AUTOMATED trains, on-demand services, and intelligent infrastructure maintenance are some of the headline-grabbing innovations currently lauded as the future of rail transport.

Digitalisation - the process of using digital technologies to alter a business model - is driving this technological shift, and is one of the main pillars of German Rail’s (DB) strategy for 2020. Instituted in 2012, and including six initiatives intended to foster an innovative and quality-based culture across all areas of operation (see panel), the strategy is providing the framework for changes at the company as it prepares for the future.

DB Dig phoneWith the public transport business models of today almost certainly set to be defunct in 30 years, DB says that in order to compete in a fast-paced and changing world, and counter the threats posed by future competitors such as autonomous road vehicles, it must change what it does and how it does it.

However, to successfully harness and deploy new technologies and ways of working, it is essential that staff are adequately trained so they are ready and able to use them.

“Digitalisation is the key topic driving the future of our business and we believe that we have to develop our digital experience in order to achieve our goals,” says Mr Christof Beutgen, managing director of DB Training, Learning and Consulting. “We need management with a digital mindset and employees who are ‘digitally-fit.’”

Beutgen was speaking at the 4th UIC World Congress on Rail Training held at DB Academy’s training headquarters at the Kaiserbahnhof in Potsdam on April 5. The setting was apt, as this is the location for training of DB management, and where the digital mindset described by Beutgen is being shaped.

The impact of digitalisation on people is covered by the Working Environments 4.0 element of the strategy, and Beutgen says a crucial part of this is understanding how new business models based on big data and data analytics can benefit DB’s business.

“Data is important and it is important that we have an open mind to using this,” he says. “This is why we now need digital analysts in positions of responsibility.”

Ms Sabrina Schulze, head of New Learning Solutions and Business Excellence at DB, is charged with developing and delivering a training strategy which will achieve these goals.

DB’s training approach is structured across three themes: “befähigung,” which means enabling or naturalising new techniques so the employee can bring their knowledge into action; quality; and digitalisation. It is being delivered by both DB Academy, which is responsible for executive management training, and DB Training, which conducts operational management training as well as direct training for all DB employees - from front-line service staff to track maintenance engineers.

Working culture

Inevitably upskilling DB’s 300,000-strong workforce, 200,000 of which is located in Germany, and which covers thousands of different job profiles at various subsidiary companies, is a major challenge. Schulze says that while a one-size-fits-all approach to training is not possible, the new strategy and training programmes currently under development will help employees adjust to the technical shift that is gathering pace, while also preparing them for a change in working culture.

In fact, Schulze believes that digitalisation represents more of a cultural than a technical change for DB’s employees.

“The thing is that not everyone understands this yet,” she says. “A lot of people have written about it and said that we need to follow the technical way, and focused on this because it is easier. But we understand that this is not the case and have shifted our pedagogical concepts to focus training more on behavioural concepts while also introducing more practical elements.”

Schulze says DB Training has worked closely with Professor Rolf Arnold at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern to develop the new approach. Known as “pedagogical professionalism,” it facilitates the shift towards self-regulated and responsible learning at DB from the “Continuous Learning” philosophy, implemented in 2010.

Digital Learning emphasises constant micro-learning that is available to employees everywhere all of the time. Trainers and DB Training managers have participated in nine day-long training sessions in order to familiarise themselves with the new teaching methods and obtain a better understanding of the environment in which their teams should now work to adopt digitalisation.

“It is really about helping people to understand that for the future they need to be able to change their way of learning,” Schulze says. “It is giving our trainers the possibility to change how they train, and showing people who participate in our training that there is a change in how they learn. Not by telling them how they learn, but changing the way we train people.”

This process has been underway for the past two-and-a-half years, and Schulze says the focus for 2017-18 is on what is required specifically to prepare the workforce for digitalisation.

Underpinning DB’s approach here is developing an environment that is ripe for innovative thinking and new ideas. As a result, the railway is looking for its new training procedures to emphasise the techniques used by start-ups to develop new innovations.

For example, as part of their training, DB employees can join “start-up safaris,” where over a week-long programme held in cooperation with a start-up, they are exposed to the techniques used and the spirit of entrepreneurialism exhibited by these workers. This is intended to help DB executives and management get a better understanding of why certain start-ups are successful, and why they might not be, with early participants particularly impressed by the straightforward decision-making processes used, access to cutting-edge IT, and high-level use of data analytics.

DB Training’s Campus 4.0, based in Frankfurt, also aims to employ a start-up approach in its work. Established in 2008, project managers from DB and elsewhere who might have a problem are free to visit the campus in order to receive training and to work on identifying solutions. The campus employs a “lab” working environment in an effort to foster innovative thinking, and it is proving successful. Teams from Campus 4.0 have won prizes at various hackathons held in Germany in recent years, while DB has bought back many of the innovations developed at the campus, which is a profitable enterprise in itself.

Schulze says that by taking this approach to employee development, DB is replicating what other successful companies are doing, and giving itself the best chance of success.

“I am pretty sure in the future if we don’t get a workforce who understands that everybody needs to contribute ideas of how we can use technology, then we won’t succeed in the market,” Schulze says. “I think this is why a lot of companies are a lot more open to exchanging ideas with other companies, which is a retreat from a time where companies were a lot more closed and wanted only to be the first, to be the best. Now you see all those big companies opening up, and in some cases competitors joining forces to develop specific ideas.”

It is very rare that a start-up’s initial idea becomes their final product. Indeed, failure or trial and error is expected in order to reach the desired outcome. However, encouraging DB employees to understand and embrace failure, because it might lead to success in the long-term, is a major hurdle in an industry attached to the understanding that failure, or a mistake, can have serious safety implications.

Schulze is keen to emphasise that training is the ideal forum for experimentation to take place - whether this is for piloting a new idea, or using new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality in new and innovative ways. She also believes that training procedures for instructors should include prospective participants, so trainers are able to react to their specific needs based on the feedback provided.

“We want to train our trainers so they act as ‘learning coaches’,” Schulze says. “This interaction will help the learner to understand this new way of working and embrace what is required. They shouldn’t just be someone who stands at the front of a classroom.”

Life-long learning

With technological change set to accelerate, Schulze says DB employees must be prepared to embrace life-long learning. Indeed, they will be expected to learn constantly and on-the-go, and much of their learning will be self-driven.

This is already taking place through the use of various apps, which are accessible to employees like conductors via their own mobile phones and tablets. However, it must be suited to the varying demographics of DB’s workforce.

It is expected that these innovative and interactive teaching methods will suit younger employees familiar with YouTube and social networks - DB is currently employing 7000-8000 new staff every year as it battles to replace its ageing workforce. However, they might be alien to older members of staff used to traditional learning methods. Schulze says that data analytics can be used to identify the teaching methods to suit an individual learner, and areas where they might not be enabled to help them to upskill their digital competencies.

Instituting this kind of flexible learning, though, is a challenge in itself.

Schulze says that adjusting working practices to accommodate “learning time” into employees’ every day schedule is an issue that still needs to be ironed out with workers’ associations and unions. She says this is a process that “goes hand-in-hand with how we change.” There is also the issue that staff might not always have access to the internet if they are learning on-the-go.

Crucially as part of DB’s strategic plan, there is strong support from the top of the organisation for the work that is taking place. Schulze says there is constant feedback from the various organisations at different subsidiaries working on digitalisation to make sure they remain on the same page.

Strong communication and close working is essential if DB, and its various subsidiaries, are to succeed. Of course, the goal is to get everyone up-to-speed as soon as possible, but at this point Schulze cannot give a firm completion date. And with technologies and understandings continuing to evolve, it remains unlikely that the training methods of today will still be relevant in just a few years’ time.

“It is a huge investment to immerse everybody so they get an understanding of what digitalisation means,” Schulze says. “All of the companies are still in the beginning. But it is our hope that we will get meaningful progress before 2020.”