Having worked in Innovation Management for over 15 years now, being surprised is a relatively rare occurrence for me. I was, however, very surprised by MANN+HUMMEL’s commitment to this area. The company stood out from the crowd in all areas and can be seen on a par with Procter & Gamble, Philips and other such reputable companies. This was the major discovery of the 2015 Open Innovation Award – a prize presented every year by us here at the Dr Manfred Bischoff Institute of Innovation Management at the Airbus Group in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

I must confess, when initially looking at the samples for 2015, MANN+HUMMEL seemed like rank outsiders. I was thinking “This is just another automotive company with expertise in one area or carefully chosen suppliers” – or in other words, they are very good at one aspect of open innovation, but ignore all the others.

In actual fact, MANN+HUMMEL really took us by surprise – so much so that we could barely pick our collective jaws off the floor at the workshop held in conjunction with the final selection process. If I remember correctly, we barely managed to ask any questions because we were so entranced by the variety and outstanding nature of the activities presented to us by the company. There could only be one winner, and MANN+HUMMEL were unanimously chosen as the recipient of our Award.

Our open innovation study aims to find the best companies working on collaborative innovation projects across Germany, Austria and Switzerland – a search that is carried out each year. To us, open innovation can be anything related to the integration of customers into the ideas generation process, the collaboration with suppliers and universities in the development process, or collective commercialisation in other regions or markets with partners. This year, we were particularly interested in seeing how companies position themselves in relation to ecosystems and communications, but also to radical innovation and highly specific innovation activities. This was the framework in which we studied the 200 or so companies.

MANN+HUMMEL achieved success in the category ‘Best Cultural Change’, a category we created especially for this occasion, because we didn’t think that a company with such medium-length production life cycles could ever manage cultural change so fast.

The biggest challenge facing mechanical engineering and automotive industry companies is how to make their staff realise that innovating will have to be done quite differently in future, even though they continue to achieve success with their existing concept.

Employees at these kinds of companies find it difficult to understand that ideas and employees from outside their company do not represent competition for their own jobs. We can see, however, that the individual’s own knowledge and expertise becomes even more valuable if there is knowledge from outside too and if the individual targets specific suppliers and works together with customers. The same applies if the individual ever dares to do something quite different, such as founding a start-up, which can commercialise technologies and ideas more quickly than the core business. It was really fascinating to see MANN+HUMMEL instilling this in the minds of its employees and at the same time to see the positivity and a certain momentum and drive brimming over across the entire Company.

This cultural change is the biggest obstacle engineering companies have to overcome at present. They have a large number of employees, the majority of whom still have quite an ‘old school’ approach. It’s fascinating to see MANN+HUMMEL saying the following despite its secure financial position: “We can do things even better, and we’ll make them better now.” That’s no mean feat, and is precisely why the consortium has so much respect for the activities being carried out by MANN+HUMMEL.

What next? For companies, in the future it won’t matter as much how many internal resources, i.e. employees and production facilities, they have; instead networking will be increasingly important for them to remain flexible in production and be able to offer customer new ranges which reflect changing requirements. I am of the opinion that if MANN+HUMMEL stakeholders continue to press ahead with building their strategic network as well as an ecosystem, it will be almost impossible for them to be beaten by competitors in their industry. No one else has made the same level of Progress.