Every year, I teach a course at the Bucerius Law School
in Hamburg, Germany. The Bucerius is the only private law school in Germany, and together with the WHU - the only private
business school in Germany - we offer a Masters in International Business and Law
, and it's in this program that I teach.
Each year we have have 55 students from around the world who participate in an intensive program for graduated lawyers and MBA's. they take 6 modules of courses and do a spring internship at a company in Europe or North America. I taught at NYU for a couple of years, but enjoy the international atmosphere at Bucerius better. It's a fantastic program.
Teaching is a bi-directional activity. My classes are always in workshop form. I bring some expertise to the class, and my students challenge my ideas and together we learn.
This year was special. In past years, the course was called "Data Governance." In January, I changed the title to "Smart Governance," and the change was more than cosmetic. The material was entirely new. I fashioned the course around a book called Smart Governance
written by Helmut Willke. Helmut writes some very important ideas about how the knowledge society is changing national sovereignty and the rise of expert NGO's. Helmut's definition of Governance is one that I often quote - The communication activity of coordinating human beings to achieve common goals through collaboration." It's a brilliant sentence that succinctly captures so much. I extrapolated many of his theoretical ideas into what I think is a more practical Governance System that is the core of the Six Steps to Smart Governance
. I used concrete examples of each step in class to contrast with the more theoretical use cases in the book. And I had the students prepare homework assignments geared around individual chapters in the book, asking them to write about their own experiences in this context.
This worked up to a point for the first two days. There were 12 students in the class meeting in the second cold week in January. Hamburg was shrouded in snow. The reading material is dense and difficult, but the class lectures were fun and interactive. On the third day of class, which was a Saturday morning, we were talking about the difference between a Governance System and the policies one would wish to implement. A Governance System is a scientific process by which people try to set goals, define measurement metrics, make policy decisions, communicate the policies, audit the outcomes, and seek to continuously improve.
Even with my best examples, the students found this concept of a Governance System hard to grasp. I searched for metaphors and examples, and could find nothing familiar they could latch on to. So I turned the example inward and transformed the class relationship from teacher/student into a Governance Council and asked the students to help each other to govern the course structure for the rest of the class.
We started with the grading process and the work assignments. I had planned on giving homework every night, for four nights, each being worth 20% of the grade and a short final paper also worth 20%. Students don't like homework, and frankly teachers don't like grading that much either. We had already had two assignments, each worth 20%, and I opened the discussion up as to what work to complete and how much each should be worth for the rest of class. I was a bit nervous about this surrender of power, but what ensued next was absolutely magical.
We discussed various options for about an hour, and in the end the students agreed to do no more homework assignments, a final paper worth 40%, and a participation grade worth 20%. It was not a radical solution, but the students had chosen it. It was their grading structure, and they felt empowered and energized that they made the decision. For me, it was a terrific solution as well because with the students feeling like they owned the grading structure all the teacher/class power structure and tension evaporated. We were now peers collaborating on a common goal.
Next came a discussion on what to write about for the final paper. I had in past classes asked students to prepare papers describing hypothetical governance models for banks or other commercial entities. But in this class, the idea that students could shape their grading structure quickly transformed the discussion into one about how the students would like to also participate more effectively in the governance of the Bucerius itself.
On the first day of class, I had taken the class list and befriended each of the students of Facebook. At the time I was just learning about Facebook myself, and thought it would be interesting to link up with the students directly. I knew some High School teachers who did the same with their students in the USA and wanted to see what it would be like to do it myself. The Bucerius students were amazed that I had done this and not only quickly befriended me but also told all their peers that Mr. Adler was on Facebook. What I saw over the next two days was that I was the only Professor or Lecturer at Bucerius who was on Facebook, though almost all the students were using Facebook for primary communication.
Bucerius, like a lot of universities worldwide, uses an IT system called CampusNet, which provides online classrooms where lecturers can deposit class materials and students can discuss them. It is slow, cumbersome, and hierarchical. The Bucerius Students were using Facebook instead to organize themselves and discuss their classes. They did this for two reasons; 1, Facebook is democratic in structure, and 2) it's fast, easy to use, and everyone is on it.
This proved to be a great example of one of Helmut Willke's central ideas - how hierarchical systems produce apathy from below. Given an opportunity, people will almost always gravitate towards more democratic communication systems in which they can openly express their ideas and communicate with anyone whenever they choose. This is a very important consequence of the Information Revolution. People, all over the world, are using Facebook to communicate across gender, race, and international borders, about important ideas. Their participation is not dictated by hierarchy, government, or inherited status. They are a market of communication and ideas, and their ability to self-coordinate and collaborate has very important consequences in the world.
This new form of communication - Facebook - became the focus of our class discussion on what to write about in the Final Report. Students wanted to influence how the Bucerius was governed. They lamented the fact that no other lecturers were on Facebook, that most lecturers in fact had not attended any of the classes of their peers. They wanted better IT support, to retire Blackboard. But most importantly, the students did not feel consulted regarding their needs and their relationship to the University. And this was the most fascinating part. Their experience on Facebook, interacting in a marketplace of ideas, had changed their expectation of their own role as students at the University. They saw themselves not as recipients of education from learned university professors. Rather they saw themselves as skilled professional peers in a bi-directional relationship of learning and they wanted a voice at the table.
My students wrote four excellent papers, describing new Governance System proposals for the Bucerius Law School. These are important ideas. They illustrate changing expectations in previously hierarchical relationships. Every University and every Business around the world should take these ideas very seriously. They are the future.
I have permission to publish one of them, under a Creative Commons copyright, and am doing so with full attribution. This paper comes from:
Johannes Becher, Germany
Courtney Fischer, USA
Zitto Kabwe, Tanzania
I encourage everyone to read it : Governance System for Bucerius Law School.
They wrote a research paper. In it they proposed a system of governance that would take into account the measured needs of students each year and articulate those needs as policy. Will it change anything at Bucerius in terms of official Governance models? Perhaps not.
But what was written about is change that has already happened. Information technology like Facebook is providing an alternative mechanism for people to coordinate their activities to achieve common goals through collaboration. This mechanism has security flaws, IP issues, and can lead to significant opportunities for abuse. And despite all that, people will use it and their use will force all of us to change ever more rapidly just to keep up.