Timo Gemmecker has a goal: Making the work of his co-workers at the Mercedes-Benz Group simpler and more effective. As Team Manager for Business Analytics, he is promoting digitization in the field of Finance and Controlling and working to ensure that technologies such as artificial intelligence will be as commonplace as Office applications in the future. In an interview, the Sinology and Business graduate relates how his first assignment for Mercedes-Benz in China came about, why faith is important when it comes to change processes, and why digitization requires continuous learning.
Mr. Gemmecker, what do you think is important when it comes to the introduction of new digital technologies?
It is often less about the technology itself (laughs). What's more important is that people are prepared for the new digital tools and understand the possibilities they offer for our work. In one current product, for example, we are introducing artificial intelligence for the analysis of data. A machine learning algorithm that has been trained by us calculates precise forecast models. In this way, the new technology will help make our budget planning significantly more accurate in the future, among other things. If we are able to explain this benefit to our co-workers, the transition will be faster and easier. But this will only work with the requisite amount of faith.
What do you mean by that?
When we incorporate new technologies into our established financial processes, we usually do so during ongoing operations. Sometimes we have the old and new systems run in parallel for a while. This creates a feeling of security, and if the outcomes are the same or perhaps even better, it slowly engenders confidence in the new algorithms and tools. We also invest heavily in our ability to explain the new solutions. Then there is the fact that digitization often leads to collaboration between teams that had previously not had much to do with each other. Data experts suddenly find themselves working hand in hand with finance experts. In this case as well, trust needs to be built up.
How do we achieve that trust?
Transparency is particularly important. You only get trust if the new solution is comprehensible and the benefit is clearly tangible. That is why we talk to our co-workers from an early stage, and work as a single team that transcends departmental boundaries. That is the only way that we can overcome the shared challenge of transforming the Finance unit.
So interpersonal dialog seems to be a success factor. How do you deal with that in these times of working remotely?
Interpersonal dialog is more important now than it has ever been. Thanks to modern digital cooperation software, it also works well in the current situation. In our Data & Analytics training program as well, we are focusing even more than before on eLearning.
Digitization requires a cultural shift. This ongoing learning process is becoming an increasingly important part of our work.
Tell us more about the program…
Gladly. No matter how good an AI model is, it only becomes successful in combination with our human expertise. That is why education and training are so important to us. Our goal is to give our finance experts the skills they need to play an active role in shaping the future. Specifically, we train data scientists, data engineers and data analysts. And for our managers, we also offer a development path to becoming a data executive. In addition to providing training, it's also about initiating a cultural shift.
Where is this cultural shift heading?
Technology will fundamentally overhaul the way we work in the long term. Artificial intelligence and advanced analytics will become as commonplace as the Office applications are today. The foundation for all of this is a "culture of data". This means new approaches to how we record, analyze and share data. This ongoing learning process is becoming an increasingly important part of our work. That was my experience when I was working as a team manager in the Controlling unit for Mercedes-Benz in China.
What did your work in China involve?
I relocated to Beijing for former Daimler AG in 2015. My ten team members and I were responsible for the controlling for the company's entire HQ in China. The tasks became more complex very quickly on account of the rapid growth of the market. We would often receive hundreds of inquiries in a single day. This was not sustainable for the team in the long term. We soon realized that we would need to digitize the way we work and restructure our processes.
How did you go about that?
We started small, for example by gradually purging traditional spreadsheet applications and paper-based solutions entirely from our processes. That was a big step for the team and took some getting used to at first. This made it particularly important to alleviate the concerns of our colleagues. Then, when the new system landscape was up and running, making our work in controlling much easier and offering new analysis options, that naturally gave us a particular sense of achievement as a team.
Interpersonal dialog is more important now than it has ever been. Thanks to modern digital cooperation software, it also works well in the current situation.
Your first assignment for Mercedes-Benz was in 2010, also in China. How did that come about?
At the time I was studying Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Cologne. I read in the newspaper that todays Mercedes-Benz Group was establishing the "Denza" joint venture with the Chinese company BYD in Shenzhen, for the production of electric vehicles. I was immediately inspired: The first EV joint venture of a German OEM, and at the time, electromobility was still a niche field. And then there was the location: Shenzhen – the tech metropolis of China, a country whose language and culture I had already got to know from a semester in Shanghai…
… so you applied to work at Mercedes-Benz.
Yes. I sent in an unsolicited application! One week later, the joint venture's CFO himself responded and offered me an internship. I then spent six weeks in Shenzhen. As a cultural intermediary, my tasks included making sure that the processes and systems were suitable for China and that communication worked. I had a lot of responsibility from day one.
And that is why you stayed here once your assignment was over?
That was one of several reasons. At Mercedes-Benz, I saw an opportunity to influence the future of technology. From the future of mobility and artificial intelligence to blockchain technology – Mercedes-Benz is playing a leading role with respect to the big topics. That is particularly appealing to me. I also value diversity. A lot of different people with different backgrounds and skills work together here. That is very exciting.
One last question: How digitized is your private life?
Very, but I am also a fan of analog technology. One of my hobbies is photography, and I particularly enjoy using my analog, film-based camera.
From the future of mobility and artificial intelligence to blockchain technology – Mercedes-Benz is playing a leading role with respect to the big topics.
Personal details: Timo Gemmecker (36) Timo Gemmecker has been fascinated by China ever since his father brought him back a traditional toy from a business trip there when he was a child. Today he has even stronger ties with the country. After all, he got to know his wife during his internship at the company in Shenzhen.