A visit to the Global Digital Factory at Munich's Ostbahnhof
The industrial loft space offers a vantage point over half of Munich, decked out in modern furnishings and multiple power sockets dangling from the ceiling for the constantly running iPads. It is lunchtime and casually-dressed employees, speaking an alternate blend of English and German, head to the dedicated Werkraum-Küche (workroom kitchen), where individuals with disabilities cook and serve. Next door is a store for art supplies, and further on, a foundation pit will soon house a sizeable concert hall, which promises to bring a touch of the Royal Albert Hall to the banks of the Isar river. Reinsurer Munich Re and consulting giant Deloitte have already established their digital labs on the site of the former Pfanni dumpling factory. All of this suggests that the factory district (once known as Munich's party area, 'Kunstpark Ost', and later succeeded by 'Kultfabrik'; both are famous well outside of the city limits) is establishing itself as one of Munich's creative hotspots. Similarly, the Global Digital Factory (GDF) could form the blueprint for the office of the future.
"Let's talk about something else," prompts Arne Benzin, Head of GDF. The 41-year-old industrial engineer, who learnt his trade as an underwriter at Swiss Re and has since delved deeper into the insurance sector in both Germany and Britain, does not want to waste much time discussing the facilities. Too often, he explains, the work of his 120-strong team is reduced to trendy interior decor. What they are actually tasked with is addressing tangible issues such as "Customer Journeys" and "Digital Assets". In other words, Allianz employees, freelancers and digital agencies work together in meticulously developing digital solutions to facilitate the lives of their customers – and employees, too. "We can feel the start-ups and large tech companies breathing down our neck. Customers expect the same pace, the same comfort level from us that they are used to from online providers like Amazon, Zalando and Paypal," Benzin explains. Celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2015, Allianz has stood almost unparalleled for decades in terms of integrity, reliability and reason. Nevertheless, the company's brand is rarely associated with pioneering future readiness or with simple and quick processes. Until now.
Legacy and Renewal
Daniel Poelchau, 40, studied political science and worked at McKinsey before joining Allianz. For two years now, he has been at the helm of the digital unit dedicated to the insurer's biggest market: Germany. Almost 350 employees in Munich and Stuttgart work in Agile Training Centers (ATCs) and Kaiser X, the company's own design agency, where the core focus is digital customer services. Agile working is not just a buzzword at the ATCs – Pair Programming, Scrum and Co-Location are all very much a reality. The key message: Think in an entrepreneurial way, be prepared to experiment and, above all, ask the customer's opinion as often as possible to incorporate it into the development process.
The German and global factories work hand-in-hand with one another – once an application is developed at the GDF for Allianz colleagues in Italy or the US, its potential for use in other countries is always assessed. Alongside this, the German factory assists in the development of digital solutions targeted for international use. A current example is the "FirmenOnline" platform, which went live in March 2018.
Insurance Industry = Responsibility
So, does Allianz want to create its own start-ups and coding workshops in the same way as the GDF? "Yes and no," Poelchau replies. Indeed, he and Benzin view it as short-sighted on Allianz' part to act as if it has turned from a tanker to a speedboat overnight. "We address matters properly and in depth – which means that we've rarely been the quickest off the mark in the past. This is what we urgently need to work on. But, at the same time, no one can play down the fact that our financial strength and our vast experience are of significant advantage. What's more, in business lines such as retirement provision, you have more responsibility for your customer than if you are selling sneakers, for instance."
Poelchau makes it plain that, instead of exacerbating the contrast between founder scene and large corporate group, the focus should be on standing shoulder-to-shoulder with one another: "From my perspective, one of our factories' pressing tasks is to build bridges, which help us bring together the best of both worlds. In order to come out on top in the face of our competition, we need to exploit the strengths acquired over the course of 128 years whilst simultaneously developing new approaches." The Allianz company strategy is loud and clear: "Heritage and Renewal".
Is this how you imagined the typical Allianz employee? In the digital factories, it is teamwork and new work methods that count, not the dress code.
Competing for Talent
Benzin and Poelchau candidly point out that applicants for the areas under their responsibility – developers, UX experts, data engineers and scientists, designers, SEO and analytics experts – are highly sought-after across the industry. Particularly in the Bavarian capital, there is tremendous competition. Tech professionals are just as in demand at Siemens and BMW as they are at Allianz, as well as in countless small start-ups. Benzin reveals that he is often asked why the Global Digital Factory is not situated in Berlin – after all, that is the hot spot in Germany. His answer: "You have to be where the sector expertise is; for the insurance industry, that's Munich, Stuttgart and Cologne."
"We don't want to lead people on, thinking we are the 'cool kids on the block'," Benzin explains. "It's not our style to tempt people with gimmicks – you won't find massage appointments or parties organized by the boss here." In his and Poelchau's experience, that's not what their teams want anyway. Instead, Allianz scores highly thanks to the way it seeks to redress the work-life-balance and offer long-term benefits, like further training and personal development, as well as social perks. "Among younger colleagues, we have noticed that their notion of 'career' is quite different," Poelchau points out. Benzin grins: "It strikes me that they seem to be smarter than we were back then – they call hierarchies into question and can better pace themselves." And of course (he finally admits), the state-of-the-art offices of the digital factories are a bonus.
What does all this mean for veteran employees? "It's an oversight to equate digitalization with automation," Benzin clarifies. Nevertheless: "From trainees right up to the Board, everyone has to embrace the new reality of this constant change. Digital-based tasks and agile working methods will soon become everyday matters." In many areas, new priorities need to be set. For instance, it is far quicker and easier for a customer to update contact details digitally than over telephone. In contrast, for complex and emotionally-charged situations, such as retirement provision or an accident, the element of human interaction is irreplaceable.
Final question: Which degree program and what kind of training would you recommend to undergraduates, and how should those already in professions further develop their skills? "Without a doubt, the prominence of technical skills is ever on the rise," Poelchau explains. "There is a growing number of study and training opportunities focusing on expertise like design-thinking and UX design." However, soft skills like openness, foresight, and the ability to work within network structures and address problems pragmatically are of equally great importance. "These are often found in the social sciences and humanities, too," Poelchau continues, adding: "At the end of the day, the most important thing is a commitment to lifelong learning". The Digital Factory head chuckles: "An older colleague who will soon retire said to me recently: 'Damn, I am leaving just as it is getting really exciting'."
Text: Markus Walter
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn (in a slightly edited form).