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The digitalization man

Digitalization is in full swing, and the Max Delbrück Center is no exception. Arno Edinger and his team in the IT Department are responsible for implementing this process throughout the research center. The aim is not to digitalize employees out of existence, but rather to free them from annoying routine tasks that waste their time.

The IT Department’s Arno Edinger has been in charge of digital transformation at the Max Delbrück Center since April 2022, focusing on the interface between IT and administration. He studied business administration for public management and earned a master’s degree in digital innovation and business transformation. In 2007, he began working as an advisor at SAP, supporting universities and research institutes in questions of cost accounting, budget management, and budget reporting. Before coming to the Max Delbrück Center in October 2019, he spent several years as a project manager at the Forschungsverbund Berlin. As a result, he knows exactly what research institutions need. In an interview with us, he told us how he plans to approach digital transformation at the Max Delbrück Center.

Mr. Edinger, you lead the Max Delbrück Center’s Digital Transformation Office. What is the current state of digital transformation at the Max Delbrück Center?

Arno Edinger: We’re still pretty much in the initial stages. In the past, major investments were made in software solutions for the administration, but a digitalization backlog still developed. Software solutions often remained digital islands, with a lot of manual entry still required to record and communicate information and analyses. That means that a lot of energy is still being devoted to manual, partly digitalized routine tasks; in certain places this work exceeds capacity.

But that’s in the past. Things are changing rapidly now, both in terms of expectations for quick and flexible services and in the technology itself. The point of the Digital Transformation Office is to guide this process. We support initiatives in the administrative departments by providing project and process management and other assistance. We give them direction and support in formulating their needs, introducing suitable software solutions, and successfully completing their projects. Our aim is not to digitalize for digitalization’s sake but rather to make digital services more sustainable and easier to use.

Can you give an example?

Arno Edinger: Andreas Ofenbauer in the Communications Department is developing MDCworx, a project that is nothing short of the digital workplace of the future. MDCworx is meant not only to replace traditional intranet as an information portal but also to enhance it with two essential functions: customizability and communication. For example, the digital workplace of a PhD student will look different from that of an administrative manager. In addition, MDCworx will incorporate features from social media, thus enabling more dynamic internal communication than is available in group emails. We’re giving Ofenbauer comprehensive support, including general feedback as well as assistance with budget requests and the tender process.

What is the goal of digital transformation?

Arno Edinger: The goal of digital transformation is to make administrative services available anytime, anywhere. Put simply, it will free administrative staff from repetitive tasks, thus giving them much more time for challenging, complex jobs. It will put at their fingertips all the information they need to make sound decisions and communicate them. Science itself is extremely dynamic, and administrators have to be able to keep up.

What has to be done to make that happen?

Arno Edinger: In my view, it is necessary to rethink all service processes one by one, flowing from staff and research labs to administrators and back again. The first step is to create a list of the processes. In the People & Culture Department, we are currently doing this for all HR workflows. Our present goal is to avoid redundant efforts and overlapping responsibilities. It will take a while for all processes to be digitalized to the point where they can basically be automated. But it’s great to be starting down that path.

We’re also working on a comprehensive digital document management system. All administrative departments will have a digital folder: a digital personnel folder for HR, a digital purchasing and allocation folder for Purchasing. Research Funding will have a digital funding folder for third-party funded projects.

What is the benefit to staff? For example, how will research teams profit from an electronic funding folder?

Arno Edinger: The funding folder will be a central digital repository for all administrative information regarding a given research project, such as applications, calculations, allocations, and billing. All those involved in the project and all administrative staff will be able to access it anytime, anywhere. Both sides will be able to see at a glance what the project’s funding has been allocated for and what expenses are billable. That will be much more practical than writing emails to various individuals or making phone calls and then sending documents back and forth, as is now the case.

How do you plan on preventing another digitalization backlog?

Arno Edinger: That question is easy to answer: I don’t. I can’t prevent it. In the last two or three years, we have laid strong foundations for successful digital transformation, completed some initial projects and discontinued others, some of them quite important. We have learned how we have to work together to achieve success. The best recipe is to keep moving forward, learn along the way, and bring projects to completion. That’s how we’ll manage to overcome the digitalization backlog and proactively make changes in the future.

Digitalization fascinates you. Are there analog aspects to your life as well?

Arno Edinger: Probably. I’m not any more digitally inclined than other people. Very analog, at any rate, are the 32 kilometers I bike every day from Mitte to Buch and back.

When you talk about the automation of administrative workflows at the Max Delbrück Center, does that mean that one day everything will happen at the click of a mouse?

Arno Edinger: Not just at the click of a mouse. Also at the touch of a screen (laughs). But I don’t want to make too much of automation. It is one tool among many, deployed behind the scenes. Take travel management, for example. When I’m planning or billing a business trip, I don’t want to have to enter any information into the system that’s already otherwise available. I don’t want to type up receipts or add more paper to the inhouse mail. That’s what automation means to me. For how the administration deals with travel management, it could mean that 75 percent of applications are automated and simply need to be reviewed. That would save a lot of time that could be spent on other applications that cannot be automated. I think that sounds good to everyone.

Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig conducted the interview.