Jan Veira: Developing Digital Skills - Opportunities for Companies

If you want to be a leading player in connected industries, digitization is key. In order to keep up with the new technologies and software solutions, you need employees who have the necessary skills and digital knowledge. Yet, many companies still struggle when it comes to training their employees – especially on topics like 5G, blockchain, and agile collaboration. We spoke with Jan Veira, Managing Director and founder of University4Industry, about ways to optimize learning to ensure continued development of digital skills in companies.

Detecon: As digitalization progresses, concerns about the lack of skills in companies have become increasingly vocal. What skills will we need for the realization of connected industries?

Jan Veira: I see a need in three areas. First, employees need a basic, sometimes (depending on their role) in-depth understanding of new technologies. I’m thinking here of 5G, auto-ID, new standards such as time-sensitive networking in production, or even blockchain and machine learning. The second area where we need new skills relates to the changes in working methods and collaboration models. Agile working or design thinking two examples. Finally, the third thing we must do is establish knowledge about how digitalization creates value for a company and how the business models of the digital world work.

It is key that all employees have, as a minimum, a rudimentary overview of terminology in all three areas and, above all, understand the relationships within and between the three areas I have mentioned. And then – depending on the company, an employee’s function, and role – specific in-depth skills in a certain sub-area must be developed.

The trainings offered by companies are also criticized as often failing to meet the actual needs of employees. Why is that?

This is because employees are a “difficult” target group. There are several reasons for this: employees have specific requirements as to what needs to be learned, depending on the industry, company, department, role, and prior knowledge. Trainings should really be tailored to the specific situation at all times. Second, employees are adults of course; they learn through experimentation and trial and error, not just through consumption. And finally, employees have a special problem: they don’t have a lot of time. Employees have to do their work today, they have to create value for the company and earn money today. That leaves very little time for trainings; in our experience, that leaves only one or two hours a week available for trainings.

Many traditional training programs do not address these challenges. They are too standardized and not adapted to the requirements of the individual. Often, the content is also too “academic” and not related closely enough to the reality and actual work circumstances of the individual. Moreover, many training programs rely too heavily on “lectures” and pay too little attention to the aspects of collaboration and experimentation. And finally, they are often much too long. A 500-hour online course to become a data scientist is certainly great for someone who has this kind of time, but for corporate employees, this would mean spending a quarter of a year just studying and not working. That is, of course, out of the question.

Why do employers in Germany often have difficulties training their employees? Is it a budget issue?

I see a vicious circle in German-speaking countries and Europe: we do not know enough about digitalization at the moment. In particular there is a lack of understanding about how digital approaches and business models create value and earn money. That’s why so few digitalization projects (if any at all) are launched or even discussed. As a result, there is no demand for trainings in digitalization and we end up not knowing enough; the vicious circle starts all over again. Budgetary constraints are part of the problem, but the first step is for managers to get to grips with digitalization and gain a basic understanding of the opportunities available to them and how things are interconnected. That is how we break this vicious circle.

What does a modern company have to do in terms of trainings if it wants to attract and retain talented people – younger and older alike? What are the success factors in your opinion?

Two things: the right “what” and the right “how.”

When it comes to the “what,” companies must offer trainings with content that is adapted to the needs of employees – whether they are younger or older. The content must be based on work-related use cases, it must be adapted to the issues confronting the specific role of an individual, and it must relate to the company and the employees’ daily work.

The “how” is about imparting new knowledge efficiently and with a clear relation to the daily tasks at work. There is a need for efficient presentation of content in online formats; once you have it in the right format, you can deliver content in ten minutes instead of two hours. It is a matter of integrating possibilities for experimentation into trainings and incorporating a “human component”, like group work and expert discussions, and – ultimately – you must guide and support the learners within the framework of a program. This is the only way to turn corporate trainings into a success.

Never stop learning – the mantra that everyone must take to heart. Who takes responsibility for the initiative in the company? The managers? The employees? The HR department?

Managers and HR must initiate the process. HR and learning departments have duty to build skills for digitalization, it should be their most pressing task. Managers have a responsibility to address this in two respects. They must support the required training “from the top”, with budgets and the right communication. Perhaps even more importantly, however, they must educate themselves in the area of digitization, not only to act as role models for the rest of the company but also to become capable of discussing digitalization and making decisions. If this does not happen, digitalization initiatives will keep getting stuck due to incorrect decision making, despite the continued training of employees.

Once HR and managers are on board, you must get the “what” and “how” right so you can lead the rest of the company and accompany these employees as efficiently as possible on their journey to digitalization.

New working methods in a digitalized environment demand more and more self-organization and self-leadership from employees. To some extent employees have internalized this, yet many employees still find it difficult to learn successfully (digitally) and to acquire new skills. How can companies increase employee motivation and success in this area?

We need to take employees “by the hand” if we want to make digitally delivered training a success. In my experience, this only works with clearly structured programs. This means that first of all, a clear learning objective must be defined per company and per target group. From this starting point, a program with a beginning, an end, and a (usually weekly) schedule must be set up. For each week, it must be clear what the learning objectives and content are, as well as which formats will be used. A variety of different approaches are needed, ranging from videos to text, from online exercises to virtual labs, and from group discussions to lectures by experts. You have to get this mix right. All this must be accomplished while guiding and supporting the learners from week to week. You have to measure the learning success and progress accurately, otherwise, you will not be able to determine what works and where improvement is required.

At University4Industry, you offer digital training programs. How can the participants use these programs to achieve tangible learning results? What advantage do companies have in working with you?

We have focused above all on digitalization and offer learning content on subjects such as Industrie 4.0, connectivity, blockchain, machine learning, cloud, or new working methods. We can deliver both introductory trainings that give managers or employees at large a general overview, as well as trainings which support the development of daily work-related practical skills. The latter, for example, in the use of cloud platforms such as Azure or the area of industrial security.

Companies that work with us benefit from three things in particular. We have the necessary background and knowledge to understand what corporate and industry employees really need – and what they do not need. We have a comprehensive library of digitalization learning content that serves as the basis for custom configuration of programs and that can be used for an immediate start. Finally, we have learned how successful corporate training works, with attendance, completion rates, and positive feedback of 80 to 90 percent– well above typical rates. Our task here is to implement comprehensive support and delivery of training programs for the companies: from the joint definition of learning objectives to the provision of the right learning content in the right format, and from the support of learners during the program to the measurement of learning success.

Does your format require a specific work environment to function well?

A guiding principle since day one of our work at University4Industry has been to make learning as easy as possible for employees. All you need to utilize our service is a PC (or tablet) with internet access and a web browser. Our customers are also taking advantage of the option to integrate our services into Microsoft Teams. This is seamlessly possible and has the dramatic advantage that learning takes place where employees already spend a large part of their working time anyway. So, we come to the employees instead of the employees coming to us and this also enables us to realize collaborative forms of learning such as group work or group discussions very easily.

How can you make sure in the follow-up that all questions on the topics have been answered satisfactorily? Are there opportunities for feedback or interaction?

Measuring success is an integral part of our services; after all, companies want to know if the money they spend on training has a demonstrable effect. We measure success directly through our online courses. This is where the previously mentioned interaction comes into play in many different ways. We have a wide portfolio of exercises ranging from simple multiple-choice questions to case studies with essay questions and from group discussions to tasks that involve analyzing and programming real data or even working remotely on real hardware via a web browser. All of these exercise formats provide data and evidence of learning success, such as completion rates. Moreover, we can draw conclusions about learning success through usage statistics and we collect feedback from participants very systematically. Depending on the company, we also use before-and-after assessments to measure learning success.

Who are your services designed for? And who do they really benefit?

Our clients are larger mid-sized companies and corporations from around the globe. We are mainly active in the manufacturing, automotive, engineering, retail and consumer goods, and pharmaceutical sectors. However, the majority of our services can be used without any restrictions to specific industries. For example, we also serve a German government agency or have clients from the semiconductor industry. In general, I can proudly say that our services work. I see this, on the one hand, in the names of the renowned clients we have acquired and, on the other hand, in some of the KPIs such as a net promoter score from our users averaging over 85 percent and completion rates in voluntary trainings of more than 90 percent.

What do you expect from the partnership with Detecon?

I believe that the partnership with Detecon will be very exciting for both sides. First of all, we can together turn Detecon’s outstanding expert knowledge into a form suitable for training programs that will make it available digitally to employees in companies; this has already been realized for 5G, for example. Equally important, however, because Detecon accompanies its clients on their digitalization journey and advances step by step with the clients to achieve successful digital value creation. Training must be a component of such a process, and we can jointly deliver this to Detecon’s clients with the right “what” for each company and target group, and the right “how” in the form of our programs and formats so that training efficiently leads to the desired results.

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by