The Igniting Spark – On the Inseparability of Theoretical Research and Entrepreneurial Practice

In the current issue of the Heilbronn city magazine “Hanix”, Prof. Dr. Helmut Krcmar, Founding Dean and Delegate Officer of the President for the TUM Campus Heilbronn, talked about digitalization in German small and medium sized enterprises, thought leadership, and the TUM’s impact on companies in the region.

Prof. Dr. Helmut Krcmar, Founding Dean and Delegate Officer of the President – TUM Campus Heilbronn

Digitalization in the German SME Sector

It’s a recurring picture: for many companies that we classify as medium-sized businesses, digitalization is more of a buzzword, than it is implemented in practice. “For topics such as digitalization, we can provide suggestions on which mindset is needed in order to get to the appropriate implementation. At the same time, we can explain why digitalization is not simply a gimmick of large companies,” explains Prof. Krcmar. If you see digitalization less as a threat and more as an opportunity to gain new competitive advantages or maintain existing ones, then digitalization is not simply the electrification of processes. Rather, it is digital transformation. For example, the realization that customer behavior is changing. This realization then accordingly requires an adaptation of the infrastructure. “We now have a generation of customers and employees who take the use of digital technologies for granted. In addition, if you look at global supply chains in the manufacturing industry, the ability to get real-time information about the state of the supply chain and the location of goods is also changing. This opens up the opportunity to be one step ahead,” explains Prof. Krcmar.

Thought Leadership

When asked, how theoretical research can be translated into productive impulses, Prof. Krcmar explains, that in addition to the many detailed results from in-depth scientific research, it’s always about the big picture, too. “That’s what we call thought leadership: developing new ideas from the results and setting an agenda in the minds of company executives.” At the same time, despite sometimes complex theories, theory and practice should not be categorically separated, even if theoretical concepts and so-called metaskills initially seem unquantifiable. “Charles Dickens described very early on what business management researchers today call exploration versus exploitation. This yin-yang relationship of exploration and exploitation is what shapes us very much today. On the one hand, exploitation, i.e. taking advantage of existing capabilities, is absolutely reasonable – when customer needs and the competitive situation are stable.” If, on the other hand, these customers have different wishes and the competitive situation changes, then you have to look for new ways. When everything is undergoing a lot of change, explains Prof. Krcmar, then you have to approach it with different management technologies than when everything is stable. “I can definitely measure and quantify the imagination and innovation required: What percentage of the products I have on offer have been created in the last two years and how many in the last 20 years? What happens when I measure whether and how customer needs have shifted in the last two years and how they have changed in the past 25 years? What I get, is insight into which changes in products and processes I might need as a company to meet changing customer needs.”

The Igniting Spark

“Researchers have the goal to always discover new things that we didn’t know before. But that doesn’t mean that you always have to apply these findings right away. The founding letter of the TUM states that we should make available the igniting spark of science to the industry. We are the ones who produce igniting sparks, so to speak. We know that not everyone wants or even has to adopt everything that’s new. But if we stop producing sparks, then diversity is gone,” says Prof. Krcmar. That’s why scientists have a dual task: on the one hand, to work on topics in the long term and pushing their boundaries, and on the other hand, to take a stand on current issues, such as the platform economy for example. “We are trying to position ourselves in the Heilbronn-Franken region as a serious and curious interlocutor. If the companies that are very successful in the region are moved by something completely different than what a researcher thinks should move them, then we can learn from that. I think this interaction is good for us. It’s important for us to see what issues are raised in discussions here. We like to engage in discourse because I think that’s exactly the role a university has.”


Read the complete interview published in the current issue of “Hanix” (in German) here (Issue No. 72, Apr/Mai 2021, p. 22-23):

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