“A hundred years ago, Einstein and others were still able to work on projects on their own. Today the world is more complex: ideas don’t arise from solo effort, rather through networking.”
Interview with Peter Schumacher, Head of Process Research & Chemical Engineering BASF
You are head of research at BASF, a leading global chemical company, and responsible for 15 branches. In your opinion, what are the chances that digitalisation will increase the amount of virtual collaboration in the future?
When it comes to this topic, I suspect that many things we do can be digitalised and depersonalised. But you have to approach the topic differently depending on the situation. At BASF, team meetings are already taking place using modern video conferencing technology. This has become routine, at least in the research department. The average age of the team is well under 35, so the employees are used to using this type of media. At the executive level, however, where the managers are responsible for 300-500 employees, the topics are often very complex. Here, in my opinion, there is still a need for management break-outs where, in retreats lasting one or two days, difficult and intricate subject matter such as topics covering corporate culture, must be intensively and even heatedly discussed. It’s difficult to do that in a video conference or chat. For me, there are certain situations where things must still be done in person.
If team meetings are already being held via video conferencing and automated processes are being organised using machines as technology advances, what role will the office play in the future?
When you compare the offices of today with offices of 30 years ago, you can see clear differences – they are moving away from single offices to open structures with a balance between individual workspaces and team rooms. Additionally, there are a number of meeting and social areas where employees can meet and talk. I think things will continue to develop in this direction. Due to the need for trained employees in the labs, pilot plants and in production, physical presence in the workplace at BASF and specifically in our branch will continue to be necessary, despite digitalisation and automation. The office therefore remains, at least for the next two decades, a necessary hub. However, it will have to be transformed: it must enable both encounters and retreat. I am convinced that it is necessary, especially in the area of research and development, for teams to put their heads together and get creative. A hundred years ago, Einstein and others were still able to work on projects on their own and have breakthroughs with their ideas. Today, the world and science are more complex. Ideas don’t arise through solo effort, rather through networking. That’s why we need interdisciplinary teams in research today. The engineer must work with the biotechnologist; the physicist with the chemist, in order to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. I don’t see any way to digitalise this yet. That’s why you have to bring these people together in an open workplace setting.
That means that research and innovation have a lot to do with human creativity. What potential do you see here in the field of digitalisation and artificial intelligence?
This topic is already taking hold in the field of research. On the one hand, laboratories are becoming increasingly automated. The laboratory system, for example, doesn’t need human supervision at night; that’s now the job of robots. If problems occur, the details can be sent, for example via text message, to the person in charge at home. This person can then decide if it’s necessary to immediately go into the lab to fix the problem. On the other hand, many other digitally supported methods have already been introduced into research. For example, intelligent data management where mountains of data from the lab are processed using algorithms and findings can be obtained that would not be accessible via classical data analysis. In our industry, for example, the enormous computing power of the so-called “super computers” already allows us to design ideas for new materials and extremely complex metabolic processes in biotechnology on the computer. No human can do that. Computer-aided science is growing rapidly and the pace is increasing.
Do you think that remuneration systems will have to be changed due to digitalisation and machine labour? What will employees be paid for in the future – and how much? For me the question is more, how to motivate employees. In the research sector, for example, I see that our young employees think much more about the goal and purpose of their work for society. With the aspiration to really change something in the world, you can address the people differently today, inspire them differently! Electromobility, for example, is currently an important and exciting topic for us, that motivates many employees on its own. However, in the past few years it has become harder to motivate employees about conservative topics with a lower societal scope – like, for example, necessary safety-related inspections in the construction of chemical plants or the optimisation of dyes and other established products. In my opinion, it is not enough to look at new remuneration systems, we mainly need to change the management culture!
Peter Schuhmacher / President Process Research & Chemical Engineering
Peter Schuhmacher was born in Flörsheim am Main in 1965. In 1985, he began studying chemistry at the Joannes Gutenberg University Mainz and at the University of Amherst in Massachusetts,
USA. He graduated in 1991 and completed his doctorate at the University of Mainz in 1995 – after a research stay at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, USA.