© istockphoto.com/alphaspirit

“You teach people, not subjects”

An interview with Professor Dr. Bernd Jörs, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Online Marketing Engineering & Business Analytics and a professor in information economy and online marketing engineering at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences.

Do university lecturers have to be lateral thinkers? How much “lateral influence” does a university need between the degrees it offers and business practice? And how is people’s understanding of the role played by university teaching staff changing in times of digital transformation? TRANSFER spoke to Professor Dr. Bernd Jörs about these questions, as well as the relaunch university lecturing is currently undergoing.

Hello, Professor Jörs, can we start by asking what you think makes a good lateral thinker? In fact, would you consider yourself a lateral thinker?

I sometimes get the impression that lateral thinking has something threatening about it in Germany – it’s even seen as arrogant or like “being a know-all.” People often associate lateral thinking with argumentative thinking. But for me lateral thinkers are a really important scientific institution or people; as far as my processes of scientific discovery are concerned, they provide me with important ideas – necessary ideas, other ways of looking at things. I think it’s that function that makes someone a lateral thinker. As a university lecturer, one of the big reasons I have respect for the ability to think laterally is that I’m a believer in the critical-rational scientific views of Karl R. Popper, so I always want to eradicate wrong thinking or misguided thinking when looking for an answer; falsification of theories is part of my understanding of science, and it’s why I’m so pleased when I recognize an error in reasoning or weaknesses in a theory – I don’t have to hold onto things dogmatically and I can see that shifting recognition will stand the test of time. Just look at the discussion going on at the moment about artificial intelligence and the amazing work being carried out by my colleague, Professor Dr. Katharina Zweig (TU Kaiserslautern), with her Algorithm Watch initiative. She won this year’s highly prestigious Ars Legendi faculty prize, and deservedly so. It’s awarded by the science and university association Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and the German Rectors’ Conference. In the specialist area I work in, which is data-driven online marketing engineering, we’re also crying out for more debate with lateral thinkers, because of the rate of change. In this area, dogma would be like opening a door to deadlock. I’m vehement in my pursuit of this view of scientific methods, especially in my work at the university, even if some of my scientific and academic colleagues see this continual correcting and falsifying as a bit of a drag, irritating, and untimely. What should define a lateral thinker is being relaxed, laughing about things, standing above things, not expecting to be able to sell the subjective search for truth as some sort of objective, ultimate, irrefutable legitimacy – and not demanding it. The way I see it, the best way to attract young students to a subject or discipline, and even inspire them in a topic, is to be a lateral thinker or play devil’s advocate, so as part of my university teaching I often challenge students to check my assertions and continually question things. This really works wonders in terms of making students listen up. The smartphones are usually turned off and even at 8.30 on a Monday morning the lectures are quite well attended. A final thesis with critical thinking is good in this respect, too. If people can be open to this understanding of science, if people can continuously challenge their own positions and methods, if people can acquire empathy – for the good of the audience – those are already some of the prerequisites you need for lateral thinking. But just being or wanting to be a lateral thinker isn’t enough. If you’re a lateral thinker you have to constantly challenge your own lateral thinking and make humility one of its most important ingredients, especially if you’re a Socratic, who should know the limitations of his or her own knowledge. If you adhere to this, you can say you’re a lateral thinker.

Unicum Beruf career magazine ran a competition and you were named Professor Of The Year 2016 in the humanities, social, and cultural science category. Clearly your positive “lateral influence” between studying and practice, and between the university and companies, had something to do with this. Is this lateral influence intentional or was it just luck?

When we’re teaching at a university, something I think you can’t emphasize enough is that we bear responsibility toward the young generation and increasingly even for the alumni and their prospective careers. Something we have to keep reminding ourselves is that we’re there for those people, not the other way around. Given all the discussion at the moment about digital transformation in the workplace, and the predictions being made about impacts on the world of employment and long-term job losses, even – or especially – in academic circles, there’s virtually an obligation to take responsibility for the future and engage in early conversation about the requirements this all entails regarding young people’s qualifications.

Business practice moves forward at an extremely fast pace, as we’ve seen with the increased use of algorithms and development cycles getting shorter and shorter as they’re driven by innovation and the trial-and-error mentality. To keep pace with this through the right “anticipatory” qualifications, it’s crucial or even imperative, in fact it’s almost of existential importance to keep in close contact with this “accelerating economy” and business practice – if anything just because of the speed things are going at and because of what happens next. Good teaching and R&D in the area of online marketing engineering are no longer possible without adequate instruments, different ways to process mass data, the right toolkits of hardware and software, university sponsorship, or adequate support from third parties in the right areas of business.

This is where the onus is on university lecturing due to the “war for talent” – it has to open doors to talented individuals as they jump on the career ladder, anticipating probable qualifications (if possible by providing USPs) and, more than anything, actively involving and working with business – early! The fact of the matter is, business practice is becoming more scientific and at the same time, academic qualifications are focusing more on business practice and actual professions. But conversely, businesses need to be kept up to speed with the quality of qualifications so they can make a realistic assessment of the actual skills of graduates. There are thousands of bachelor’s and master’s degrees now, so it’s becoming more and more difficult to get a realistic grasp of the performance reflected in the final grade certificate. This is why it’s crucial that university lecturers improve their ability to actively keep business informed. The ball is in the court of the universities and lecturers, whose job has to be to pave the way for the graduates’ careers and take responsibility as agents of education and talent. The increasing number of degrees and the difficulties companies are having understanding the difference between the qualifications offered by university degrees, especially with all the new (interdisciplinary) overlapping degrees, mean that the companies have to be approached actively, which is going much further than just networking or thinking in terms of partnerships. A crucial factor for success, even the long-term success of such a win-win university/business partnership, is not just the personal networking aspect but also the fact that you need to understand the contextual requirements, the things you need to know to solve a certain (business) issue at a company, so students need to be taken to the companies with the right qualifications to anticipate this need – and both of these things should be the task of a university lecturer. From my experience, lining up the right people – especially given this competition between university degrees – is about proven and acknowledged success in showing that a student is fit for purpose, due to their specialist knowledge or personal attributes. As part of this responsibility, there is an entirely serious role to play as a mentor or career coach with vision and individual understanding, and this really has to look beyond the university, even continuing after a degree has been completed. The challenge is to lay foundations for the vision of a lifelong partnership of learning and instruction. The young people’s workplaces of the future will no longer be about security or long-term obligations to an employer. The employment market for graduates is now about flexibility, short time scales, plenty of private travel linked with the profession or location, and the constant drive to gain new qualifications, and this will be a key feature of working conditions and the areas people work in. I believe that university teachers should ensure students are ready to embark on a career, with the right skills and social competences, and that they should be lined up with company contacts and thus given the right training and qualifications – so university lecturers must ensure they don’t lose touch with the need to provide training and the speed requirements move at, especially in the area I work in at the interface between business science, IT, and information science.

These are just some of the reasons why this lateral influence you asked about was no mere coincidence but was entirely intentional, for reasons of self-development but also for the good of students and business. I believe Steinbeis adheres to this approach in many areas. And I’d love to inject life into the plans of Steinbeis with corresponding activities.

So you’re closely involved in relaunching the profession of university lecturers. Why’s that so important to you? Is lateral thinking a must in this respect?

When you’ve been working in university lecturing for more than 30 years, you learn a pretty important thing and you keep learning it: “You teach people, not subjects.” These aren’t matriculation numbers sitting in front of a professor, an entity you have no responsibility for. Especially in a field like the new information economy or online marketing engineering, or the newer AI-aided world of business analytics, you see first-hand what speed these disciplines are moving at. If you decide to go into this area of lecturing you need to be totally clear about the fact that you have young people in the target or age group sitting in front of you. So you need to be clear about your attitude: I enjoy teaching and I like these young people aged between 18 and 27. I look forward to each intake of students and seeing the next generation learn well and enjoy success in their later careers. The way I see it, this emotional connection to young people and talents is a decisive prerequisite for working in this profession, especially if you want to enter into it with the necessary responsibility. To reach out to a young audience like this, it’s important to be permanently involved in the target group and the people in your lectures, and you need to know the problems that occupy them and will occupy them, how to connect with them and support them. But unfortunately a university lecturer’s ability to “light young people’s fire” isn’t really one of the acknowledged prerequisites for such a calling, and in scientific terms it’s dismissed as something that’s less relevant – so this incredibly important job qualification is still leading a pitiful existence, as Professor Dr. Manfred Prenzel, the outgoing Chairman of the Scientific Board, recently underscored. You have to be totally clear about the fact that you’re simply in the wrong job if you keep reeling off the same sermon you heard in your own childhood about the academic performance of the next generation “getting worse and worse the whole time,” or if you see the high failure rate as an indication of your own high academic abilities, or if it seems important to have highly selective procedures or standards that are difficult to meet – just because this keeps students “off your back” so fleeing into the research-dominant exclusivity of your profession is a matter of distinction; surely otherwise you’d be called a university researcher, not a university lecturer.

I started pricking my ears up when I noticed that there’s growing alienation between the universities, the lecturers, and the students. I started to notice more and more despondent lecturers, who were frustrated and swallowing their disaffection with lecturing and the level of student demand for the lectures they were doing, absconding to do “ivory-tower research” which only resulted in smaller, meaningless, unread, and never-cited publications. It’s frustrating and it makes you feel depressed, and it was getting worse. Burnout, aggressive examining methods, sick leave, badmouthing the next generation of students – it was all getting worse. The committees and the scores of official posts became the last port of call in terms of hope for the profession. Something about the job had to be satisfying. But when it’s like this the whole time, it’s not enough. You’re in the wrong job. My ears also pricked up when I read the results of the 12th student survey conducted by the University of Constance, or the surveys carried out by the scientific council, the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and the German Rector’s Conference, or the Bavaria education action committee – but at the same time I saw this as confirmation and it made me much more determined to think more about the need to relaunch university lecturing. I felt it was extremely important to do things with empathy and sympathy; there needed to be an ability to inspire young, often disoriented people by “lighting their fire” or arousing a “burning desire” for a topic, to do something with passion, to do something about the extremely high number of people breaking off their studies (33%), to not just wallow in indifference or continual absence (professor only on Tues/Weds/Thurs; five months without lectures, Please Don’t Disturb days). The number of lectures that “light fires” is going down continuously. The emphasis is being placed on courses that focus on problems or projects, so students mostly work in groups and don’t have to prepare much. In lots of areas, the universities are just a staging post or sometimes just a better place to learn a profession than the alternative: dual education. There are more than 18,400 bachelor’s and master’s programs and plenty of other degree options, so the roughly 330 dual education options can’t keep pace. Everyone’s amazed by the growing number of students. According to the Constance Student Survey, this isn’t about scientific curiosity or hyper-ambitious students, but rather about career prospects or the chances of survival and income effects. Everyone points to the impacts of digital transformation on employment policy, because these impacts have more and more implications for the gap between higher qualifications and simple or medium-level qualifications. At the same time, some even point to “academization madness.” Especially as someone from the Baby Boom generation, who has or had the whole spectrum of personal and professional choices, you have to tell young people what sort of employment market implications await them, and you have to want to and believe in taking responsibility for “looking after” young people. My usual phrase is “We’re there for the students, not the other way around,” but most people think it’s mischievous and even mock it. People sit back because they’re in the majority; committees are safe places. Well, if you want to come at it from that angle, I’m a lateral thinker on that front, too.

In lots of areas, both sets of people – the community of university lecturers and the students – have settled in comfortably with this arrangement. Less teaching, less time in the classroom, nothing like a “high-speed train” professorship, more time for my own research and (never-read, never-cited) publications – it all serves to fuel alienation and significantly affects people’s ability to identify with a university and its funders. University lecturers are in a pretty rare position for this day and age. They typically have a safe job, with all the creature comforts that entails. And those comforts are usually enjoyed to the full and at the same time people are mainly interested in claiming “entitlements.” I think the university lecturing profession needs to look at itself in a different way. This also means lecturing has to be valued more, so we need more recognition for the large number of evidence-based insights in university education and all of the neuro-biological insights stemming from teaching science; we need more stringent checks during admission to the profession (based on didactic aptitude testing – before appointment); we need more acceptance of the incredibly important role played by lecturers in successful teaching outcomes, which is confirmed by the huge number of studies; we need to find alternative occupation options for despondent lecturers. If we’re not willing to do this, students will increasingly see the learning opportunities offered by online education options as an alternative to the poor and incompetent university lecturers who’ve passed their use-by dates in university teaching. There’ll be more and more empty lecture rooms. If that’s what people want, because there’s then less obligation to do lectures, the alienation will get even worse. Is that what we want?

To secure its own future, a profession has to keep moving forward and challenge itself. How do you think somebody should see their role if they feel a calling to the profession, especially if they want to provide people with training for the next decade and it has to be academically sound, as part of a degree?

We have to do everything we can if we want to stay “on the ball” as university lecturers, in terms of both specialist knowledge and multidisciplinarity. Working with business enterprises outside university and other institutions will be crucial for our survival. The rate at which business and society overall are developing is so fast, you can only survive by forming interdisciplinary team structures and working in collaboration with people outside university. Especially the tendency for business practice to become more scientific and, at the same time, for science to focus more on business application means that more intensive collaboration will be needed. Or do we want, as has been proven by developments in the field of AI in American universities, more and more university lecturers and researchers to get poached by the big players? Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and even Uber are waving huge pay checks around, excellent laboratory facilities, and the possibility to access big volumes of data – instantly eclipsing any of the conditions found at university. From a scientific standpoint, traditional theories, methods, and patterns of thought are virtually being lifted out of their hinges in many areas at the moment, so we don’t need people who blindly believe everything, we need lateral-thinking “people with a calling” – who are willing to question methods and think outside the box of their own disciplines. This is why I’m all for “lateral-thinker communities” pulling together people from lots of different specialties – to break down traditional university compartmentalization, which puts everything in specialist departments. Why do you still need your own IT faculty if every specialist department needs IT (and applications) these days? The same applies to the fields of mathematics and business science, which should be an integral part of lots of scientific disciplines, especially in this era of data science. ‘It would also be useful for lateral thinking if people could be attracted to university teaching by offering more part-time professorships, as was recently recommended by the scientific council for the universities of applied sciences. To keep pace with the speed of developments outside universities, to bring young people into lecturing early, and to inject fresh, lateral thought into the work being carried out at universities, we need to find ways to appoint people so that they can spend 50% of their working week at the university and 50% of their time in business. But to do justice to the aspect of “passionate teaching” – an understanding of teaching that places the emphasis on taking responsibility for teaching and the learning success of the young people, that encourages them to adopt a critical and rational approach, and that above all engenders self-confidence in graduates, so that they remain curious throughout their lives – the university teaching profession needs a relaunch. This is because successful learning primarily involves authenticity on behalf of the teacher – a winning attitude that revolves around successful learning. What I’m referring to is the increasingly important need to focus universities on continuing education. The Steinbeis Foundation has such a wide spectrum of services in this respect, it’s almost performing a pioneering function. “Agile” continuing professional development must, however, pursue a clear goal: It must ensure people really do receive the right qualifications to adapt in their careers and start again. Simply proving people have received staff training will no longer suffice in the future.


Professor Dr. Bernd Jörs is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Online Marketing Engineering & Business Analytics. The services offered by the Steinbeis Enterprise range from research and consulting projects to continuing professional development programs in the interdisciplinary field of online marketing engineering, business analytics, and business and financial data engineering.

Professor Dr. Bernd Jörs
Steinbeis-Transferzentrum Online Marketing Engineering & Business Analytics (Rodgau)