Human Resources and Manufacturing

Steelcase builds its learning, innovation network

Centers are part of strategy to blend global portfolio with regional flavor.

July 8, 2016
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Steelcase Inc. will open its second Learning and Innovation Center this fall in Munich, Germany, the goal of which is to bring together its learning, innovation, design and research teams from across that region to better harness their talent.

Steelcase already operates a Learning and Innovation Center at its Grand Rapids headquarters.

The centers host learning opportunities for employees, customers, dealers, architects, designers and others, and serve as a gathering space for leadership and visiting clients.

Sara Armbruster, vice president of strategy, research and new business innovation at Steelcase, said the new Learning and Innovation Center doesn’t take away from the work being done in Grand Rapids but will spur additional innovation and acknowledge expertise the company has across the globe.

“It is about acting as a global organization,” Armbruster said. “This is a piece in the puzzle as we build and evolve our global network of learning and innovation centers. The Grand Rapids facility is one node on that network, and Munich will be a second node on that network.”

Armbruster said Steelcase also has significant activity in Asia that will likely lead to a third Learning and Innovation Center there eventually, possibly in Hong Kong.

“One of our strategies for the last few years has been to focus on growing in emerging markets,” Armbruster explained. “We have many large global markets we serve, and they are also seeking to grow globally and do business in more places. We have to support those customers as they expand into those countries and parts of the world.

“We also believe having the significant critical mass creates terrific opportunities to engage with our customers in ways that hadn’t been possible before.”

Armbruster said as Steelcase’s customers have become more global it is changing the company’s approach to its product offerings as well.

“For a number of years, I would say our approach to our offering and portfolio was more regional,” she said. “We had a portfolio of products and solutions that were designed here primarily for the Americas, and we had a somewhat different set of products that were designed for European markets and the same for Asia.”

She said the difference in products was driven by each market’s distinct preferences and needs as well as different regulations and code requirements.

“It is still true that some of those hard differences still exist, codes are different, compliance is different, but I think in terms of people and users, we are seeing the differences in those regional preferences are shrinking,” Armbruster said.

She said Steelcase has been anticipating this change.

“We’ve been well positioned to respond to that, because we’ve worked for the last few years to think about how we can evolve our regional portfolios to a more global portfolio,” she said.

She noted a number of products and solutions on display at the NeoCon contract interiors trade show in Chicago were developed in Europe.

“We’ve found those solutions now have a strong appeal here in America as well as other parts of the world,” she said. “The fact that we’ve used our global scale as a company to blend these portfolios together has played in a positive way.”

Armbruster said a lot of multinational corporations are looking for ways to blend distinct cultural elements of the region they are in with a uniform corporate culture and environment.

“For many of our global customers, they are looking for a degree of consistency globally that allows them to represent their brand, their culture and who they are as an organization … to their customers or people who may interact with them, while at the same time being respectful and celebrating the differences that do exist,” Armbruster said.

“When you go to the office of a large global organization in Tokyo, there would be some differences from its office in Rio de Janeiro, but how do you find that consistency that both speaks to who they are as an organization and to the unique local differences to be celebrated? We work hard to help them find that balance.”

Armbruster said Steelcase plans to continue focusing on growth in its global markets and expects to see the Learning and Innovation Centers support that growth.

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