Which impact does COVID-19 have on digitalization?

Brecht²: The pandemic as transformer?

June 02, 2020 – Jan Brecht, the Head of Mercedes-Benz IT, and his namesake Michael Brecht, Chairman of the General Works Council, talk about digitalization in the era of COVID-19.

Many conversations are currently held online – also this discussion between Jan Brecht, Head of Daimler's IT department, (l) and his namesake Michael Brecht, Chairman of the General Works Council.

There is this joke that has been making the rounds on the social networks during the past few weeks: The pandemic known as COVID-19 has given the digital transformation of many companies a bigger boost in just a few weeks than the people known as CEO, CIO, and CTO could ever have done. There’s no doubt that this comparison is misleading on several levels, but it still contains a grain of truth. After all, the novel coronavirus has ensured that more people than ever before are working from home. At Daimler as well, there’s a clear guideline that still applies: In order to keep the employees safe from unnecessary exposure to infection, employees should work outside their normal offices whenever this is possible.

With lightning speed, the team led by Daimler CIO Jan Brecht put in place the technical requirements for working from home. “Never before have so many of our colleagues started working from home simultaneously. Practically within a single weekend, we ensured that up to ten times as many users as before could access our systems. At the point of peak usage, about 115,000 colleagues had connected to the Daimler network from home,” says the CIO. That’s an impressive number, and reaching it required a few unusual interventions. “Here’s just one little anecdote: In order to make this ramp-up possible, one of our colleagues had to drive hardware overnight from Berlin to Frankfurt, where our computer center is based.”

The pandemic has ensured that more people than ever before are working from home.

But of course digitalization means a lot more than simply combining the right hardware with a fast Internet connection. That’s why Daimler is now taking advantage of the current situation to familiarize employees with many aspects of the new digital era by means of an online platform. Thanks to an agreement with the German Employment Agency, employees are allowed to complete the platform’s learning program during their short-term working hours and also to access the platform on their private computers. This Digital Readiness Program consists of several training sessions that go far beyond traditional technology training. As Jan Brecht explains, “Particularly in an industrial company such as ours, digitalization is often equated purely with technology. But if you ask digital companies, you’ll find that they regard digitalization as the systematic orientation of their business model toward the customer. Through this program we want to develop our thinking about digitalization beyond the purely technical aspects.”

By the end of May, more than 25,000 employees had already registered for the Digital Readiness Program — a response that was far beyond the initiators’ expectations. Michael Brecht, the Chairman of the General Works Council, is also a fan of the digital learning platform. “Digitalization is becoming more and more prevalent in the production halls, even though it’s still a very new concept at some workstations,” he says. “That’s why we need a program that has something interesting to offer for everyone. Of course more and more processes are digital in the area of production as well, and some of them are based on apps. But the fact that this possibility exists doesn’t in itself mean that it’s being used by everyone. We’ve got some colleagues who have reservations about using such systems, because they are not digital natives. We have to make sure we’re not leaving these colleagues alone, so we should provide them with guidance when they need it. And this is why to me it was so important that all Daimler colleagues can access this program.”

Michael Brecht believes that digitalization will transform the world of work, but nonetheless he’s still clear on one thing: “If we resist this development, we won’t be doing ourselves any favors. But this is not a straightforward debate — especially in view of the horror stories that haunt our country in this respect. Many of these stories are not substantiated by the facts. What is a fact, though, is that Germany is not a low-wage country. We are a country with technological expertise. And to make sure things stay that way, we must ensure that we maintain our technological leadership in the future.”

The Digital Readiness Program created by Daimler is an opportunity to take a big step into this digital future during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course this doesn’t mean that the Group will only be a digital version of itself after the pandemic recedes. “And our goal certainly shouldn’t be to have everyone continue sitting in their home offices after the coronavirus is gone,” says Michael Brecht. “After all, most people aren’t loners. All of the technological possibilities don’t replace the social connections that a company also needs.” Jan Brecht agrees. “Even for me as a CIO, it’s obvious that the really important things in life are not digital: eating, sleeping, social relationships — all of these are completely analog processes.” Which analog activity did he miss the most during lockdown? “Strolling through Stuttgart with my wife on a Friday evening and then going to a restaurant that we spontaneously decide we like.”.