Breaking new ground with courage: How Körber is driving digital innovation

Dr. Nadja Hatzijordanou, Director Venture Building at Körber Business Area Digital

Dr. Nadja Hatzijordanou is responsible for digital innovation processes in Körber’s Business Area Digital. What exactly does that mean? And how do she and her team create new business models in digital market gaps? A closer look.

If you ask Dr. Nadja Hatzijordanou how she drives digital innovation at Körber, she quickly gets specific. She has an aversion to pure "innovation theater" – her department wants to create clear, measurable impacts on the business. “The most important starting point for any innovation unit is: The goal must be clear. For us, that means: We develop profitable software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions together with the Group’s other Business Areas, with a focus on AI-based improvements on efficiency in mechanical engineering. To do this, we are harnessing the full potential of digital technologies and ways of working.”

Solutions of this kind are an important success factor for the entire Group. Körber established the Digital Innovation Unit in 2017 as an independent Business Area, reflecting the rapidly growing influence of digital products and processes within the Group - and the entire technology industry. Digital units have been playing an increasingly central role for years to secure the future viability of established parent companies. According to an innovation study by Capital and Infront, 60 percent of all innovation units in Germany were initiated after 2016 – more than two-thirds of which are part of the core organization of companies.

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Dr. Nadja Hatzijordanou, Director Venture Building at Körber Business Area Digital

The main focus of Körber’s Business Area Digital is on identifying the disruptive potential of new technologies early on and utilizing it in a targeted manner. “We focus on Software-as-a-service solutions that have the potential to warrant independent companies,” says Nadja Hatzijordanou. The digital innovation process (DIP), which she manages with her team and implements together with other expert teams from across the Group, is clearly geared toward this goal. It consists of three phases and starts with discovering suitable ideas, the discovery phase. “We look at processes together with the customer and identify the potential for increasing production efficiency,” Nadja Hatzijordanou says. She and her team then define the concrete hunting zones to explore the potential for new digital applications in consultation with the other Körber Business Areas.


A real competition

The second step is to determine the specific potential of a project idea. The key questions are: Is the identified problem specific to one customer or also applicable for other companies in the same market or in other markets? How is the problem being solved today? What are other industries where this problem could occur? What is the return on investment (ROI) that can be achieved for a customer with a digital solution? What is our product vision and our first product version? What solutions already exist in the market and where could our unique selling proposition lie? Is it better to buy- in a digital solution, develop it ourselves, or approach it in co-creation with partners or customers?

“We work with hypotheses, test them, and try to generate more and more knowledge over time in order to make good business and product decisions,” explains Nadja Hatzijordanou. The selection process can sometimes be painful. In addition to clearly defined evaluation criteria, she says, the involvement of external experts from the fields of venture capital and start-up investment is helpful – as is genuine competition. “Having many good ideas is a prerequisite for innovation, but for resource reasons, only the most promising ideas move forward in the process,” says Nadja Hatzijordanou. “Focus is the key here as well.”

If Körber decides to pursue the identified opportunity, a project team will be established. The composition of the team is crucial for the success of the development, says Nadja Hatzijordanou: “It is important that the team members complement each other optimally. For the project to be as successful as possible, it needs not only different disciplines, from strategic design, venture and software architect to product owner, but also complementary qualities and characters – strategists and visionaries, pedants and pragmatists, courage and composure, as well as passion and intuition. The teams, she says, are given a high degree of personal responsibility, they work in sprints, have flat hierarchies, and clear goals. And one thing is particularly important to her: “A permanent will to succeed unites everyone in everyday work: Is this really already the best solution? If things don’t go as originally thought, what else can we do to convince the stakeholders or a customer?” The focus, she says, is always on the appropriate mindset and attitude.

Making the most of the unfair advantage

If everything goes as planned, successful SaaS solutions are created, which are then transferred into their own venture in the third phase of the DIP – including corporate setup, personnel development, and a scalability model for potential customers. This was the case with FactoryPal, Körber’s first own start-up. The software was co-created with tissue manufacturer WEPA and uses a sophisticated plug-and-play machine learning algorithm to help manufacturing companies increase their overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and thus boost profitability. Not least for this pioneering achievement, Körber's Business Area Digital was awarded the Digital Lab Award 2021 as "Smart Manufacturing Company of the Year".

At its core, the digital innovation team is about nothing less than combining the strengths of the digital start-up mentality with the many years of industry and customer experience within the Körber Group. “At Körber, we have built up a high level of trust and knowledge about the challenges facing our customers, their employees, and networks,” says Nadja Hatzijordanou. To make the most of this unfair advantage, there is a close and open exchange with all Business Areas – as well as with customers and start-ups. Digital tools, such as collaborative online formats, digital education and training programs, as well as regular events, can be of help. The ACT! Summit, for example, serves as internal inspiration where colleagues report on ongoing digital projects, exchange new insights, share learnings, and cultivate the network.

In the Start-up Challenge, Körber invites selected start-ups to a three-day hackathon where specific solutions for challenges in the area of production efficiency are developed, presented, evaluated and rewarded by industry partners. And at the DIP Selection Day, a Körber committee of digital experts discusses proposals from each phase of the innovation process of the innovation process across the Group and decides which ideas should be pursued and how. “Such digital events deepen collaboration, help break down barriers, and strengthen our innovative spirit across all Business Areas," says Nadja Hatzijordanou. 

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Digital mindset and team spirit

Bringing your own start-up experience to the digital innovation team is a welcome advantage. Nadja Hatzijordanou, a native of Berlin with Greek roots, herself founded a start-up for complex technical ceramic components. She then completed her doctorate at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology while helping to establish the School of Entrepreneurship and the HPI Seed Fund at the Hasso Plattner Institute. During this time, she accompanied more than 15 digital start-ups from the early stage to first funding.

Since 2019, Nadja Hatzijordanou has been working in Körber’s Business Area Digital and has been leading the innovation team since April 2020 – her start-up experience serves her well. “Experience of this kind is helpful in understanding how teams think and feel,” she says. “In the end, it's this attitude above all that ensures our success: Breaking new ground with courage. Trusting each other. Thinking and acting entrepreneurially as well as working in close partnership with the other Körber Business Areas - because the digital transformation succeeds best when you walk the path together.”

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