Simone Wamsteker, Detecon: Learning is a journey, not a destination

Digitalization requires certain skills and it is changing the way companies learn. In an interview, Simone Wamsteker, CHRO Detecon, reveals which skills a successful player in the connected industry needs, how continuous learning can be fun for employees, and why lifelong has a positive meaning here.

The lack of skills is hampering the digitalization efforts of many companies. Which skills do companies that want to take on a leading role in the connected industry require?

The keyword is already in your question. We are talking about connected industries, about connected learning — and the key qualification we need is precisely this crossover-qualification. Traditional knowledge about a function, an area, or an industry is just as important as the technical ability to digitize something, as knowing how the cloud works or how a process can be automated. And with that, the reasons for the lack of skills becomes clear. A lot in our education system and what we are doing in companies is still very one-dimensional. My training either prepares me for a specific industry / position, or a technical field. Educational programs that integrate these different perspectives are still rare. We, therefore, lack people with these crossover-qualifications.

Does this also have an impact on soft skills?

Of course. I have to be able to understand my counterpart, to adjust to different viewpoints and to communicate. It is also about seeing the big picture. This will be another key qualification for the future for successful careers.

If we look at Uber for example, their original idea was not simply to improve taxi service; the aim was to create a completely different platform for transportation and to consider what drives customers, what parameters are important to them. This example is a good illustration of how we need to think today.

Part of the problem is that trainings offered by companies often fail to meet the needs of employees. Why is that?

Communication is key. All too often, one side fails to understand the other. For example, our client asks for very specific skills, and their requests generate demand in the business departments. Frequently, however, the use of technical jargon prevents outsiders from fully understanding what is really needed, so relevant details escape the attention of the consultants who are preparing the training programs. What clients nowadays need and want has undergone change. In the past, training courses didn’t have to be so differentiated because they were first and foremost about imparting basic knowledge. The solutions we create for our clients today, however, does not follow the “one size fits all” approach.

At the same time companies should not neglect the skills that will be relevant in two or three years. It is a matter of talent supply chain — an awful term, but nevertheless one that can be understood as the code word for a fundamental issue: What does my talent pool look like for the coming years? I can’t be satisfied with thinking about today; at the very least, I have to consider what will be needed the day after tomorrow. And this is what should be at the core for every HR or education department that considers itself state-of-the-art.

Who needs to take the first step in the company? The managers? The employees? The HR department?

Obviously, I’m in favor of HR — no question! I would like to see HR be set up in such a way that this turns into a core value of our brand. Our company looks beyond today’s skills at future requirements. That is my vision. Of course, we at HR cannot do this alone; it is possible solely in collaboration with business operations. But I think the push to think beyond that horizon today has to come from HR.

Why do we find it difficult in Germany when it comes to learning and education?

I would say that there are different dimensions to the topic of learning. We need to understand that learning is a lifelong endeavor and that it does not end at some point. We have not yet internalized that well in Germany. For a long time, we have agreed that learning is over when you leave school, when you complete your (vocational) training, or when you graduate from university. We know better today: it doesn't stop there. We must accept that we can never stop learning as long as we live. One example relating to digitalization has recently been seen in our personal lives. Look at how quickly many grandparents understood how to use FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp, and many other services, so they can stay in touch with their grandchildren during the pandemic! I am absolutely certain that my parents wouldn’t have been so quick to accept the use of Zoom conferences if it was not for seeing their grandchildren unwrap birthday gifts.

But we also need to look even farther ahead to see what competencies we will need in future and funnel that information back to schools. That didn’t happen in the past. On the contrary, schools were a closed system, vocational training was a closed system, education was a closed system. The interaction and feedback loops between the systems simply did not work.

Whom would you describe as a pioneer in the field of education?

In terms of school education, the Scandinavians certainly are well ahead of us. For me, however, India is also a very good example. This country was quick to ask itself a crucial question: What can we do to make sure we do not become insignificant in today’s world? The IT competence that has been built up in India over many years came from the realization that the country would be able to play a major role in world affairs if the population were trained in those specific skills. It starts with very little steps; every child in India becomes intimately familiar with computers in public schools from the tender age of five or six. And how long did it take us in Germany to decide if we could allow our children to use what was long frowned upon as “works of the devil” at school? We cannot hope to realize our vision of continuous learning without collaboration at various points: determining where to start and constantly questioning and improving the process through continuous feedback from the business world to schools and vice versa.

And what about the situation in companies?

When I take the corporate perspective, I think of companies like Google and Facebook and, in German-speaking countries, SAP. These companies are great examples in terms of continuous learning. At company level, another issue comes into play; although content is being offered, lack of time makes it difficult to make use of the programs. A commitment like “This is my dedicated time to learn” helps. At Google, for example, every week a half day is set aside for that purpose; at SAP, the same is done on a monthly basis. Employees rightly expect companies that are pioneers in digitalization to provide similar opportunities.

In summary, from a corporate perspective, the first key point is to have an attractive process in place — learning must be simple. Second, the right content (i.e., the skills that will be needed tomorrow) must be offered. And third, the company must be willing to provide the budget and make time for continuous learning. Incidentally, this is also shown by the extensive results of our scientifically based Future Learning Study

Maybe the employees are simply a difficult target group?

No, I don’t see it that way. Employees simply compare what they can do in their everyday lives with what they are offered in the company. If I can order a new car with one online click but have an insane amount of trouble registering for an in-house training course, I can’t be bothered with it anymore. And that’s our starting point: it just has to be fun and so much simpler than it often is the case. New media is an important topic; we absorb content differently today than in the past, and our attention span has significantly shrunk. Learning content must be prepared differently today so that it is fun and at the same time effective. Clearing away the dust and letting in fresh air helps enormously as does taking the employees perspective. So, in our case, we need to think about what a consultant needs so that he or she can win over the client. We have to measure ourselves against all of this.

What does a digital player have to do in terms of training to attract young as well as senior talents? What are the success factors from your point of view?

From the leadership side, give the employee the feeling: This is what we want! We will give you the time and the money for it! You can seize this opportunity with both hands; it’s up to you! The rest is just a matter of fine tuning. If I go to my supervisor and say I have a three-day training program next week — he or she should not roll his or her eyes, not even inwardly. Instead, the response should be: “Great idea, go for it! We can get along without you on the project for three days.” Each employee should, of course, discuss this with their supervisor on a case-by-case basis. We must create a culture in which everyone understands that education is something that takes us all forward.

That’s why “Employees first” to me is always as important as “Customers first.” In other words, while employees may come to our company with the right skills at a specific time, we maintain and develop their skills, geared to market requirements. And I don’t want employees to think: “Great, the company is investing in me!” I want them to reach the point where they think: “We are all investing in all of us!” A CEO has the same right to ongoing training as the business analyst does. When we understand that this helps all of us to become better, we are headed in the right direction.

How much change management is there in a company’s learning culture today?

It’s really nothing but change management. And I think it starts in society. We still have a long way to go because we need this common understanding: we are only as good as the sum of our skills and abilities — of all of us together. On any given day, at any given hour, my previous knowledge has already become outdated. This acknowledgement as well as the decision to move forward takes us on a journey of change. However, this journey has no final destination — it's about lifelong learning. We will never finish. It can be compared to a garden, which is never finished either. And just as we care for the flowers and plants in the garden so that they flourish, we must strive to develop our talented people.

If you had one wish related to the learning culture in companies – what would it be?

Let’s get started. Let’s accept this journey, and let’s understand that learning is at the core of our business. Both for HR and for each and every employee. Let’s make this pact with ourselves - that would be my wish!

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by