More than just knowing the facts

Interview with human resources development expert Alexandra Pres

Technical solutions alone will not lead to breakthroughs in development aid. This is just one of the insights Alexandra Pres has gained from her work with the organisation INWENT – Capacity Building International, Germany, where she was responsible for human resources development and networks in the area of water resources management. For Alexander Pres, the water managers of tomorrow need to have more than just technical and business know-how. She explains why this is the case in this interview as well as in her talk at the Suderburg workshop.

Current students in the laboratory of Campus Suderburg. Photo: Private

Current students in the laboratory of Campus Suderburg. Photo: Private

German engineering programmes are highly regarded by students from developing countries. Does the education they get in Germany give them what they need when it comes time for them to return to their home countries?

Not entirely, unfortunately. To think that problems can be solved with the right technical know-how alone is a common misconception: Become familiar with a certain technology and learn how to maintain it. Education and training in both developing countries and here in Europe as well are based on this idea. But this kind of approach does not acknowledge several other problems.

Such as?

Let’s take knowledge transfer, for instance: In order to improve water quality in Cuba, you first have to tackle the enormous pollution problem. Since pollution is no longer an issue in Germany, it gets very little coverage in our educational programmes. Or students get to know high-tech solutions in Germany that are either unrealistic in their scope or too expensive for developing countries. Rainwater harvesting, for example, the technique of collecting dew and rainwater, can often make far more sense in desert countries than huge desalination plants.

How can these shortcomings be addressed from an educational standpoint?

We need to attract students by promising to teach them the technical skills they need, but we have to give them more than just that – network management skills, for example. How do I bring the right people to the table? How do I moderate a meeting? Method competencies are just as important: How do I make a presentation? How do I negotiate? And we shouldn’t forget the significance of social competencies, either: How do I put my knowledge to work? How do I prevent my boss – who considers me a threat because of my training – from holding me back? I’ve seen cases in my days in HR where employees have returned from additional training only to be demoted. This stymies any kind of knowledge transfer.

Do German programmes teach these kinds of competencies?

Our educational system is based on analytical, problem-oriented thinking. This can be truly enriching for students who come from cultures where the primary emphasis is the reproduction of knowledge. The Masters programme “Climate Change and Water Management” in Suderburg is a positive example of this. Despite the fact that technology figures largely in the programme, the students still have plenty of opportunity to explore other aspects – through the focus on climate change, for example, and the fact that learning takes place in a group of students with diverse national and cultural backgrounds. This encourages creative thinking and open-mindedness. It also teaches the important skill of making the right decision based on the situation at hand.

And the issue with the boss?

The way to avoid this is to involve the supervisor from the start – allowing him or her to help select the area of study, for instance, or the thesis topic. A little bit of finesse can definitely help avert potential differences and competitiveness later on.