e-Leadership conference in Berlin: Is Germany well placed to succeed?

The skills needed for rapid growth of SMEs and start-ups: a view from Germany”e-Leadership skills into the Digital Economy” Conference, 21 April 2015, EIT ICT Labs, BerlinThis conference was part a series of regional cluster events on e-Leadership. It was organised in close cooperation with the EIT ICT Labs Berlin and the support of BITKOM (German ICT Association), Software Campus (an important initiative to train and professionally develop tomorrow’s senior IT executives while opening up excellent career prospects to young IT experts in Germany), SAP and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung etc. It gathered over 100 participants from the business community, innovative employers, especially from SMEs and start-ups, entrepreneurs, current and aspiring e-leaders, professional associations, Universities and Business Schools as well as policy-makers interested in promoting digital innovation.

In his introduction, André Richier from the European Commission (DG GROWTH, Unit: Key Enabling Technologies and Digital Economy) said that digital leadership is very important for enterprises – especially SMEs and start-ups: in order to excel in their business and manufacturing operations in an increasingly digital economy. For effective e-leadership, the skills required are those which enable people with strong ICT skills to lead qualified staff towards identifying and designing new business models and exploiting innovation opportunities offered by digital technologies. As several studies revealed throughout Europe, strong demand is growing in the European industry to improve the digital talent pool and the quality of e-leadership to deliver real business value. These findings have been confirmed by the “European Strategy Policy Forum on Digital Entrepreneurship” which released its report on 24 March 2015 (the Commission started efforts to promote e-leadership in 2013 with a focus on large enterprises in close cooperation with networks of CIOs and leading technical Universities and Business Schools. The complementary initiative on e-leadership targeting SMEs and start-ups was launched in 2014).

Hans-Ulrich Heiss, Professor and Vice President at the Technical University Berlin admitted that Universities are lagging behind changing industry requirements when it comes to e-leadership skills. However, he said that Universities cannot change their curricula very quickly following each new fast changing digital trend. He argued that Germany may be well placed with its long tradition of teaching ‘Wirtschaft and Technik’ (since 1927), then ‘Wirtschaftsingenieurwesen’ after the Second World War and also ‘Wirtschaftsinformatik’ since the 1960s. In addition, tertiary education in the engineering field with the graduation to become a ‘Dr. Ing.’ is seen as preparing students already for a future role of a ‘leader’ in companies at the intersection of engineering, ICT and leadership. Heiss expressed the wish for more commitment of Universities to programmes in continuous education and training as these already exist in some other European countries. This would offer additional training paths towards senior level skills and e-leadership skills in industry.

Stephan Pfisterer from BITKOM said that e-leadership refers to senior level skills which are not the skills developed in (and provided through) University education but as part of a business career and during the working life. The BITKOM Akademie is starting to develop in-house trainings for customers on e-leadership issues and offers the sectoral dialogue as a platform to communicate new topics. Oliver Grün, President and Head of the Board of BITMI stressed the point that e-leadership skills are very close to digital entrepreneurship skills. There is a need for a policy approach in this area to support the necessary change of mindset of many key stakeholders in this area. When comparing the situation in large companies to those in SMEs he said that SME owners and key decision makers are faced with the need to come up with a much more comprehensive skills set. They really need to be business savvy and ICT savvy, come up with the leadership skills and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit at the same time and all this to a much larger extent than for instance CIOs in large corporations.

Kay Hradilak from SAP argued for the need of a much stronger digitisation of higher education and called for action. In his view the future of learning will be characterised by what he calls ’boutique students’. He called for the creation of programmes to develop the potential of those individuals who appear to have the prerequisites to become e-leaders. According to Karl-Heinz Hageni from IG Metall said that his organisation supports all actions boosting growth and high quality jobs in Europe. In this respect, the European e-leadership initiative goes in the right direction. Special attention needs to be drawn to the responsibility of company leaders for good e-leadership of people and good work and workplace design. Anabel Terní¨s from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung demonstrated how the Foundation as a scholarship provider in Germany is engaged in skills development towards e-leadership. Scholars receiving a grant do not only get financial but also mentoring support and enjoy special courses. The Foundation has its own entrepreneurship initiative and runs an entrepreneur network of its alumni.

Tobias Hüsing, Senior Research Consultant at empirica presented an overview of the e-leadership requirements of SMEs based on the results from in-depth interviews with 50 high-growth SMEs classified as ‘gazelles’ and a survey of so far around 80 SMEs (to be expanded to several hundred). It turned out that the proper e-leadership training format for SMEs and start-up can best be described as a ‘tapas bar menu’ as opposed to a ‘set dinner menu’ which would be more appropriate for e-leadership training addressed to C-level individuals in large corporations. The tapas bar approach describes the fact that start-ups and SMEs need to acquire the necessary skills for e-leadership in a piece-meal fashion whereby ad-hoc self-learning is seen as the most practiced way to achieve these. Consultants and professional coaching / mentoring are among the main sources for training used most. Universities and Business School training programmes only play a role where these are of a short duration, modular, flexible and at acceptable fees.

Björn Brecht from Kieback & Peter presented the view of a “German Mittelstand” company which uses different means to recruit knowledge and people with the right skills ranging from research partnerships to an own academy. They also integrate Master students in their organisation and cooperate with them during the phase of Master thesis writing to later on select those with the best fit to work with the company. Internally the company uses innovation circles for new idea generation which has already resulted in three new ideas for product and service provision of which two could already been turned into successful services in the market. The Global Business Transformation Manager Master Certification lasting around 10 days presented by Michael von Kutzschenbach seemed to fit SME requirements but the high costs involved render it difficult for many SME participation.

Experts agreed that MOOCs are in principle best placed for training and developing e-leadership skills at highly scalable level but less suitable for e-leadership skills training. MOOCs probably need to develop towards Massive Collaborative Open Online Courses including elements of collaboration, coaching and mentorship but also user content generation in order to be successful in general and for e-leadership training in particular. Examples of such platforms discussed at the event include the ones from IMC (, Qlearning ( and candena (, with the latter having experienced impressive success rates of up to 70%.

In conclusion, participants and experts were very supportive and sent clear signals that there is a growing and critical lack of e-leaders in the economy, that is, individuals who are at the same time ICT and business savvy and have the ability and skills to lead multi-disciplinary teams across functional and geographical boundaries. SMEs and start-ups presented concrete cases and demonstrated how the availability of the right e-leadership skills helped them to make their organisations a success in the market.