Leonardo Award

“We still think on a national level too much in Germany”

Interview with Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Bullinger

Prof. Dr. Hans-Jörg Bullinger, President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft until October 2012, will receive the Leonardo – European Corporate Learning Award 2012 in the category “Thought Leadership”. The award focuses on personalities who attach great importance to intelligent, sustainable and integrative growth for Europe in their innovative endeavours.

In this interview Prof. Bullinger talks about his common ground with the namesake of the educational award, Leonardo da Vinci, and his work in the area of education and innovation.

Prof. Bullinger, how important is advanced training in companies for intelligent, sustainable and integrative growth in Europe?

Advanced training in companies is of paramount importance. We all agree with the idea of lifelong learning. But nevertheless, we do not take it seriously enough. In order to achieve intelligent, sustainable and integrative growth, we would have to make lifelong learning a closer part of a company’s tasks. This is a new form of growth, in descriptive terms, which many of the responsible persons have not yet included into the code of practice in vocational training or academic studies. We should not imagine vocational training in terms of a school class in a closed room. In fact, many of the vocational training programmes take place directly in real work situations. Today, vocational training in companies is like rowing against the stream. If you stop, you will fall back.

How should companies go about vocational training in order to not fall back?

They should understand a company's vocational training as a central, integral part of a superior's tasks and not merely as something that is merely a part of the job. The executive management is responsible for the vocational training goals of its employees. They therefore have to be aware of exactly how they wish to fulfil this task, what future training goals will be and how they stand in the context of the company’s further plans.

The artistic head of this year's Documenta, Carolyn Christov-Bakargie considers artists the most important producers of knowledge. Named after Leonardo da Vinci, the Award also reminds us of the artistic side of learning and knowledge. How do you see the connection?

Leonardo was particularly characterized by his creativity and knowledge. Coming from the Documenta and the discussions being held there, the claim that artists are the largest accumulators of knowledge seems a little daring to me. But the decisive factor for a company’s assignment of tasks is that both have to come together: knowledge and freedom for trained creativity. Creativity in a company means that one is able to think something unusual through with new relationship patterns and to implement it. And in the course of that, creativity helps a great deal, but it has to meet with someone who is ready for it and has the necessary knowledge.

These two sides meet in the Bionic Learning Network, in which you work together with companies such as Festo.

That’s correct. And that is also important for university education, so that we do not only focus on the transfer of knowledge, but also include creativity-promoting subjects. While I was still active in teaching, colleagues and I lobbied for the idea that non-technical subjects should also be compulsory for students of mechanical engineering. In fact it was only implemented to a limited extent, but was characterised by the idea that more should follow.

Networking and transdisciplinary cooperation is propagated by many. But often they simply remain buzzwords that are occasionally strongly limited to Social Media. How do you manage to promote an interdisciplinary approach at Fraunhofer?

Social Media alone does not lead to transdisciplinary cooperation. We introduced Social Media at Fraunhofer because it creates opportunities for encounter. What we need in addition to that are the opportunities of working together. Engineers can learn a great deal from artistic approaches such as the defamiliarization of a problem or delineation of a solution in broad outlines. But we understand Social Media merely as a platform for getting to know interesting partners. And this can result in various kinds of working relationships but not without the respective company culture.
We decided to manage the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft according to specific rules. And we include the people as much as possible when defining these rules. The management has the task of ensuring that the rules are adhered to within the given boundaries and not used for other purposes. For me, the complete image of an executive also includes the creation of a basis for information and a culture of mutual trust in a company – without abandoning performance principles. The end of the principle that the boss always knows everything better has a positive effect on the exchange of ideas. And we can see that not only on our own example but also in many companies with which we carry out mutual projects.

That brings the successful Spanish concept as seen at this year's European Cup to mind, in which the trainer del Bosque gives his players freedom of scope but also holds on to the principles and rules tightly.

Yes, the trainer is responsible to ensure that his players learn the right things and continue learning. But the decisive thing is: He doesn’t play himself. When the game is on, he lets the players play. And we have to ensure in the company that it is the main task to transfer and provide knowledge and to qualify employees. But you have to let the employees develop their personal freedom in their daily activities.
From your point of view, is this freedom a guarantee that innovations, i.e. new products and services, will evolve?

It is a good precondition for creating new concepts but not automatically a prerequisite for creating saleable products. For that you need good innovation management and that is what is missing in Germany. We may have invented a lot of things here, such as the fax and computer. But we did not make anything of it: today we have no German fax machines and no German computers. We from Fraunhofer invented the MP3 standard, but could not find a company in Germany for two long years, which was prepared to bring it to market with us.
According to our analyses, successful innovation management requires four things: A clear strategy, the best team, the will to succeed and, finally, innovation management. Two of these four aspects massively affect the educational debate: The best team in the world and the motivational task of developing an unrelenting will to win as is the case in sports. So further education is also a central aspect in the innovation business.

The Leonardo Award honours innovation that is responsible in a sustainable sense. How do you support that?

Sustainability is an issue that is catching up with us. Fraunhofer has applied many things that are now being discussed – for example the initiative “Morgenstadt” (tomorrow city), the vision of a CO2-neutral city worth living in. With it we wish to show that sustainable development is actually possible. Indeed sustainability is something that is merely implemented by responsible contemporaries today, but we can still rest at ease: It will come tomorrow due to the economic necessity, because companies will realise that they will have better market opportunities with energy-efficient and environmentally friendly approaches.

A great deal has already happened in Germany's educational system with respect to methods of sustainability and environmental issues. But viewing sustainability in an isolated fashion makes no sense. Products and working methods are so complex today that they would not be able to be comprehended offhand by someone like Leonardo today, despite the fact that he was an absolute genius.
But Leonardo does to all intents and purposes stand for the combination of innovation, earthbound business that does not neglect the economic aspects, and the researching, visionary sides of learning.

That is correct. When we began to realign the entire working structure at the Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation (IAO – Institute for Work Management and Organisation) and to set up the area of industrial education 20 years ago, we also included pedagogues, sociologists and psychologists – all of those “windbags” as we engineers used to call them. We realised that we need them if we wish to introduce a different work culture and to enable the employees to deal with new challenges.

And that proved to be really successful. To this day, a third of the staff at the Institute are engineers, a third are business economists and a third are social scientists. Of course they first had to get used to working together. For example, it was always better to take an engineer and a business economist along when acquiring, but when it came to starting up the structures, that would have not been possible in such a successful way without the input of social scientists.

The Fraunhofer Gesellschaft stands for innovative technologies, in continuing education too. Amongst others, you have promoted 3D learning applications…

3D applications are all about immersion – namely the question as to how strong the person’s contact with the medium is. Immersion means the inclusion of the user during a man-computer interaction. The stronger the medium’s hold of the user, the greater the learning success can be. Unfortunately this learning success is not guaranteed, because we can also present silly things with it. But 3D and virtual reality's high immersion rate provides great potential for learning. At the IAO we have set up a new “Zentrum für Virtuelles Engineering” (ZVE – Centre for Virtual Engineering) in which we have Full HD in the virtual reality area in daylight. We are still at the beginning here, but it shows what will follow in the future – we are by no means at the end of the line yet.

You also carry out research in applications for mobile learning. How will new mobile techniques change the way we learn?

Following MP3, today's new standard for mobile video transfer and television H.264, the development of which we were involved in, will play a big role. Our Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz-Institute in Berlin currently holds the world record in data transfer: 10.2 terabits per second. That’s roughly 240 DVDs in one second.
If you interconnect such rapid data transfer systems with immersive technologies, new learning content will be necessary. The pure learning of facts will be forced back even more, as users have access to up-to-date information from a database at all times. That is why leadership will become even more important for education. We have devised new online study courses in cooperation with the University of Dortmund and the University of Stuttgart; for example, an Online Master in Logistics Management or an Online Master in Building Physics. They profit from the fact that greater immersion can be created by providing greater data volumes.

In how far can you already bring together these trendsetting technologies – including aspects of management culture?

In the last ten years, in which I had the pleasure of being the head of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, this interconnection was our central concern. We put it like this: It is not only about creating a network between the various departments at Fraunhofer, but actually defining a network value and usefulness. We want to set up a customer network group in which we acquire projects that can provide these technologies in an interconnected way. And that is a very important issue in the definition of how Fraunhofer will move on – in research too. Maybe we are already better at it than others, but we are still not good enough.

How do you interact with players outside of the Fraunhofer world?

In order to promote an innovation process, we also have to see which players can contribute towards it. I was never intent on politics. But when I realised that political frameworks have to be changed, I knew that I also had to try to move something in that specific environment. The German government has increased its educational efforts greatly in recent years – which also includes the financing of research institutions or universities. Mrs. Schavan’s budget is the only one in this legislative period that was not cut and in fact even saw an increase of 12 billion Euros.

You provided close consultation for the government. How did you experience that?

What we devised in the Agenda 2010 as a club partner for innovation under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had a certain formative influence. This is where the general course was set. And then we were very lucky that we voted in a Chancellor who had herself studied Physics, understands problems and was clever enough to leave the educational matters to the Ministry of Research and not get involved. We cannot complain about that. Of course politics cannot solve all of our problems, but Mrs. Schavan has done a good job with her team – even without constantly being in the media.

What does the situation look like on a European level?

Education has to be Europeanized more. We introduced Bachelor and Master programmes in order to make academic studies possible across borders. But we also have to ensure that we become more European on other levels of education too – for example in the area of languages. In comparison to Asian, Eastern European and Latin American competitors Europe simply has to speed up its rate of innovation.

You have achieved a great deal as President of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. What else is still a concern of yours?

We still think on a national level too much in Germany. That is why it was very important for us to internationalise Fraunhofer stronger. And that will surely also be an important issue after my tenure. We still have potential in the founding of new companies too. I have said to my designated successor, Reimund Neugebauer, whom I know very well: “You don’t have to make the same 100 mistakes that I did. You can make new mistakes.“

Interview: Günther M. Szogs and Stefanie Hornung