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Published: 12.04.2007, 06:00
Modified: 11.04.2007, 22:50
Micro-governance at ETH Zurich
Governance, the ‘in thing’ for research

Governance as a buzz word? Not at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Microbiology. The Institute ensures financial and scientific efficiency through clearly defined rules of play and standards without cramping researchers’ creativity.

Peter Rüegg

It all looks like ’normal’ scientific activity when you go into the part in the HCI building that houses the Institute for Microbiology on the Hönggerberg campus. Posters hang on the walls, young researchers in Birkenstock sandals hurry along the corridors and there are people in the offices working at computers. But HCI G 425 is not an office where doctoral students or post-docs work. This is the workplace of the two managers, Jacques Laville and Alain Wasserfallen. Their job is to organise the Institute according to the basic principles of Good Governance.

Governance as a system of rules

The term “Corporate Governance” is used in big business to mean information transparency between executive managers and the board of directors. Institute manager Jacques Laville explains that the main purpose of Governance is to remove the asymmetry in the state of knowledge between the board and the CEO or CFO, and to recognise conflicts of interest at an early stage. So this kind of governance is a system of rules and control mechanisms that is applied in a company. Laville says it is concerned with ethics, with discipline and information transparency. “In our case, however, we are talking more about institute organisation, which means common rules of behaviour at the Institute level.”

Nevertheless, the Institute’s rules of governance are analogous to those in industry: a high degree of transparency, fair rules of behaviour and uniform standards for all in IT, in procedures as well as for consumable materials. The Institute has farmed out competencies logically. Everything not connected directly with research and teaching was transferred to Institute management, which has the appropriate decision-making competencies. Laville says “Professors have more important things to do than decide the colour of “Post-it” notes.”

Consistent but not obstinate

Institute management in consultation with professors and assistant professors defines the applicable standards, which are re-examined regularly and modified if necessary when problems arise. Laville, a doctor of microbiology, says “They apply to the whole organisational unit, not just to one group; they increase efficiency but must not be allowed to hold back creativity.” As much as possible of materials and equipment at the Institute for Microbiology are standardised, from laboratory gloves to enzymes used for experiments to the computers and software used by researchers. Exceptions are possible, though they are kept to a minimum. Laville says this permits researchers the latitude necessary to display their creativity. The standards allow Institute management to use resources in a financially efficient way. They create a common knowledge base and ease the exchange of know-how among staff, thus promoting operational efficiency. In addition a strong corporate identity develops and Institute management remains lean.

Shared control of resources

There are no separate budgets for the individual research groups, all the financial resources go into a shared kitty. Hauke Hennecke, Professor at the Institute and head of the Biology Department until April 2007, stresses that “Our resource management is more flexible as a result.” He says this also applies to personnel matters, and that the days of the old senior common room culture – a personal professorial chair with its own funding that was defended until retirement – are long gone at their Institute.


Jacques Laville is one of the two Institute managers at the Institute of Microbiology, D-BIOL. large

“Everyone gets what he or she needs,” is Hennecke’s simple formula. Management has a co-ordinating role and ensures fairness. If any one group goes too far, the managers intervene.

The Institute governance has paid off for Hennecke. He sees the shared husbanding of resources and the pool policy for consumables, operations, IT and personnel as the key to success, and concludes that “Giving each other a helping hand within the Institute has worked very well so far.” He says the Institute directorate decided to create institute manager posts in the early nineties. In retrospect he does not regret it for one minute.

Savings have paid salaries

The risk paid off. By shared control of resources, management can order larger amounts from a single supplier and can receive quantity discounts, thus making big financial savings. Laville says that “The savings achieved when I first started in the post in 1992, in materials management for example, amounted to twice the cost of employing me.” He was appointed as manager in 1992, immediately after completing his doctoral thesis at the Institute. In the winter of 1992-1993 he introduced the first goods ordering system and a pool policy for procuring chemicals, enzymes and consumables. The IT infrastructure was redesigned from top to bottom. In 1999 Laville moved into private industry for two years. He returned to the Institute for Microbiology in 2001. Together with Alain Wasserfallen, he formed the management team that became a new component in the Institute’s directorate. As the Institute developed, personnel administration was transferred to Silvia Weber, formerly personnel assistant to Prof. Markus Aebi.

Integration is important

Problems with the acceptance of standards and rules are never entirely avoidable. Laville, originally from the canton of Jura, says “Like everyone else, we all make mistakes but we also take problems seriously.” That’s why the management team invests a large amount of time acquainting new employees with the Institute. New professors are given detailed information about the Institute’s practices. However, most don’t find it difficult to accept this governance, which is why no candidate has ever failed to accept a professorship.

According to Laville, defining rules and standards requires managers to have a high level of professional competence. That also includes the ability to say no from time to time. Laville and his management colleagues are rewarded for their efforts when researchers return to the Institute after spending time at other institutions in this country and abroad. “The people who return are glad to be working with us again. That confirms we are doing our work well.”

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