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Axel Springer shares best practices for developing digital world employees

01 December 2014 · By Tilmann Knoll

Axel Springer’s “move” initiative encourages continuing professional development and education, creative strategic brainstorming, and inter-departmental collaboration. The result? Transformation where it’s needed.

When transforming a newspaper company and its culture from print to digital, one of the great challenges is to take the people within the organisation along the path of change.

How can we support employees and help them develop the necessary digital skills and understanding?

As in many other media organisations, significant parts of Axel Springer have no need to “transform” because they are already (and always have been) digital. However, there is a large group of employees who have to and want to become experts in the digital world.  

There are certainly many good examples and a high volume of knowledge that companies have already gained here. The experience we have gathered at Axel Springer in this respect is by no means exclusive or exhaustive. However, for the sake of exchange and inspiration, I would like to share some of our “best practices” today.

Axel Springer looks back on a long and marked culture of employee development. We have an extensive programme of seminars and training for employees and members of management, which, I am happy to say, is exploited in full by those it is aimed at.

In the past few years, we adapted this training programme very much to the requirements of the digital world, for example, by taking on board many new subjects such as online marketing, social media, SEO, agile product development, design thinking, programming skills, and a great many more.

And beyond the seminars on offer, we also called to life an initiative that stands for an awakening and movement within our company that currently finds itself in the middle of the digital transformation process. We call this initiative “move.”

“Move” includes a great many formats, measures, and offerings that deal with themes of the future and the digital world. The aim is to motivate every single employee to embark on a personal journey and become a “mover.”

By doing so, we accompany, support, and drive all of our employees along the pathway to digital transformation, and make it something they can live for themselves.

The activities offered as part of “move” pursue the triad Knowledge – Dialogue – Action. Their aim is to communicate new knowledge and carry out an exchange with experts and other colleagues, but also to push forward the concrete implementation of ideas.

All “move” formats follow a certain mindset, and their character makes a tangible contribution toward the cultural transformation taking place within the company. This is what they look like:

  • Most formats are deliberately kept short and often take place during the lunch break or in the morning before usual office hours.

  • They mostly require no pre-registration and are organised as “walk-in” events.

  • We have deliberately developed and called to life many different new formats so our reaction to customer feedback is fast and agile, and the formats can be adapted accordingly along the lines of “early prototyping.”

  • In order to live the new culture themselves, the team responsible developed all measures using the methods of product discovery, user experience and design thinking, and applying agile working methods (such as Scrum).

In the following, I would like to present some examples of successful “move” formats along the three pillars Knowledge – Dialogue – Action.


In the climate of change we currently find ourselves in, building up new expertise and digital know-how plays an essential role in the question of whether an organisation will be successful in its transformation. Here are some formats that support the building up of knowledge.

Buzzword Decoder: Important digitalisation buzzwords make the rounds fast, and you encounter them at every conference table. However, the exact meaning of such terms often remains unclear and some don’t have the courage to ask for further explanation.

With our explanatory videos, called “Buzzword Decoder,” we have created a knowledge base about the world of digital media that can be used fast and in an uncomplicated manner at your place of work.

The three-minute videos communicate information about, for example, SEO, location-based services, accelerators, paid models, agility, and other pertinent matters. The videos have been retrieved more than 5,000 times by employees in-house and are therefore promoting digital understanding in our organisation.

Learning Lunch: Once a month, our largest conference room hosts a lunchtime knowledge communication event dealing with digital subjects while providing savoury snacks. Up to 200 employees invest in their lunch break and, in return, receive “brain food” from an external expert.

It’s all very uncomplicated. Employees can simply come by, grab a lunch bag, and receive an overview of digital issues that are currently trending (such as 3D printing, the Internet of things, design thinking, storytelling, and many more).

Media Powerhouse: You don’t always have to look toward the outside. We have many digital specialists in-house and have brought a lot of them on board for this format.

Similar to an internal conference, a series of 60-minute lectures takes place on two consecutive days and deals with various areas of interest. In this way, colleagues can learn from colleagues the most important aspects all around digital areas of journalism, marketing, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

No registration is necessary and every employee can pick out individual lectures that are especially relevant for him or her. All talks are captured in a live stream and are accessible to all employees at other company locations.  


A considerable part of the learning process happens by exchanging ideas with colleagues, and offers for networking and exchange play a particularly important role in the transformation process. Here are some examples of formats that have had an impact.

The Best Practice Clubs: As part of “move,” we encourage and support cross-departmental cooperation. Axel Springer is now made up of a great many, sometimes very independent, operating business units.

We have introduced what we call the Best Practice Clubs, in which experts from the various companies and departments engage in dialogue and network with one another. The aim is to provide access to the knowledge within the company to many and profit from one another.

This exchange of expertise among colleagues helps the business units in solving the actual problems facing them and motivates the experts. We have set up Best Practice Clubs on the following subjects, among others: agile working methods (like Scrum and Kanban), online marketing, business intelligence, and Web development.

Pizza Connection: In a similar manner as the Learning Lunch, the lunch break is used here to communicate knowledge and inspire new ideas. At the Pizza Connection events, what matters most is an exchange about future topics, which take absolute priority.

In a relaxing environment with a slice of pizza and a soft drink, a panel of internal experts and well-known external guests talk about a socially relevant subject. Colleagues can take part in the discussion at all times.

Example topics within this talk format during lunch include: the future of music (with the editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone and the manager of Depeche Mode), the future of football, the future of love, and so on.

What tangible changes has technical progress brought to these fields? What risks and opportunities arise from digitalisation? What impact does this have on journalism and a publishing enterprise?

Leadership Garage: In these times of transformation, members of management must overcome their very own challenges. More than ever, before they search for new ideas about the right leadership style for the times we live and work in, they profit a great deal from exchanging ideas with colleagues.

In addition to the established management programmes at Axel Springer, the Leadership Garage regularly provides the opportunity to gain inspiration all day long from external leadership experts as well as a chance to network and exchange with a group of 25-30 colleagues in management positions. Every Garage has its own thematic focus and takes place only once in this form.


The “move” initiative not only aims to communicate knowledge and encourage dialogue, it also wants to move our employees to become active themselves and play an active role in the in-house transformation.

The Talent Campus: This “network for movers” is a voluntary talent network for which employees put themselves forward. More than 100 motivated talents meet here from the areas of IT, journalism, and business, and they participate in real projects.

Members of management from various in-house divisions pitch a project idea and “compete” for the interest of the young movers.

The concept turns long-held conventions on their head, because here it is the managers who have to convince the young employees. What they get in return is a highly motivated inter-disciplinary team.

Those taking part get a chance to look beyond their familiar working environments and gain new experience. The participating talents can use 10%-20% of their working time for the Talent Campus project. In addition to the concrete project outcomes, this format also sees the emergence of a network that is changing the company.

Idea Lab and FedEx Day: In this concept for small job rotation, management staff brings specific real problems from their division as well as a group of their own employees. All employees are mixed into inter-disciplinary groups in the Idea Lab and the small groups that ensue examine the problems that have been brought along.

After a brief working phase, the ideas are presented and discussed together. Managers and employees soon realise that novel solution approaches can be developed well in cross-departmental teams with a colourful mix of team members.

At the follow-up event, the so-called FedEx days, the results of the Idea Lab are taken on board and seen through to a result by the cross-departmental and inter-disciplinary teams. Nomen est omen – and the teams are expected to “deliver” within this one day.

In addition to the real results that come about, the participants are left with the experience of having looked beyond their own professional horizons and contributed their skills and ideas in different areas.

These examples show some measures we are taking in an attempt to accompany our employees through the transformation in the industry and in the company, and to offer them fair opportunities to embark on the journey with us to a new world of publishing.

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About this blog

The urgent need to change the corporate culture at media companies to attract and retain platform-agile employees has spawned new initiatives and new methods to promote innovation and transformation. INMA's Culture Change blog captures best practices of media companies aiming to change their corporate culture – and the stories and lessons behind them.

Meet the bloggers

Tilmann Knoll
Head of Management Development
Axel Springer
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Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Lou Clancy
Senior Vice President, Content
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Wendy Desmarteaux
Senior Vice President, Transformation and Digital
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Wayne Parrish
Chief Operating Officer
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Siobhan Vinish
Senior Vice President, Marketing and Audience Development
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