Learning notes from Basel – 1

More untechnical learning today. For the third year, we were guests of Norvartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical multinational in Basel. The company is developing a new campus in the city, where all of their research & development and management functions are situated. In a far-sighted move, the company realised that the best way to attract global scientific and professional talent is to make the experience of working for the company as enjoyable and productive as possible.

This is why all of their new buildings are designed on the principle of maximising inter-disciplinary human interaction, so that ideas become infectious. They have also invested huge amounts in staff facilities such as creches, restaurants, on-campus shops and an excellent built environment all in the understanding that employees whose needs have been looked after are likely to be more content and therefore more productive. Technology has been used to enable the workers from 81 nationalities to work wherever on the campus suits them. While there are clear expectations about working life, there is a recognition that people work in different ways and that there needs to be a good work-life balance.

Our students were wide-eyed at what they experienced. Suddenly the nature of the international workplace became clear to them; also the skill levels required by such companies, and the rewards possible in terms of the opportunities of high-skill working life. While I certainly don’t advocate education as being only for work, this is still a valuable part of the whole, and I think it is important that students realise what is possible – and what our own nation is up against in a globalised world. My Geographers’ understanding of trans-national companies was made concrete – and they discovered how the global pharmaceutical industry works.

What’s more, the opportunity to look out from the sixteenth floor over Dreilandereck, the point in the Rhine where Germany, Switzerland and France meet, brought forth gasps of insight when the difference between living on an island and a continent suddenly dawned on them. Not to mention the quiet discussion I had with two History students, when a few other geo-political realities of relatively recent history also hit home…

While it’s hardly realistic to expect state-run education establishments to match the standards of a major multinational, there might still be lessons to be learned in terms of latest understandings of workplace psychology and how to engage people with their working lives. And once again, the students’ learning was palpable. But nary a progess indicator or  lesson-plan in sight – just a bit of fruitfully-used opportunism… Learning is not only that which happens in classrooms.




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