Paradigm shift

Disruptive market forces are rendering existing business models ineffective. Hundred-year-old companies, like German-founded reinsurance firm Munich Re, are undergoing systemic changes to keep up with the times. HRM Asia tracks the company’s progression.

Munich Re considers itself a global company with the heart of a start-up.

The reinsurance company might employ more than 43,000 employees internationally, but in Singapore, it looks largely to the start-up scene for ideas and inspiration on creating a culture of innovation – a top priority for the organisation.

Evolving by innovating

“I always look forward to visiting Singapore’s start-up hub at Blk 71,” says Dr Katja Bucher, head of HR at Munich Re Singapore.

Bucher recalls one such visit to the Singapore equivalent of Silicon Valley.

“Along with our talent programme candidates, I recently met with the co-founders of a finance start-up. These two young entrepreneurs had strong business orientation, and incredible passion for what they were doing,” she recounts.

“I really admired their entrepreneurial spirit.”

Bucher says her team always leaves the meetings energised and full of new ideas for elevating their own operations.

Another lesson they took away was that they should not be afraid to challenge the status quo and examine past processes that may be ineffective.

“We learned from their entrepreneurial attitudes, and we endeavoured to be more agile in our work approach and responsive to business needs. We find ourselves asking more questions, looking for ways to simplify processes and make them leaner and faster,” shares Bucher.

Bucher says the global insurance industry is currently in the midst of a change, and old business models are being disrupted. To remain relevant, larger corporations like Munich Re have to evolve by thinking outside the box, and they can learn how to do so from much smaller start-up entities.

“To stay ahead of these developments, the Munich Re Group must continue to offer the most innovative products and services. Many of the most impactful innovations for our industry are coming from start-ups in the areas of financial technology, block chain innovations, and big data,” she explains.

Design thinking

It was with this focus on innovation that Munich Re’s global “Design Thinking” methodology was created, and then rolled out internationally late last year.

Bucher says Design Thinking is a method of creative problem-solving that requires individuals to follow six well-defined steps: to understand; observe; define; ideate; prototype; and to test.

“Design Thinking is about creating ideas, and then adapting and adjusting those ideas through testing and iterating. There is also a focus on giving and receiving feedback. These aspects tie in with being more agile and having more effective communication,” Bucher explains.

But Bucher qualifies that design thinking also represents a broader change of philosophy across the organisation.

“It also entails a mindset that has the power to change the culture of a company in a positive way, as innovation depends upon different factors like leadership and organisational set-up.”

Indeed, Munich Re hopes to nurture a culture of innovation throughout the organisation. The company believes the ability to generate innovative solutions will lead to improvements in overall client interaction and experience, among other business goals.

The creative thinking formula has been applied across several functions, including HR, and employees have begun practicing the method in their daily work tasks.

Multiplier effect

The HR team recently used the Design Thinking strategy to articulate the organisation’s employer value proposition.

A staff initiative called “Cultural Snapshot” – with the objective of extending employee collaboration across Asia-Pacific – saw different groups come together to brainstorm ideas using Design Thinking.

Several workshops involving clients also used the procedure to conceptualise new product ideas across Munich Re’s Asia-Pacific offices.

Design Thinking workshops have been carried out in five locations across Asia-Pacific, during which over 100 employees have been trained. In Singapore, more than 25 employees attended the workshops and from this group, nine staff members received more in-depth training as moderators.

Bucher says there has been a “multiplier effect following this series of workshops in Singapore”.

“Our trained moderators ran sharing sessions and activities within their own teams, to expose more colleagues to the methodology,” she shares.

Bucher adds that Design Thinking is just one of several innovation-focused initiatives introduced by HR to drive employees towards becoming creative problem-solvers, based on client needs.

“Design Thinking is a starting point and one aspect of our continued efforts to foster innovation in our organisation,” she says. “At Munich Re, we strongly believe that the client-centric methodology helps to create new solutions based on our clients’ needs, which is an essential success factor in the current market environment.”

Bucher says many of the company’s HR activities are progressive and geared towards having an innovative workforce in order to achieve business goals.

“We believe that in the challenging times ahead, looking back and doing more of what made us successful in the past will not be sufficient to generate solutions which ensure future success,” explains Bucher.

“Design Thinking will help work on these challenges and create innovative solutions, based on the needs of our clients.”

Creative culture

Another way HR is facilitating creativity at the workplace is the introduction of a casual dress code beyond only Fridays.

The relaxed dress code was initially implemented on a six-month trial basis. But positive feedback from employees led the company to retain the policy permanently.

“Having the right environment matters,” Bucher says.

“We stand for the principle to focus on substance over form, and hence applied a casual dress code to the entire work week,” elaborates Bucher.

Bucher says HR also helped facilitate the participation of one of Munich Re’s business units in a co-creation workshop.

“This then led to cross-industry collaboration with a multinational engineering and electronics company. Discussions to launch a new product are still ongoing,” she adds.

Staff responses to the changes across Munich Re have been positive.

The Singapore office’s controller, Kavitha Manickavasagam, says the design thinking workshop helped her realise that “we often invest too much time in the ‘prototype’ phase, and end up defending our services or processes to our users”.

“Since the workshop, I have made sure that I regularly request feedback from users, and redesigned my deliverables to meet their expectations.

“Also, as the Design Thinking course was made available to many participants in the office, it allowed us to multiply the positive effects by creating a culture that is more open to feedback and solving problems.”

Jill Hoffman, Munich Re’s Chief Operating Officer, says she has been able to apply the concept on her daily work tasks.

“We were developing a new Excel tool and I reminded the team, that we must ‘iterate’ and receive feedback from the end users. We must not get too caught up in our own designs, but really listen and engage with the users.

“The end result was a tool that suits everyone’s needs.”

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