Speaking with the industry

Together into the future

How digital collaboration and experience sharing creates progress in the craft sector

Together into the future

Digitalization in the construction industry is at different stages of progress, depending on the size and type of company. When it comes to implementing and developing digital solutions to drive change, the focus - also at Tenera - is on general contractors. What challenges do they face and where can digital solutions come in to improve processes? 

But construction projects do not end with the project developer - they only begin there. No matter how digitized construction companies are, successful implementation can only be achieved in cooperation with the craftsmen who carry out the work. This article looks at the current state of digitization in the skilled trades, shows what other challenges skilled trades companies have to face, and demonstrates how the exchange of experience in the skilled trades can support the progress of the entire industry.  

The skilled trades are becoming more digital - at their own pace

It is self-explanatory that the core business of the skilled trades offers few opportunities for digitization - the focus is always on implementation on the construction site. Studies by Bitkom and the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts as well as the Digitization Index for SMEs 2021/2022 do show that there is a willingness for more digitization among German skilled crafts companies: 83 percent of the companies surveyed in the study by ZDH and Bitkom said they were open to digitization, and 77 percent saw it as a concrete opportunity for their own business. But, also due to the pandemic, progress is more likely to be seen in the area of location-independent working, i.e. improved home office equipment and the introduction of options for virtual meetings and online access to documents. This development forms the basis for digitally dovetailing administration in the office and work on the construction site: Just under one-third of the companies surveyed in the study by ZDH and Bitkom stated that they currently or in the future also want to work increasingly with project management solutions in order to be able to track progress within projects in real time.

 

Overview of communication channels in the craft sector
Source: Bitkom Research 2022 from "The skilled trades in Germany are becoming more digital" (ZDH)

Nevertheless, the skilled trades are not yet able to fully accommodate the desired and necessary progress - two-thirds of the companies surveyed by Bitkom are looking for support with digitization. This is also because digitization is not the only challenge that skilled crafts businesses have to face today in order to ensure their success in the future.

A multitude of challenges are slowing down digitization in the skilled crafts sector

There is no shortage of orders in the industry, but steady business alone does not necessarily mean sustainable further development. In addition to the chronic shortage of skilled workers, the current acute shortage of raw materials also needs to be addressed. Digital progress, for example, is slow to get off the ground. Keeping track of ongoing projects is especially difficult in the stressful workday. This is where digital helpers, such as time recording tools, can provide relief. The use of digital solutions for financial accounting is even required by law. However, the introduction of such software is often rejected. Often there is no overview of the solutions on offer or they are considered too complex and therefore unsuitable. Many craft enterprises are also not aware that there are state subsidies that support digitization measures. If they are aware of this, the expected bureaucratic effort behind it still deters them from using these opportunities.

 

Source: Bitkom Research 2022 from "The skilled trades in Germany are becoming more digital" (ZDH)

Direct work with customers is also changing as a result of the influence of the digital age and requires craft businesses to adapt: In the information age, it is already common for customers to conduct online research before placing an order with a craft company. They expect to be able to contact companies directly and easily via digital channels. In addition, references that can be viewed online are key decision-making aids for customers, enabling them to get an idea of the expected result before placing an order. This increases the pressure on craft businesses to digitize and, in particular, to offer an appealing online presence. If you are not present or are not listed high enough by search engines, you will quickly be ignored in searches. 

All these challenges are the same throughout the industry and how we deal with them depends heavily on the people in the companies. The question that all companies ask themselves remains the same: How can we meet these challenges in order to remain successful in the future?

How can these challenges be met? 

Volker Geyer, managing director of Malerische Wohnideen, provides an answer to this question. He used carefully considered online marketing measures to attract the targeted interest of potential customer groups to his painting company, which specializes in designs. When he had generated so much attention for his brand that inquiries for his work came from all over Germany, he decided to build up a partner network. He shared access to the newly tapped customer group with businesses from other regions. In the meantime, design-oriented painting businesses from all over the German-speaking world are working together in the partner network "Malerische Wohnideen".

Cooperation as an opportunity for corporate development 

The nearly 50 painting enterprises of the network "painterly living ideas" profit thereby not only from the acquisition of interesting Kund:innen and orders and exclusive product partnerships of different niche offerers. By the same topics, also in the management, a valuable exchange of experience developed all by itself, describes Volker Geyer: 

"It has come about quite naturally, due to the fact that all partner companies have to deal with the same issues and with the same problems day after day. How do you do it? ... has become an almost daily question in our chats. Within a very short time, the questioner receives numerous competent answers. On this basis, we exchange our practical knowledge in a targeted manner. That's something very special, because you can't just buy it from anywhere."

In order to sustainably record the knowledge that is exchanged in this process and make it permanently accessible to all partner companies, a well thought-out concept is required. Volker Geyer explains how this was done at Malerische Wohnideen:  

"I started to think: how can we capture this knowledge transfer, structure it and record it in such a way that every partner can access the exchange of experience at any time? To this end, we have set up an internal online database in which we store all the information in a structured way. This database is becoming more comprehensive by the day and thus more valuable for all partner companies."

In this way, guidelines are created for the partner companies as a repertoire of valuable knowledge and experience on technical but also entrepreneurial issues. These ensure that lessons are learned from the mistakes and experiences of others. The exchange of knowledge between companies and the use of digital tools for this purpose together create a basis for companies to be able to orient themselves to the future. Today, it is more challenging than ever for individual companies to achieve this future-proof orientation. The increasing complexity in the skilled trades sector places different demands on businesses than in the past. This makes it more difficult to manage them profitably, as Volker Geyer also knows: 

"From my point of view, it is a great challenge nowadays to run a craft business in a future-oriented way, with success and corresponding profit. In recent years, the requirements have increased in almost all areas, in some cases considerably. Today, businesses must be absolute experts in their field, they need intelligent positioning with targeted marketing, they need well thought-out internal structures and processes, and of course the right employees."

In a network of trust with like-minded people, a craft company can look around for answers to questions, for solutions and strategies that fit its concerns and needs. Through targeted exchange, the experience already gained by others makes a significant contribution to minimizing errors in new plans and projects. In the end, this saves time, money and minimizes friction losses.

When valuable expertise is transferred from one farm to a group, it increases the future marketability of all other farms. Without this knowledge transfer, many companies lack the impetus. Strategic planning for corporate development often gets lost in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day business, which makes the necessary change more difficult - especially in digitization. 

By talking to companies that have already tried out new approaches, it is possible to find out which mistakes should be avoided and what one needs to pay attention to oneself. This knowledge advantage can save a lot of money, especially when it comes to specialized customer inquiries - which is certainly a good reason for entrepreneurs to get involved with change. But especially in the skilled trades, there is often a lack of enthusiasm to deal with digitization - Volker Geyer takes a critical view:

"For many, the driver of digitization in the skilled trades is necessity. It's not so much enthusiasm or curiosity, it's a lack of passion. That's what craft companies need to work on."

Here, too, the exchange with other companies can prove to be particularly valuable. In almost every network, companies can be found as role models, which in turn inspire others. This creates an incentive and passion for change and progress. The development as an entrepreneur and that of one's own business can thus take place in a targeted and self-determined manner, rather than as a necessary reaction to external pressure. With this attitude and the willingness to make a contribution oneself, the full potential of a network can be exploited: 

"Everyone has to want to develop, to change. In a functioning network, if everyone keeps making a valuable contribution, the potential for everyone is enormous."

If this attitude is given, the association and exchange with other companies offers the chance to set one's own company on course for a successful future in an effective way and with little individual risk.

What it takes to kick-start progress

Competitive thinking and opacity are still widespread in the industry and thus stand in the way of a fruitful exchange of experience. Cooperation and networking are also not sufficiently taught in the training of future generations. But Volker Geyer is certain that the future will be more about teamwork: 

"The next generation is coming along, which means that digitization in the skilled trades will take on a different significance. Digitization means networking not only data, but also people. For me, this brings with it many opportunities. Like-minded people find each other, form groups, exchange ideas, and new networks are formed. In the future, lone warriors will have an increasingly difficult time in the markets, and not just in the skilled trades. Together instead of alone is the motto of the future."

Handwerks Nachwuchs shows that exchanging information with one another can be simple and straightforward. In particular, social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Xing offer various groups in which experiences and knowledge are shared - and thus provide every interested company with a framework for exchange and thus a start to progress. In moderated networks such as "Malerische Wohnideen", this initial exchange can then be built upon, topics can be discussed in greater depth, knowledge transfer can take place at the detailed level as a dialog - and the course can be set for successful company development.

The craft changes, its core remains 

The article shows that there is an urge and desire for digitization in the skilled trades, and that joining forces and exchanging ideas with other companies in particular offers an opportunity to meet the challenges facing the industry and lead the skilled trades into a successful future. The core business of the skilled trades will not change in the future, but various technologies can make everyday work easier and help to counteract challenges such as the shortage of skilled workers and changing customer demands. Digitalization can be seen as an enabler for craft businesses to keep their focus on working with their customers. This is also how Volker Geyer sums it up: 

"Despite all this digitalization, despite all the future that's coming, in the skilled trades, ten years from now, the focus will still be on people."

Published by

Berit Behler

4.1.2023

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