Saturday August 18, 2012
Up close and personal with Timm Krohn
By LIZ LEE
WHILE booking his trip to Malaysia for the launch of Genovasi in Putrajaya a couple of weeks back, Timm Krohn was warned by his German friends that it “could be dangerous” to rent a car and drive around what with the cars going in the other direction and signboards in the local language.
In his mind, his impression of Malaysia takes after that of Thailand which he had visited before.
However, he finds himself pleasantly surprised at the level of development Malaysia has achieved upon his arrival.
“There was a different level of development here and what I really see and feel also is the hospitality,” he says, “I have encountered a lot of genuine smiles, the kind that comes from the heart that children can sense from a person's eyes.”
Krohn was in Malaysia representing German information technology college Hasso-Plattner Institute (HPI) and its School of Design Thinking (D-School) which is a partner in the Government's Genovasi initiative.
Under the partnership, HPI will support the establishment of a D-School in Kuala Lumpur and share its experience in Design Thinking training.
Krohn, as the chief administrative officer and chief executive proxy of HPI, is confident of the setting up of a sister institute here.
“I feel that we are one or two steps ahead already because we have thoroughly discussed the steps we need to take to implement the School of Design Thinking here in Kuala Lumpur.
“This is a concrete project that we are here for,” he emphasises.
Of the other partners that came during the launch of Genovasi in Putrajaya, he thinks that the participants shared good ideas for the implementation of the initiative.
He believes that being innovative means being trained to be innovative.
“We're not saying that design thinking is the only way to encourage innovative culture and that's why Genovasi is going the right way because the Government is taking design thinking into consideration but also exploring other methods out there,” he says.
As for how long it will take for Malaysia to become an innovative country, Krohn says he would not be able to predict. But Malaysia has put in the right initiatives, in his view.
Bringing D-School here
Hasso-Plattner Institute is a public-private school in Potsdam, Germany funded by the co-founder of technology company SAP AG, Hasso Plattner himself. As Krohn puts it, the free education is Hasso Plattner's “gift to his country as he has earned a lot”.
The institute was set up to educate IT systems engineering students that work on large-scale systems but in 2005, Hasso Plattner introduced the design thinking through a programme modelled after sister-school Stanford University's D-School.
“When you say design thinking, you want to put the emphasis on thinking, not design. It is more about thinking and creating like a designer but more in the way of running through a process following certain steps, in the way designers work,” Krohn explains.
The twist is to apply the same thought processes to virtually any issue. With insights and further research on the problem or issue, students are expected to scientifically value their design thinking processes and come up with a recommendation.
“One of the key principles in design thinking is the students work in inter-disciplinary teams where the members in the same team come from different training or education backgrounds but work on one project or challenge,” Krohn says, explaining that team members draw on their strengths in various disciplines and formulate a solution that could be very innovative.
“You will have people from various fields coming together, breaking down their jargon barriers and combining their own understanding and insights of the situation with others,” he says.
He adds that design thinking enables them to connect with the others by forcing the team to make themselves coherent to others during discussions.
He also emphasises that the D-School is a place where everyone is allowed to fail as the possibility of failure is key to design-thinking.
“Failure is never negative (at the school), of course this would be easy for the Americans to accept but for us Germans...” he grimaced, “But here in Malaysia, hah!” Krohn makes disapproving face.
As to whether the D-School set up in Malaysia will replicate what HPI or Stanford has, Krohn says that there will be key principles and learnings to replicate but D-Schools are not fixed concepts.
“Design thinking should be fluid, evolving concepts adapted to cultures and new learnings discovered,” he says. He adds that like Genovasi, the D-School shoud be about influencing the mindset of the young people here.
“Yes, we have to work around the local culture but we need to show people the different ways of thinking and innovating. This is about changing mindsets, opening eyes and widening horizons, not changing cultures,” he says.
Krohn adds that while the D-Schools will have its differences due to the customisation and adaptation to local communities, the fundamental idea is to move the people towards innovation and “they will meet at a point somewhere”.
Krohn says the D-School in Malaysia will not be an experiment, but it remains to be seen what comes out of it.
“The process is the same but we will see what the teachers will be like. It will be completely up to Malaysia on how it wants to implement the school,” he says.
He is confident of D-School becoming a success in the local context because “Malaysia is thriving for development and change”.
“This is not just talking, it's about doing. And Malaysians are good at doing, at implementing. That's my key finding here,” he says, adding that the effort would take some time to produce results.
Making the jump
Despite being extensively trained in law, Krohn is glad he no longer works as a lawyer.
It was quite a jump from a person specialising in company and commercial law to HPI when he assumes his managerial role in the institute in 2006 but he is happier where he is.
“I noticed working as a specialised lawyer did not bring me as much joy, I could do it but it was not that much fun.”
Realising he did not enjoy the legal profession, it dawned on Krohn that he was not really interested in big money.
“Yes, lawyers make a lot of money but it was long hours and without real interest, it was not joyous for me,” he says, adding that it is important to him that people find their work meaningful.
Fortunately, the opportunity to leave the field but still do law came about when Hasso Plattner brought the D-School programme to HPI from Stanford University in the United States.
Krohn began his career at HPI overlooking legal matters and running the administrative side of the organisation.
As he got promoted to his current position, he began taking on a wider range of responsibilities.
“Being educated in law in Germany, they aim for you to become judges in the end. It emcompasses a wide field. You have to know a bit of everything and only the best become judges,” he describes his training.
On the plus side, he thinks his education trained him to be good not only at law but also in thinking.
“From (the law training) derives the possibility of going into different fields,” he says, admitting that it has given him the breadth of knowledge that could be applied in many fields.
“I didn't know at the start what I wanted to make of a career, but studying law opened up a lot of opportunities, more so with a PhD,” he confesses, “Many become lawyers and some go into politics, but I started studying law wanting to do journalism but realised I did not have the passion for writing.”
Perhaps Krohn is just inclined to the academic setting, having taken almost a decade for education that included studies in law at Hamburg University, UC Berkeley in US and University of Lausanne in Switzerland as well as his legal clerkship from Higher Regional Court of Berlin. Yet, he finds himself back in that atmosphere again with HPI.
“I love my current job, I always like university life,” he says.
His typical week at work now means dealing in 50 different topics in a day, having law lecture and teach half a day a week.
“There is a great variety of things to do which I had hoped for and came through with HPI,” he admits, adding that he now meets people at the institute he would have otherwise never sought conversations with.
“I have learned to deal with so many people because we have such a great diversity from the people coming into the D-school from spaceship engineers and sociologists to arts persons.”
As a bonus, his working hours are not as long as before and though “I like working but I also want to go home because I have a family,” he says.
Krohn's secret to maintaining the balance in his life is working very quickly during the day and aiming to leave the office at a certain hour.
“Work hard, raise children hard,” he jokes.
As a leader, Krohn says he believes in giving others enough room to explore their own potential and working styles as long as they deliver at the end of the day.
He believes that by allowing the team to make the tasks their own, they would be more engaged with the company's goals and direction.
“Only when you do what's best for you are you doing the best in your job,” he says.
“I like to put people in places where they are not completely independent but can work as independently as possible so that they can consider the tasks they are assigned to as their own tasks and projects.
I'm not a controlling person but I need results in the end,” he says.
“How well a person performs is then up to you. You could be good, mediocre or bad, but if you consider the projects your own, you would likely put more effort and care into it,” he says, citing this working attitude as one of the key factors for HPI's success.
“You would feel responsible for the success of the company as a whole.”
Krohn does not believe in the silo working culture reflected in a German saying about “drawer thinking” where one takes care of only what is in the individual drawers.
“No, everyone is responsible for the cupboard,” he says.