The Business like University Meme: An Explanation

I think often on the meme of businesses becoming more like universities with universities (researchers too) more like businesses.  It can be disparaged as a crass idea by academia, but I think a deeper understanding can inform potential reforms on either side of the equation.  I came back to this meme by following the thread from Tony Karrer who asks us to weight in on the future of learning as a business.

The future of business itself is knowledge and technology centric.  Managing that future is different when:

  • you’re managing people with more expertise than you and
  • when the knowledge that you have and want to impart is dense and complex and
  • when a major goal is to uncover or develop new knowledge and when
  • a major goal is the ongoing development of a shared knowledge base and communication structure within the organization.

If the goal of your organization is to develop world class service, managing it may share many activities with running a university department and research center, except that there are no diplomas and your always in beta.

On the university side of the equation, I’ll first differ to Ellen Wagner’s post Psst…for researchers only.

This is a tip for those of you who conduct quantitative research . . . you can influence the technology product roadmaps . . . if you have data that shows that particular kinds of features in products can help students retain more, remember better, perform at peak levels of efficiency for longer periods of time then you need to figure out a way to get that information to the education marketing team at your technology company of your choice. Because those are the kinds of facts and figures that help sales teams connect with their educational customers. Education customers don’t just want to hear about features and benefits. They also want to know about best practices for using products to solve real problems.  . . . What (technology companies) can do is to help promote your findings, showcase your success.

I may be jaded, but I believe that academics writing is often intended to be instrumental toward tenure, not to have an impact on society and the peer review journal processes inhibit innovation and risk taking by researchers.  Research should be consequentially valid and disseminated for that purpose, and at its heart, dissemination shares many similarities with marketing.  Academics and journals must also travel beyond their disciplinary boundaries in ways that are in line with new forms of networked knowledge.

Summary: A manager / leader of world class services and a teacher leading students and research projects share potentially similar skill sets and futures.

Who’s in the Market for Learning: An Organization’s Perspective

More ideas following Tony Karrer’s post, this time inspired by Michele Martins thoughts (Who’s in the Market for Learning, Individual or Organizations).

Lifelong learning from an organizations perspective:

  1. Strategy must play a stronger role where learning is part of the organizational narrative not just an afterthought.
  2. Focus learning activities on building organizational intelligence with individual learning.  Individual learning becomes organizational intelligence when it changes processes, shared understandings or artifacts (like the organizational narrative).
  3. Organizations need a learning infrastructure.  Six Sigma is one example, except that it could be more broadly focused beyond quality.

I think there might be some room for further development of these ideas.

A horizon summary

I think It boils it down to 2 areas where I am knowledgeable, have an interest, where there is opportunity to apply that interest, and where the technology exists to allow reasonable implementation: (1) measurement and (2) lifelong / just-in-time learning.

Measurement – It has one purpose, to generate data, but when combined with appropriate theory, data can provide invaluable supports to decision-making, communications and experimental practice improvement efforts.  People act either because they believe their actions will lead to desired outcomes or because they are following a tradition.  All action should be backed-up and validated by data, but it is often not because managers cannot articulate a theory linking action to outcome, because they don’t understand how to design relevant and efficient measures, because they don’t understand the knowledge that measures can generate, or because they don’t understand how important data is to communication / reporting.  Education is needed to help managers articulate operational theories, designing appropriate measures and integrate them into everyday activities.  I recommend integrating measures into existing reporting / communicating structures for efficiency and aligning these structures with processes and with organizational strategy.

Learning – Existing learning structures are not sufficient to facilitate individual lifelong learning, organizational learning or in learning that is directly related to contextual needsAs I have written before, we need social innovations in how organizations learning.  What is also needed is pedagogy, technology and institutional structures designed for diverse interdisciplinary on-demand knowledge networks.  Social networks are growing (Linkedin is one example.).  Missing from learning opportunities in these networks are the mission structures and technical capabilities of dedicated learning organizations to participate in ad-hoc networks with the pedagogy and monetization strategies to make these networks efficient and effective as learning nodes in the day to day activities of individuals and project teams

Learning Needs Social Innovation, not just Technical Innovation

Reading about e-learning and social media, I get the feeling that people are trying to solve learning issues with technical applications.  While I believe that technology is a key enabler, learning is social at its core.  That means social innovation should come first.  Social media can be a great enabler, if its application is designed to facilitate interaction where social change has already taken place or at least where the ground is fertile for social change.

Here’s an example:

An individualistic idea of schooling led to a university model where people went to school to get knowledge into their heads and then went out into the world to practice and use that knowledge.  But not only is learning not anywhere near finished when you leave school, to be successful in practice many people need to learn everyday.  In short, the learning is never done!

Yes, we need knowledge from schools, but even more important we need a learning network.  This was my take-away from last falls connectivism course (CCK08).  Providing students with a network of knowers is more important than providing them with knowledge.  While many professors may maintain contact with graduates, what is needed is more.  It’s the expectation that graduates will leave school with a strong learning and practice network that includes strong bond to ties graduates back to their original contexts of learning and to ties schools to rich fields of practice and practitioners.  It’s a two way street.  Now in this type of context, social media can be a real enabler because it is focused on facilitating dynamic social innovation.

The Need for Rituals in Learning and Living

Clark Quinn in his recent post Transformative Experience Design looks anew at Post and Gilmore’s transformative experience as part of the experience economy; (the idea that the next phase of business is to sell experiences that are transformational.)  He make a great synthesizes of this idea with 2 other authors: Brown and Rappaport.  This is a comment I left on his blog.


I don’t know where this came from, but I think that the synthesis of transformational experience, JS Brown’s ‘questing disposition’ and especially Rappaport (God rest his soul) is shear genius.  The following is from a review of Rappaport’s book by Mary Catherine Bateson:

Rappaport is . . .describing the kind of ecology of ideas and actions that might include and sustain religion (or secular rituals) as an integral part of life. . .  What is needed is not new theology (though some tune-ups might be helpful) but new forms of practice and social engagement. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but that may do more harm than good, creating new polarities; what we need to do instead is to march or dance or sing, as in the great civil rights demonstrations of the sixties that forged new convictions and new unity.

I think these forms of practice and social engagement can come in many different forms and can be short lived or last for centuries, but they all must exist and tap into an ecology of ideas and actions that are at a scale that is much larger than any single individual or any single designed event.

My first thoughts on Browns ‘questing disposition’ reminds me of the institutional university.  Many of the best are full of rituals and lore, and their ancient stature towers above all who are there (think: Go Crimson).  But the way they do things and their ecology of ideas, just doesn’t fit this new world.  We go to university, graduate, take a job and hear from them in the form of donation requests.  Our educational rituals and our educational relationships need to be lifelong, just like our learning. There will come a time in the year 2020 when I need will need knowledge and practice from my university, except that the course I will need hasn’t been thought of yet.  We need university rituals that go with us into the world, and extend beyond rooting for your team in March Madness.

A second thought.  I have long thought that religion must have served some important purpose to be so widespread and this fits with Rappaport’s basic idea (at least as presented by Bateson) that ritual and religion co-evolved with language and that it did this in order to counter some of the destructive things that can be done with language (hence Bateson’s comment above that talking can “do more harm than good”).  And Bateson’s prescription also seems real to me; that religion’s problems are rooted not primarily in theology, but in the need for new practices and new forms of social engagement.  Now I admit, there are some theologies that I do have some problems with, but I believe that Bateson would say that a lot of these problems are just me letting my words getting in the way of practice and social engagement.

A third thought.  Ritual, as Bateson talks of it, can be seen as a form of distributed cognition or maybe as a form of the distributed unconscious.  Yes, I believe that just as there is much cognition that is below our conscious awareness, much of our rituals serve a similar unconscious cognitive role.

Well, let chew on that for a while.

A New Business Model for Higher Education

I have a larger than normal amount of posts because I’m doing spring cleaning, getting some stuff off my hard drive and into the cloud.  Here’s one

A Meme that has interested me for sometime is that universities should be more like businesses and businesses should be more like universities.  As Susanne Lohmann points out (2004 in Economics of Governance, Vol. 5, 9-27), this is more complex than it might seem on the surface.   But I want to focus not on the past, but on new evolving pressures for change.

  • Situation#1 – Workers need to be involved in continuous learning. The old model that you go to university from 18-22, and then work from 22 – 65 will not work anymore.  The learning community that universities are so good at fostering needs to continue lifelong.  Universities can not continue to ignore alumni (except in regard to charity) and businesses need a model that engages universities and businesses on an ongoing basis.
  • Situation #2 Competitive advantage is now in brains, not brawn. Neither universities, nor businesses can afford to hire all the brains that they will need.  Social media is one response to this problem, but I believe we also need to find more direct engagement.
  • Response Targeted Knowledge Revenue Streams. This idea came to me while reading a HBR article, although I can’t remember which one.  In addition to students, universities should target the development of courses and ed services to the specific needs of businesses. Alumni can be brought into a closer relationship to the university through their use in marketing.  Not only will the alumni’s businesses benefit, alumni will be involved in a more substantial way  as continuing learners and scholars will have a deeper understanding of the knowledge needs of businesses.  This understanding in-turn can be incorporated into regular course improvement.  In fact, this revenue stream will not only increase revenues to the university and provide knowledge capital to businesses, it will also fund course improvement and new course development for the university.
  • Finally, walled gardens will no longer suffice. The continuing development of this knowledge economy will requires porous boundaries in all organizations.  What are the models by which this can be achieved and can this be one?