Interview with Jan Balcke

Digital transformation concerns us all

HR 4.0 project manager Jan Balcke talks about the impact of digital transformation on HR.

Some 70 internal and external experts, including social partners, representatives from politics & industry, science & research, and employers’ & employees’ associations, came together to discuss the challenges of digital transformation for HR. An interview with Jan Balcke, chairman of the conference and HR 4.0 representative for Airbus, about new leadership, learning, and working models.

What was the aim of the conference?

Jan Balcke: To serve as a catalyst for exploring the tasks and challenges lying ahead for HR with regard to digital transformation and Industry 4.0. One thing is clear: our responsibility will be huge. The exchange between experts from inside and outside Airbus was at the heart of the conference – as well as a discussion about trends, the political framework, and the preconditions at Airbus required to shape technological change in the aviation industry and at Airbus in particular.

The ZAL as a platform for discussing HR topics?

The ZAL is the laboratory for Airbus’ “Factory of the Future”. It is where state-of-the-art production technologies are designed, tested, and made ready for series production on the basis of digital integration, automation, and smart services. The Centre will soon feature a demonstrator for testing innovative production technologies. As a major enabler for Airbus and the supplier industry in Germany, the ZAL is an ideal platform for discussions focusing on HR 4.0.

What exactly does HR 4.0 mean?

The term is derived from “Industry 4.0”. It is closely related to the “Internet of Things”, “IoT” for short, and refers to a radical transformation brought on by automated control mechanisms for production and logistics that are fuelled by the intelligent acquisition, storage, and distribution of data by man and machine in real time.

For Airbus, this means that the integration of manufacturing processes with our end-to-end supply chain must be improved even further, smaller batches must be produced in a cost-effective manner, and customer requests must be fulfilled faster. Integrated product data will help optimise cooperation among all stakeholders throughout the product lifecycle, such as Engineering, Procurement, Production, Logistics, and Sales. As human employees will continue to work in all areas of the industry, HR considers itself a driver, an innovator, and a translator. Employees must be qualified for the aviation industry 4.0 and workplaces and their environment must be redesigned accordingly. The term HR 4.0 is used to summarise the changes expected for HR.

What changes in particular is HR preparing for?

The challenge is to support this all-encompassing transformation, because nobody really knows yet what the specific consequences will be.

I would like to stress that any changes concerning individual employees are subject to mandatory co-determination. Thus, cooperating with the works council and IG Metall on how Airbus is going to shape Industry 4.0 is vital for a successful transformation. We are definitely heading in the right direction and the cooperation between the social partners at Airbus serves as a model for other companies in Germany.

It is important that we take a clear stance with regard to this transformation – one that is open, constructive, critical, and optimistic. Our company’s main goal, shared by employer’s and employees’ representatives alike, is to stay competitive, to increase productivity, and to secure jobs.

An ambitious task!

It is indeed. And it concerns not only Airbus, but the entire aircraft manufacturing supply chain. This means that the relations between principal and contractor will change as well. Our task will be to consolidate data, standardise the software architecture of control systems, and ensure the reliability of intelligent production systems. Moreover, HR will have to identify the required skills and competences that are not yet available and develop specific employee qualification resources to meet this demand. The future real-time networking of data of not only work pieces but also production processes will impact the work of many employees inside and outside Airbus, from shopfloor operators to managers. There will be no way around working with smart devices, for example, and the ability to use digital data to draw conclusions for one’s own actions will be indispensable. For this we will need targeted qualification resources.

What will change with regard to training?

The curricula for initial vocational training in the industrial and technical domain as well as those for dual studies offer us a lot of room for adapting the learning content to the requirements of technological change. There is no doubt that Airbus will be looking for employees with special IT skills. We will also need employees who are comfortable working in a digital environment. These requirements will therefore be reflected in the employee training and retraining services offered, as well. In the future, virtual reality combined with assistance and knowledge services will enable us to qualify shopfloor operators in a workplace-based learning environment and/or during the work process.

To what extent does technological change pose a threat to shopfloor work?

First of all, Iet me emphasise that new technologies do not threaten our employees. It is not our fundamental goal to have our employees replaced by machines, but to integrate technology into production so as to support the operators in their respective work environment. The use of technical assistance systems such as the exoskeleton, a robot-assisted portable device designed to increase the wearer’s ability to lift heavy objects, for example, is likely to increase significantly on the shopfloor. Basically, ergonomic assistance is beneficial to anyone performing heavy manual or physical labour. If that means that certain manual activities are becoming obsolete, this is a positive aspect. Very simple, repetitive tasks that are currently still being carried out by human employees will of course become less important, which is why we need to develop appropriate qualification measures. But let’s face it: there will also be jobs that will go away and be replaced by robots.

What about the indirect areas?

Naturally, the indirect areas will be impacted, too, and according to experts, this may even be felt more keenly than on the shopfloor. Administration is the perfect application for algorithms even today. Computer programmes have long since become able to learn; they have the ability to analyse, plan, diagnose, and draw conclusions without bias. We should be receptive to the opportunities and applications of artificial intelligence while not losing sight of the risks. As a prerequisite for implementation, we need robust systems and processes, data security, and protection against external cyber attacks.

What will change for the managers?

The transformation concerns us all and naturally, that includes our managers, who will have to adapt their understanding of leadership. In the future, managers will have to ask themselves: how do I successfully manage my organisation or team – irrespective of time and location? This is a question we are already facing today, but so far my impression from conversations with managers is that they are not really embracing this issue. The discussions remain rather abstract. The fact is, we are leaving our comfort zone and entering uncharted territory.

How open are the employees to digitalisation?

From what I have witnessed, attitudes range from excited anticipation to vehement rejection. Overall, we are probably reflecting the opinions of society at large: according to a recent survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute for public opinion research, 93 percent of Germans like the description “Made in Germany”, while only 42 percent like the term “digitalisation” and a mere 19 percent like “Industry 4.0” – perhaps because they fear that “Industry 4.0” may involve human employees being replaced by robots. One of the most important tasks of HR will be to ensure good communication and to accompany this change process to make our employees understand the meaning and the benefits that this technological transformation brings for each of them.

How can we discover the positive side of the topic?

By making sure that everyone clearly understands why this change is absolutely essential. When you feel that something concerns you personally, it is easier to see why it is necessary to embrace something new and to find out how you can better use your individual strengths and develop your skills. In general, an open and optimistic attitude is always a good place to start.

Jan Balcke

As Head of Vocational Training Hamburg Site, Jan is responsible for qualifying more than 600 apprentices and dual studies students in 12 different professions. As project manager of the HR 4.0 initiative, he brings together internal and external experts to address topics regarding Industry 4.0 and HR, putting employees at the heart of the “Factory of the Future” for aviation. In cooperation with employer's and employees' representatives, he discusses, shapes, and accompanies the process towards HR 4.0 in aviation.

Industry 4.0

… is a term that was coined by the German federal government in a project (of the same name) carried out as part of its high-tech strategy in 2011.

… alludes to the versioning method commonly used in software engineering, where a major revision of a product is referred to as a new version.

… means that industrial production is integrated with modern information and communication technologies.

… expresses the introduction of major changes in industrial manufacturing that are described as the fourth industrial revolution (digitalisation and integration), following the first (mechanisation based on water and steam power), second (mass production using assembly lines and electric power), and third (use of electronics and IT for automation) industrial revolutions.

… is known as the “Factory of the Future” at Airbus and is supported at group level – transnationally and across all divisions.

Center of Applied Aeronautical Research

Hamburg’s Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) is the technological research and development network of the civil aviation industry in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region. As an interface between academic and research institutions, the aviation sector, and the City of Hamburg, its aim is to secure and continually expand the world’s third largest civil aviation location in Hamburg. Working closely with the Hamburg Aviation cluster, the ZAL creates synergies by pooling the technological competence of the city in a single facility, the ZAL TechCenter.