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There is Little Choice: New Work Requires Involvement in Projects

The PIPE model brings together students, professors, and companies

The opportunities offered by a concept called PIPE, which was developed by two professors at Constance University of Applied Sciences, almost sound too good to be true. PIPE allows different worlds to be brought together, merging the working world of companies with the student world of universities. Dovetailing a project training method seamlessly within both worlds paves the way for authentic, real-world, lifelong learning for students and business professionals alike. The PIPE concept (short for project-in-project experience) was developed by Professor Dr. Ralf Schimkat and Professor Dr. Rainer Mueller as part of an eight-year trial conducted at Constance University of Applied Sciences. The model was then optimized as a part of master’s courses.

Have students learned the “right” things for their degree? Are they well prepared for professional life and the new working world of modern companies? Do they meet the expectations of future employers and co-workers? What can be done to improve the competencies of students by organizing projects and assignments with a direct bearing on business practice? The PIPE concept addresses all of these issues in the form of a multifaceted, project-based university training concept in authentic, carefully positioned learning environments that place emphasis on business practice. All involved in the process expand their personal spheres of knowledge and competence in the long term.

What’s typical in the new world of work?

“Project work is an increasingly important core competence in our Western industrial world. Complex, unpredictable workflows require more project-like approaches – unlike process-like approaches, which are often not such a good fit,” explains Ralf Schimkat, who teaches health informatics with a focus on software development at the University of Applied Sciences in Constance and manages the Steinbeis Transfer Center Agile IT-Management.

Physical separation within teams, i.e. the fact that they work virtually, is already common practice and this will increase significantly in the future – not just because of experience with the pandemic and endeavors to improve sustainability.

Knowledge is highly ephemeral in the modern world of work, in many industries and domains. Once acquired at university or in training, know-how quickly relinquishes its relevance. Modern professions require a strong ability to learn things by yourself, something that may be seen as a “new” approach to enhancing professional standards in everyday work settings. Skills shortages and ever-changing job profiles – coupled with increasing employee workplace volatility caused by the changing nature of remote working – require employers to be more willing to adapt work and role descriptions to the individual.

How do you deal with the new world of work?

An alternative approach to on-the-job training and university courses, PIPE involves close collaboration between companies and universities. Representatives from companies are an inherent element of training for the entire process, which can last a semester of 15 weeks. For example, they may act as a Scrum Product Owner. “A central element of PIPE is the combination of project-based training – the training project, in which a real project, or application project, serves as a real training scenario, so it’s a project within a project,” says Rainer Mueller, explaining the approach behind the concept and the reason for its name. Mueller teaches business informatics at Constance University of Applied Sciences, where alongside colleague Ralf Schimkat, he heads up the PIPE Institute, which pools their accumulated experience in the design of agile training and running courses.

PIPE allows all stakeholders, i.e. the employees of participating companies, students, and university lecturers, to assume roles in rotation and thus change responsibilities. There are roles such as team leaders, project moderators, product managers, clients, regular project staff, but also coaches and lecturers.

The project topics and tasks are provided by the companies themselves and are based as realistically as possible on authentic situations – ideally with real clients. Training is provided on modern tools of communication and collaboration, as well as agile methods of distributed and remote working. Based on this, new methods are developed, tailored to the individual needs of the companies and their employees.

In what ways does the PIPE concept add value?

With PIPE, students and trainees are supported with a variety of individual, initial requirements, as well as development rates and objectives. Taking a fine-grained incremental approach to individual training objectives, and organizing regular sessions for reflection as a team – but also individually with the instructors acting as coaches – helps each participant with individual learning paths. Ultimately this even applies to the coaches of the process themselves.

A central focus of PIPE lies in social and personal competencies through the development of communication skills, collaboration and teamwork skills, leadership and management skills, interdisciplinary work, self-reflection, dealing with conflict, and critical questioning. Such competencies play a central role in working independently, but also in shared tasks in distributed project teams. To help students deal with the challenges of uncertain working methods – in an autonomous, responsible, reflective, and well-founded manner – it’s not enough to simply impart knowledge, skills, and capabilities. Organizational factors and situational, contextual aspects also play an important role in the development of competencies.

Corporate involvement in the PIPE concept

With roughly four hours per week allocated to the project phases (sprints) of the application project, a representative of the selected company participates in courses and is given a specific role (for example, Chief Product Owner). Such sprints usually last around three weeks and are concluded from a retrospective angle. The company representative does not play an active role in the preceding two-week technical creation phase.

The time budget is divided up differently across the overall training course. Initially, company representatives tend to be kept in the background, until they finally come together 100% with the trainees and students – face to face or virtually – for the final sprint before the end of the training or semester.

Student involvement in the PIPE concept

The continual nature of working and learning within the two project units of PIPE (training and application) is typical for students involved in the process. There is no summative assessment at the end of the training period, such as an end-of-semester exam. The continual alternation between theory and practice phases during sprints happens several times during the training period, with students continuously adopting different roles. The theory phases offer new training and learning insights inspired by technical factors, and these insights are worked through individually during the following practical phases and transferred to an individual’s personal area of competence. This is always an active process, supported by teaching staff as learning companions and coaches (live coaching).

Feedback from the participants

“The strong emphasis on practical application is highly appreciated by almost all students and trainees. Being able to expand your own areas of expertise in a safe setting – for example at university, with real people from companies – is perceived as unique and extremely enriching on a personal level,” says Ralf Schimkat, who is delighted with the feedback until now. The PIPE model stems from an initial idea of treating the course itself as an agile project lasting one semester. Dealing with uncertainty and the unknowns of that “project,” individually defining project and learning objectives with the students, and continuous feedback loops regarding current project and learning progress are all defining features of agile project management in general – particularly for PIPE within the context of training and learning.


Prof. Dr. Ralf Schimkat (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Agile IT-Management (Konstanz)

Prof. Dr. Rainer Mueller (author)
Associate Dean
HTWG Konstanz – University of Technology, Business and Design (Konstanz)

Kommunikation und Kollaboration in Projekten und Prozessen