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5 questions with Thomas Kneubühler

21 January 2021
Ida Lorenz
Thomas Kneubühler is responsible for all sales and customer-oriented IT solutions at Meier Tobler AG (formerly Tobler Haustechnik). He has been working for the Swiss building technology company for around 12 years and has already been responsible for the further development of e-business systems in various areas.


What are the requirements for the success of a company's digital transformation?

As the saying goes, everything starts in the head - if you like, also in the head of a company. A successful transformation only has a chance in terms of sustainability if it can build on a clear corporate and IT strategy and the leading heads of a company have a clear and long-term goal in mind for the next decade. Only then all the necessary projects can be approached in an output-oriented (and thus sustainable) way and therefore be packaged in a scalable basis with a view to business wishes for the coming years. Everything else, in the sense of "...we simply have to do something because digitalisation is just around the corner...", ends, especially in relation to data, in constantly recurring reorganisation and IT projects, for which the respective business is shocked again and again to come to dead ends and realise that supposedly sensationally maintained data cannot be used as one had imagined in each case – because perhaps the necessary metadata is suddenly missing, etc.

Therefore, everything starts with the ultimate question: where do I want to go with my data, how, to what extent, and with what quality and characteristics? If this is not written down in detail, almost every IT project ends up as a never-ending construction site, with costs multiplied several times over and a disappointed audience.

How do you estimate the level of digitalisation in your industry?

Our construction industry and the building systems sector is certainly not Numero-Uno and not a leader in a direct international comparison. But there are many companies and ideas that are now noticeably standing out, clearly taking a big step backwards and really making an effort to approach all processes, use cases and resulting concepts and projects with a fresh mindset, in a contemporary and forward-looking way.

As is well-known, many of such attempts are supported by proven IT partners or consultants who fundamentally support the move forward and the mindset reset. One cannot and should not blame a business unit for not having the necessary IT know-how to be able to answer more complicated questions with the appropriate foresight. However, the often prevailing resistance to consulting, built up over many, perhaps successful, business years, must be put aside and space created for a transformation-friendly climate.

What issues do you see in ever-growing amounts of data?

From my current phase of life, I would compare this to the simple fact that my children's playing would not improve just because I would throw more toys or boxes full of LEGOs at their feet.

At some point, you inevitably come to a crossroad where the pure quantity of offers, and thus also data and information, can simply seem overwhelming. Here, as well, the only thing that helps is to have a sustainable and as clear as possible strategy for the relevant areas at hand if an IT system landscape, or actually an entire company, its people and its processes, want to be transformed. For example, cleverly defined meta/data models, which can be used immediately or at later points in time to control e.g. extended functionalities or evaluations, must ideally be defined at the beginning (output-oriented). Any later attempt to introduce these on a broad level can lead to very high costs and long lead times, depending on the type and environment.

The earlier you know what, how and where you want to get to with a corresponding vehicle, the more likely you are not to end up completely surprised with a total loss in the ditch of realisation.

What does it mean to you to be "successful" in data management?

If we want to stay with the figurative comparison to a vehicle: the successful provision of boot, oil and petrol contents. It is the same with information - to be able to deliver it at the right time, in the right quality, quantity and characteristics to users and functionalities.

Of course, data models and their conditions are still subject to ongoing changes and expansions with highly networked digitalisation. However, these should be possible efficiently and cheaply within the range of the scaling provided for them. In the material area of data, for example, this means that fundamental issues such as structures or fixed relationships with derived logic between entities must be taken at the very beginning. Trying to introduce or change these at a later point in time, possibly even in a fire brigade action, can be fatal both technically and economically and would be disproportionate to the effort to define such topics directly at the beginning with maximum sustainability.

What advice would you give to others who are now starting their PIM project?

In my experience, it all depends on the characteristics of the prospective buyer and what he or she brings with him or her. There is no, at least optimal, general recommendation. In my view, however, there are certain characteristics in and about companies that should influence the choice of the first steps. However, a healthy dose of critical self-reflection is part of recognising them. These include, for example, the respective IT know-how at the strategic level, the willingness to provide advice, the flexibility required for this and the existence of potentially already existing IT specialists who can help with specific know-how in advance.

Larger and thus usually also more sluggish companies are perhaps recommended to complete explicit change management preliminary projects with dedicated specialists before such approaches, depending on their resistance to or willingness to consult, since without a corresponding change in mindset, towards a corresponding understanding of digitalisation and its highly interconnected dependencies, greenfield, etc., no projects can be started with any chance of success.

Such projects are probably familiar to almost everyone - already at the kick-off, the climate and the basic attitude is washed up across the board and then almost all the pressure is on the chosen application or specialist partner, who then suddenly not only has to handle the project technically, but also transfer the whole company itself from a political point of view. And this is where the wheat is separated from the chaff (again, depending on the partner) - some could handle this pre-stage very well and even offer such process-related pre-stages with corresponding specialists. And others simply drown in the politically negative tide of well-intentioned things because they are not able to overcome existing conditions in favour of a successful digital transformation.

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