Ulrich Jänicke of aconso AG On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Embrace the Efficiency of Digital Signatures: Previously, there was a strong preference for wet signatures, even from lawyers. However, the pandemic normalized electronic signing solutions like DocuSign and Adobe Sign, making them widely accepted and crucial for our customers.

Digital transformation has become a crucial component for businesses striving to stay competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly evolving landscape. As technology continues to shape industries and redefine business models, companies must adapt and leverage digital tools and strategies to unlock new opportunities for growth and innovation. In this interview series, we aim to explore various aspects of digital transformation, including best practices, challenges, success stories, and expert insights. We are talking to thought leaders, industry experts, entrepreneurs, technology innovators, and executives who have firsthand experience in driving digital transformation initiatives within their organizations. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ulrich Jaenicke, the co-founder and CEO of aconso.

Ulrich Jänicke is the CEO of aconso AG and one of the company’s four founders.

After studying communication engineering, he worked in technical project management and personnel organization at Siemens AG, where he promoted the “Electronic Personnel File” project from the late 1990s onwards.

Together with Dr. Martin Grentzer, Olaf Harms, and Thomas Schäfer, Ulrich Jänicke founded aconso AG in 2001, which offers software solutions for optimizing HR processes in companies. The founding team received a patent for the Digital Personnel File on the Web in the same year. As CEO, Jänicke is responsible for sales, marketing, and business development.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for asking about my backstory. In the late 90s, I worked in the HR department at Siemens, where my co-founders and I were colleagues. During this time we were tasked with a challenging project — creating an Electronic Personnel File. At the time no one in the tech industry had successfully created a solution to digitize personnel files because they didn’t fully understand the real issues HR professionals faced. So, we decided to develop our own product — a user-friendly software for our HR department.

In building the solution, we were the first to implement a feature similar to Cover Flow, allowing users to navigate documents page by page within a personnel file. This innovation was a real game-changer.

When we completed this project, my business partner Martin included it in his PhD thesis presentation. After that, companies began approaching us, expressing their interest in our solution. This was the founding moment of our company, aconso, which we established in 2001.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I can’t remember any particularly funny mistakes, but we did encounter a funny reality that we had to embrace: HR people and IT people don’t speak the same “language”. Our role was to take the struggles and needs of HR departments and professionals and use technology to create solutions that would address them in a way that made sense and was valuable to their work. I often told people that I was merely a translator between HR and IT.

The key lesson learned was the need to manage these two very different worlds effectively. It’s a lesson we’ve carried with us throughout the years as we’ve always put our customers, and their needs, first.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

It was during our project at Siemens when all four founders met for the first time.

One of my mentors at Siemens encouraged me to go my own way. He advised me to consider founding and establishing my own company. Inspired by his advice, I shared this idea with my three co-founders, knowing we would be more effective as a team than individuals, saying, “Come on, let’s take this step forward.”

It was a risk, especially considering the economic climate at the time, with the economy in a downturn. Despite this, we believed in our capabilities and were confident that we could establish and successfully run a company.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

That’s a very good question. After we created the digital personnel file the movie “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” by Stephen Spielberg came out. We were all shocked to see a program featured in the movie that looked very similar to what we had already created. It was great validation that what we’d created was truly innovative if technology like it was being featured in a movie that is set more than 100 years in the future.

That said, my favorite film of all time is Star Wars Episode 5 — The Empire Strikes Back, and my favorite character is Hans Solo.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

When we created aconso the first step was creating our digital personnel file system. The next step was to enhance the system with document creation and integrate these documents into a workflow, including features like digital signing, automatic storage, and more. More recently, AI has entered the picture.

Keeping our customers and their needs top-of-mind, our next goal is to use AI to improve our product and its workflow process. In our product development, we’ve initially integrated AI into our technology, creating a complete AI-based workflow for document creation. When customers start a process they will experience increased efficiency, as the AI will anticipate the next steps and manage the document accordingly. The first feature is an AI-based document capture which we plan to launch before the end of the summer.

Additionally, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently announced a rule that would ban all previous non-compete agreements throughout the U.S. This creates a tremendous opportunity to generate new businesses and boost innovation, but with it will come an unwieldy amount of paperwork for HR professionals as companies seek to protect themselves by having employees sign NDAs and Nonsolicit agreements. We’ve already started working on a solution to help HR departments quickly create these documents and automate the workflow to manage the signature process.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. Digital transformation can mean many things to many people, from your perspective, how do you define digital transformation in your industry?

Perhaps the most important thing for us when it comes to delivering digital transformation to our customers is to have a very specific understanding of how employees want to consume HR services and documents based on how they consume other services and documents in their daily lives. It must be accessible 24/7, available on all devices — including smartphones — from anywhere in the world — at home, from a hotel room, or in the office.

Employees must have access to their documents anytime, whether they’re on leave or simply want to view their paycheck. The broader shift to on-demand access started with the launch of the iPhone by Apple, which changed people’s behavior and expectations. It accelerated throughout the workforce when everyone was forced to work remotely during the pandemic. Previously, bringing highly confidential paper documents home was out of the question. Now workers found themselves in a situation where dealing with any type of paper document that might need to be accessed for a signature or personal use was highly impracticable, if not impossible. Now that everyone understands what can be accomplished remotely, and with many organizations having moved to hybrid work environments, the goal is to continue to increase access and efficiency for workers and HR professionals alike.

All of these developments significantly impacted how employees interact with HR. They now expect communication with HR to be as easy and immediate as using WhatsApp or placing an order on Amazon.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Really, every enterprise and organization can benefit from digital transformation. But of course, large companies have the greatest potential in terms of productivity gains and we typically see organizations with over one thousand employees getting the highest returns from implementing aconso.

Take the example of large companies with high employee turnover. We work with companies in the healthcare, retail, and fast-food industries that struggle with this. They experience significant employee churn regularly and need efficient onboarding and offboarding processes, automated document creation, and contract generation. Can you imagine having to do this all manually? It would be hugely inefficient and HR teams would spend not just hours, but days and weeks buried in paperwork.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

The biggest challenge companies face in their digital transformation efforts is ensuring that the result of the project meets employee expectations and provides 24/7 access to what employees need.

At aconso, we know our customers’ HR departments are looking for a solution that will help employees and management access the HR documents they need when they need them, while also improving the productivity of HR professionals by enabling them to automate time-consuming, document-related tasks rather than handle them manually.

Ultimately, we need to take the need to “ask” out of the workflow. Requests that can be made online via computer or smartphone rather than by phone call or in-person request. Signatures, permissions, and other processes can be managed via smartphone. HR departments need a solution that understands and implements these changes seamlessly.

Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”?

Digital transformation has been significantly accelerated, with the pandemic acting as a major booster. Here are five ways companies should be thinking about digital transformation to help take their businesses to the next level:

  1. Adopt a Hybrid Work-First Mindset: When nearly everyone was forced to work from home during the pandemic, it became clear very quickly that paper-based processes were impractical and inefficient for the home office. Especially considering not everyone had a spare room to turn into an office, let alone store documents securely. This shift highlighted the need for digital solutions, driving digital transformation forward. Even though the pandemic is over, remote and hybrid work has become normalized, and every organization should plan its digital transformation strategies with a hybrid workforce in mind.
  2. Embrace the Efficiency of Digital Signatures: Previously, there was a strong preference for wet signatures, even from lawyers. However, the pandemic normalized electronic signing solutions like DocuSign and Adobe Sign, making them widely accepted and crucial for our customers.
  3. Make Employee Documents Available 24×7: Organizations often operate in multiple locations and across several different time zones, making it essential for documents to be accessible wherever needed. Ensuring that documents are available to the right person at the right time, regardless of location, creates a self-serve work environment that can help streamline efficiency, getting tasks completed more quickly and in less time.
  4. Aim to Cut Your Time to Hire in Half: Finding the right people to hire for a position can take months. Getting the offers and contracts created and signed to get them hired should happen quickly but often doesn’t. In Europe, for example, there is a shortage of well-trained professionals. If an organization falls victim to a slow hiring process it often results in losing potential employees. Management now expects faster processes, so speed and efficiency in hiring are therefore critical.
  5. Help Employees Increase Efficiency with Easy-to-Use Tools: In today’s work environments, the tools and software employees use to get their jobs done should be user-friendly, accessible via smartphones and browsers, and easy to use, with no training necessary. Simplicity and ease of use ensure that everyone can get up to speed quickly and get their jobs done more quickly. This is something all companies should keep top of mind as AI-fueled software programs become more pervasive and as employees explore using AI tools at work.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

This is a very good question. Throughout my life, I’ve thought a lot about innovation. I once heard a scientist say that innovation doesn’t happen while you’re working; it happens when you’re at home, feeling good, with your family, or on holiday.

To that end, I think that it’s important that you can only have a “culture of innovation” if you have a culture that celebrates diversity and where employees can be their authentic selves. You can’t expect them to bring creative ideas when they feel they have to hold back part of who they are in the workplace.

Another way for companies to encourage innovation is to provide opportunities for employees to have the mental space or breaks from work to relax and refresh. When your mind is relaxed, that’s when the great ideas come to you. Not when you’re bogged down by daily tasks, appointments, or constantly checking email. Plus, having great ideas outside of the workplace and then bringing them back into work, can fuel excitement and engagement among employees.

Additionally, Instead of a company asking employees why an idea won’t work, it should ask employees how we can make it work and turn it into a success. While there are many reasons why good ideas might fail, there are even more reasons why they can succeed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

While he’s a controversial figure, I’ve always held a certain amount of admiration for Elon Musk. The majority of my, and aconso’s values, differ greatly from his, but his ability to innovate and execute those innovations is something that inspires me.

He once said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

This quote comes to mind considering he wanted a rocket that could land backward and NASA said it was impossible. Yet, he proved them wrong. Similarly, when he envisioned fast and long-range electric cars despite skepticism about battery technology, Tesla showed it could be done.

This power of innovation and determination to overcome challenges is what I find compelling. If we can apply that same innovation and determination to transform the processes and experiences of HR professionals, then I know we can have a profound impact on their working lives.

How can our readers further follow your work?

If readers want to follow what I’m doing they can follow me and aconso on LinkedIn

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.