloud. That is more secure, more flexible, simpler, and generally much cheaper. Nevertheless, realistically it must be said that this is not always feasible everywhere, especially when dealing with conventional industry-specific software.

How do business operators find out which emerging (digital) technologies are right for their companies?

The technology and information consultants at the Chambers of Trades (Handelskammer) in Germany can provide inspiration and valuable input on existing technologies and options. But our own platform “Applied Digitalisation for Craftspeople” is also an excellent source of information. To put it simply: Sharing knowledge and experiences with others is vitally important.

When does it make sense to bring in outside expertise?

Initially, you should exchange ideas with like-minded colleagues from the skilled trade segment. In addition, the technology and information consultants at the various Chambers of Trades provide a free information resource.

Organisations and associations, as well as various manufacturers, conduct a lot of relevant events, for example in the form of “BarCamps”, user-generated conferences for skilled tradespeople, where participants can learn about various forward-looking technologies and discuss them on the spot with other tradespeople and the event hosts. There are also numerous start-ups revolving around the skilled trades that offer a wealth of inspiration. Another option consists of experts in IT and the trades.

To summarise, I recommend that you draw on this special outside knowledge. You will get the expertise you need while saving time and money. And the best thing is that access to this advice is generally subsidised.

Mr Fischer, thank you very much for these interesting insights.

All recordings from the forum Digitalisation@GaLaBau – Digital Practice Live in Action are available in the playlist on the GaLaBau YouTube channel.