For Janina Kugel, Chief Human Resources Officer of Siemens AG, a German multinational tech company, there is always a better way to be doing something.
She summed up this mentality in a story about a high speed rail connection between Madrid and Barcelona. Siemens told its employees to promise passengers a refund if the train took longer than six minutes. Although their customers did not think it would work, the business model succeeded and is still in use today.
“We don’t just sell trains — we sell the fact that trains will run on time,” said Kugel, who is also a member of Siemens’s Managing Board.
On Tuesday, April 16, Kugel gave a talk at the University on the “future of work” and the challenges presented by an ever-changing workplace in the digital age. For Kugel, whose job is to help Siemens adapt to these changes, there is no such thing as “peace.” According to Kugel, the future offers both exciting new prospects and challenges — not only for Siemens’s endeavors in the world at large, but how it structures itself and treats its own employees.
“New things are coming up, old things are disappearing,” Kugel said. “How do we manage that as a society?”
For Siemens, the answer to this question is constant reinvention. For instance, a high school student recently used Siemens software to design an improved prosthetic limb. Kugel described recent efforts to improve safety using virtual reality technology, in which employees actually experience what could happen if they don’t follow safety guidelines.
“If you are really experiencing it, you do not need any explanation,” Kugel said.
When and where people work has also become increasingly flexible, she noted. For instance, Siemens’s HR encourages employees to deliver, but focuses less on the time or place. The traditional hierarchical leadership of most companies may also shift toward a more open structure, which Kugel called “agile” leadership. Siemens’s employees will have to improve on and gain entirely new skills in order to keep their jobs.
But according to Kugel, the hardest part of enacting change is getting people to give up what they already know.
“Learning things is easy,” she said. “Unlearning certain behavior is much more difficult.”
This challenge has particular relevance when it comes to diversity in the workplace, an issue that Kugel has made one of her priorities. From a business standpoint, she pointed out, a lack of diversity is simply disadvantageous.
For instance, she described a male-dominated research team at Siemens 10 years ago, who were tasked with trying to develop an X-ray that women would like. The men decided to make the X-ray pink.
“If you were having an injury or whatever, and you go to have an X-ray, I don’t think it would matter whether it’s pink or not,” Kugel said. “So this is something we need to look at.”
Yet despite Kugel’s personal efforts toward positive change within Siemens, when asked whether she saw her work as “in conflict with the public good,” she said that she did.
She emphasized that, although Siemens markets itself as a socially responsible company, it is not an NGO. A significant aspect of her job as Chief Human Resources Officer is to announce layoffs.
“I can give you the business rationale,” Kugel said. “Will that help anyone who has to come home and say ‘I was laid off’? No, it won’t. So I think that’s the discrepancy that we actually have, and I think you have to live with that.”
The talk was held in McCormick 101 at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16.