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Network of experts

by Bernd Schleich
Among educational institutions in Germany, awareness is gradually growing of how important it is to stay in touch with graduates. InWEnt, however, is already one step ahead. Bernd Schleich, managing director of this capacity-building agency with a global reach, regards it a core task to look after alumni (as well as those of InWEnt precursors Carl Duisberg Society and German Foundation for International Development). Schleich argues that alumni programmes are the key to achieving sustainable results. [ Interview with Bernd Schleich ]

InWEnt recently hosted a Pan-African alumni meeting in Dar es Salaam. What impressed you most?
I was especially impressed by the fact that participants, some of whom completed their advanced training years ago, are still very interested in the topics, and they continue to work in the field in a professional capacity. African Participants of our hospital-management programme, for example, have established such a good network that they are basically setting up a little training institution of their own. They are exchanging knowledge and sharing experiences, implementing ideas they developed during their training stints in Germany. I am very pleased that it comes naturally to them to network independently
of InWEnt.

Was there anything you found particularly surprising in Dar es Salaam?
I appreciate many of the participants’ great proficiency in German. Most still speak the language so well that they can hold a normal conversation – even though they spent at most one year in our country. Generally speaking, they have fond memories of their stay. Their actual experiences are relevant, of course, whether at the work place they were assigned to, or at InWEnt’s arrival centre in Saarbrücken, or elsewhere.

How does InWEnt help people to help themselves?

Our advanced training approach enables people to help themselves by qualifying experts from developing countries in Germany and their native regions, rather than sending in experts from Germany. In targeted steps, we are fostering a high-achieving, responsible elite. These people drive change, in society and specific institutions, and they stay in touch with one another. In turn, that strengthens ownership, which is what the international donor community needs.

Why do you consider alumni work important?

First of all, we want to know how good our training programmes are. To find out, we need long-term contact. Earlier, we used to simply ask participants after courses about our programmes’ quality. That approach was entirely output-based. Today, we ask what people do with the acquired knowledge back home. We can only ascertain whether our work has the desired results by considering participants’ assessments after a longer period of time. For that reason alone, we invest a great deal of energy, money and time in staying in touch.

So alumni work serves a monitoring function?

Yes, but it does more than that. Both sides benefit. We see whether and how participants implement ideas. At the same time, ongoing contact helps participants to clarify questions that crop up only after returning home. Basically, I say that all of our further-education work at InWEnt only really bears fruit thanks to alumni work. In the long term, there are valuable interactions. We understand our partners’ wishes and concerns better, and our partners see how problem solving is done in Germany, or Europe, for that matter. In short, giving the alumni professional support is a core InWEnt task, not an add-on service.

Which media do you use to remain in contact with the alumni?

Two important tools are the Global Campus 21 and the Alumni Portal. The Portal provides insights into all training programmes on offer, all alumni networks and important sources of information like our Alumni Newsletter. Options to use and improve one’s German also matter a lot. For instance, there are free-of-charge German lessons. The Global Campus 21 is a virtual platform for learning and communication, a website that was created by InWEnt. It is geared to encouraging alumni to network among one another. This takes place first and foremost via expert forums, which we initially host, in the first time after the courses. However, they become increasingly independent as time goes by. It is fascinating to see how many people are involved in the Global Campus 21. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world communicate via this platform. Something substantial has been created here, and we call it the “international learning community”. The participants make very active use of this service. To them, this matters more than financial support after courses.

But the Portal and the Global Campus 21 are just two of many options for staying in touch over the web.

Of course, we don’t know how participants conduct their private networking, but we can definitely follow some developments. Settings that our alumni create often become expert forums in their own right. One example is the Asian Society for Environmental Protection, which was founded by a former participant after a stint in Germany. It has been operating successfully in Asia for many years. Only recently, this society became a partner of ours in formal cooperation again. There are many such examples. In Latin America, for instance, a network was established after an advanced-training programme run by the Carl Duisberg Society for production managers in manufacturing back in the 1980s. It is still active today.

To what extent is it useful then to keep websites like the Global Campus closed? After all, open forums are especially successful on the internet.

Yes, that’s true. It does not make sense to keep forums closed as a matter of principle. Therefore, only certain parts of the website are protected, for example, the areas where groups of participants who were in Germany together stay in touch with one another. All other sections are open, and so is most of the Alumni Portal. Moreover, there are open forums for all alumni.

So passwords are only needed to access exclusive forums for
participants of specific courses?

Exactly, and this is particularly true of courses we run on a commercial basis, involving e-learning, for example. Obviously, we must keep such forums exclusive.

What do you think in general of alumni programmes in Germany?

I have the impression that the understanding of these matters is only just awakening. Göttingen University, where I studied, held an alumni reunion about a year ago. I think that alumni work is getting more attention in Germany, for the most part due to the good examples in the Anglo-American world. That’s a very good thing. Accordingly, I welcome the decision by the German Development Ministry (BMZ) to set up an alumni portal for Germany.

What is that?

All people from developing countries who have studied or taken part in an advanced training course in Germany can register on the Alumni Portal Deutschland. It doesn’t matter whether they financed their studies themselves or whether they were in Germany on a scholarship from
InWEnt, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) or the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation. This new platform is set up in a similar way as the commercially-operated business network Xing. With the portal, we want to meet the demand among our participants for further professional, personal, cultural and political exchange. At the same time, we can put alumni in touch with German businesses.

Does the new website have a name yet?

It is called APD – Alumni-Plattform Deutschland (Alumni Platform Germany) – and has been coordinated by InWEnt since January. The Goethe Institute, DAAD, ZAV and AGEF are also involved.

Interview by Hans Dembowski.