Keeping pace with the future

© Fraunhofer IAO | Foto: Ludmilla Parsyak
Continuing education in assembly: AR glasses with an object recognition system can guide the users through the process and make it easier to train faster on new objects.

The job market is changing rapidly. Increasing digitalization will mean the loss of some jobs and the creation of other new ones. Both companies and workers must prepare for this change by continually educating and training, and developing new fields of expertise — and Fraunhofer IAO is here to support them in this.

The future is a hard concept to grasp, but to get a feel for where the journey could take us in terms of further education, let’s take a look at the following scenario: Sabine Lange is looking for new career prospects because her firm is restructuring. The 42-year-old gets online advice and, after an informative event, receives the access data to a digital platform. She takes a look around. When she registers, artificial intelligence (AI) compares her profile with those that are in demand in the job market and filters, from a range of qualification opportunities, those that are most suitable for her. Lange then discusses these options with her advisor, makes a decision and begins her training. The online course consists of various modules with input sequences, individually tailored learning units and project work which is completed in small groups. The AI comes into play again here, putting together the courses and the groups, choosing the participants so that they are all at the same level but have different backgrounds, in order that they learn as much as possible from each other.

That’s the scenario so far, and it’s quite different to what we have today. For a model like this to be implemented, many questions would need to first be answered — not least regarding data protection laws. But in some ways it’s not so far away. In fact, this approach is already being studied. In September 2021, the Research and Innovation Center for Cognitive Service Systems KODIS, from Fraunhofer IAO, and nine regional partners from Heilbronn-Franken, Germany, started work on the new research project KIRA (short for “AI-protected matching of individual and job-market-related requirements for further professional training” in German). It is one of 35 research projects funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the INVITE innovation competition. “We want to find out how interests and requirements can be collated based on data and supported by AI,” says Kai Schmieder, research fellow at KODIS and Project Manager for KIRA. “The aim is to offer this matching service to existing learning platforms as a cloud service, at some point.”

Life-long learning for the digital transformation

The significance that continuing education is gaining can be seen in the variety of projects within the “Expertise Management” team at Fraunhofer IAO. “Continuing education is the central element for transforming the world of work,” says Bernd Dworschak, head of the team. The digital transformation is moving forward relentlessly, and it always requires people who know how to use the latest technology. Many careers and areas of specialization will change, while others will disappear completely, or at least partially, as a result of increasing automation. At the same time, new careers and business branches are constantly being created. “If you want to stay afloat, you have to be prepared to constantly keep learning and keep reinventing yourself professionally,” says Dworschak. The entire topic around “Technology, Expertise and Learning” is being worked on and piloted as part of the project “STEPS — Strategic technologies and the development of professional skills” for the network operator Bayernwerk. Which technologies will the organization use in the future? Which specialist, digital and technical skills do the employees already have and which new or different expertise will be required in order to master future tasks? Which learning paths and formats are there to help close any gaps in expertise? The objective of the collaboration was to launch an initiative to establish and sustainably integrate a strategic expertise management system. “We’re observing an increased demand for this kind of continuing education format,” says Bernd Dworschak.

The political world too, has realized the significance of continuing professional education and lifelong learning and wants to promote and fund this better in the future, especially education in the digital sphere. Research into AI technology is also being accelerated. In around June 2020, the then coalition government decided to commit five billion euros to the research and funding of AI until 2025. This is no small sum, but the question is: Will that reach everywhere? Large companies may well be more advanced in this respect but small and medium enterprises have some catching up to do.

Dr. Rainer Nägele, Head of the “Service and HR Management Systems” research unit at Fraunhofer IAO, is primarily concerned with these companies. “Many companies are quite a long way back in terms of implementation,” he says. “They do know about the potential of digital transformation and AI, but they don’t know how they can really utilize this potential for themselves.” Often there isn’t the capacity to better acquaint themselves with the field. Or, they can’t find the specialist employees for the department, even if they can afford them. “The central question is therefore, how do you upskill your own employees as quickly as possible so that they can use the new technologies?”

Training specialists, recognizing potential

In 2021, he and Prof. Marc Rüger, Head of “Business Education and Innovation”, developed a new project idea. The follow-up question was, who do you need to train? In the first instance, the engineers. Are there appropriate offers for them? Not really, according to market research. Rüger and his team identified that the German training and further education system in its current form no longer meets the requirements of companies and their employees. Certainly there are US operators like, for example, Udacity — an online college (university) which offers MOOCS (Massive Online Open Course) in this area, which anyone can access for a fee, assuming they have the requisite understanding of English. But we need our own offers. And so, the idea came about to develop a further education and training platform at an academic level for Baden-Württemberg or Germany, with relevant exams and certificates. In collaboration with the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, the team secured a robust financial investor and worked on a preliminary study, creating the initial concepts for the look of the solution, together with other partners including higher-education institutes, universities, IHK and the German Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit, BA). The concept should be complete in the second quarter of 2022, ready for the launch of a pilot.

The team around Dr. Thomas Fischer, Head of Business Innovation Engineering Center BIEC at Fraunhofer IAO, followed a different approach. “Many small and medium enterprises in Baden-Württemberg are very technically advanced and are working hard to continue improving their products,” says Fischer. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s worth looking at the overall system a little closer. These days, it is often the service and the business model that win the competition.”

Smart services are the watchword here. Digitalization enables companies to create innovative and data-driven ideas around a product: you collect data on a device’s usage and derive a service from this knowledge; or you calculate a need using integrated sensors and create an appropriate service for this. Here is a simple example: A coffee machine notifies the manufacturer if a component is worn out or the beans are running out. But what’s more: Unlike previously, a mechanical engineering manufacturer doesn’t sell the machine, rather, it places it on the factory floor for the customer and bills for the use of the facility.

To fully realize the potential, you first have to know the possibilities. That’s why BIEC are working on dissolving the fear of the unknown and giving companies the opportunities to learn about these things via low-threshold further-education courses, showing them areas of application and sharing methodological knowledge via videos, webinars or coaching sessions. “We want to empower people to start small and build on that step-by-step, each at their own pace, rather than giving up at the start because it seems too big and like too much effort,” says Fischer. Because every journey — no matter how big or small — begins with a single step.