Sabbatical lessons, part 1: What business and higher education have in common

Sabbatical lessons, part 1: What business and higher education have in common

This is a post in an ongoing series where I will be unpacking my sabbatical experiences. You can find the introductory post here.

When I was kicking around ideas for a year-long sabbatical, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I did know that it had to be different. I didn't want to just spend a year at another university, teaching a class or two and doing research, or holing up and writing a book. I wanted a moon shot --- something wildly out of my comfort zone, completely orthogonal to my previous 20 years in higher education, and yet something that would inform and improve my work in higher ed once I returned.

Spending a year in residency at the headquarters of a multinational, publicly-traded corporation like Steelcase fit that bill perfectly. I described in this article how it all came about it has been an amazing, transformative experience. But it's also been hard to explain to my higher ed colleagues. Some of the questions from them were practical, for example What's the deliverable you are going to produce while on sabbatical? Answer at the time: I have no idea; this is a business I will be working at, and things move fast and the "deliverable" I produce may not even be on the company's radar screen until January. From the beginning, the cultural difference between academia and business was problematic.

Other questions were far more direct about that cultural difference. Some academics, both colleagues and those I know from the web, were suspicious if not openly skeptical about my consorting with a corporation. This has happened before. Sometimes, when I've written about academic productivity or a post like this one (that encourages profs to use explicit learning objectives for their lessons), I've been criticized for contributing to the "corporatization" of academia. I'm not sure what this means, but I do know that it exposes a deep-seated distrust in academia of anything that looks like it could have come from the corporate world. So to actually join up with a corporation for my sabbatical, on purpose, and actually assist that corporation in its work and then say nice things about it --- well, that's just unnatural.

Therefore I'll not try to sugar-coat the first and perhaps overarching lesson that I learned while on sabbatical, but rather just come out and say it:

Business and higher education have more in common than we academics think.

Just to reiterate, I don't think business and higher education are the same, or that higher education should be "run like a business" or even can be run as one. Also, these are incredibly broad terms since "business" can refer to multinational corporations like Steelcase or the the mom-and-pop donut shop where I worked in college, and similarly higher education is hugely varied. But I've come to understand through my sabbatical experience that the intersection between business and higher education is nonempty, and the items inside that intersection are places where higher ed has an opportunity to learn something.

Here are four of those items.

Business and higher ed both involve people.

People are the life's blood of both businesses and universities. This seems obvious, but it's easy to forget. There are two groups of people who are especially important to both business and higher ed.

The first group of people are the employees, which in Steelcase's case involves thousands of employees worldwide ranging from the CEO to managers to sales leaders to the guys who work in the wood products factory[1]. At Steelcase, I learned an important lesson that if you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of you. Steelcase really excels at valuing employees and respecting their time and talents. There wasn't a strong sense of hierarchy in which managers lord their positions over people below them. Here's the CEO's office, for goodness' sake, which just sits out in the main area where other people work:

Everyone I worked with at Steelcase is smart, talented, and brings something unique to the work that the company does --- and the company knows it. Our time was respected; there were a lot of meetings to attend, but almost none of them were time-wasters. When someone had a sick kid, they were encouraged to stay home and take care of them, and just work at home as they were able and be available on Skype for meetings. Basically, every employee I saw was treated like a human being; given the time, space, and responsibility to do their jobs; and then given a supportive culture that helped them do those jobs. Wouldn't it be nice if higher ed were a little more like the best companies in that regard? Shouldn't we in higher ed be looking at companies that get this right and ask, How can we do this, too?

The second group are called "customers" in business. In higher ed, we don't have "customers" in the same sense that businesses have them. But we most certainly do have people who come to us and give their time and money to us in exchange for something from us. We can debate what that something is. But it's beyond debate that our learners are sacrificing something they have, for something they want from us, and it's imperative we take this commitment seriously.

I prefer to think of these folks as clients because as I explained in depth once, they are not simply buying a product: They are entering into an agreement with us (the consultants) to co-create something that is equally of value to both[2]. The best businesses actually care about their customers; I saw this, too, firsthand at Steelcase, where every day the company got close to customers, placed empathy with customer needs at the starting point of all business transactions, and truly listened to everything customers said when evaluating practices. So too, the best colleges and universities are those who focus on the clients we serve and use their needs as a starting point for all decision making. Google's most famous company mantra is "don't be evil", but the one they use more frequently is focus on the user. Perhaps in higher ed we could copy this and say: Focus on the student.

So again, it might do higher ed a lot of good to look at the best companies out there in terms of serving their customers and ask: Although our relationship with our clients is different from a company's relationship with its customers in many important ways, what are the best companies doing with their customers, and is there something we can learn from it?

Business and higher ed both involve organizations.

Again, it's obvious that both business and higher ed are clustered into organizations --- individual businesses or individual universities or colleges. The fact that we both operate on the organizational level has consequences.

Possibly the main consequence is that organizational culture matters greatly in both business and higher ed. Every business and every university has a culture --- a set of values plus rules for determining what actions accord with those values plus rituals and practices that guide the actions. Organizations can either act with integrity --- i.e. their rules support their values and their rituals and practices obey the rules --- or not. The popular meme is that corporations lack integrity categorically; this is too simplistic to be true. It's true that many corporations and other businesses lack integrity, or have a toxic culture. But it's also true that many universities are the same --- and not because they are trying to mimic the bad companies. The best companies, from large corporations down to mom-and-pop small businesses, have a positive culture and thoroughgoing integrity. I think it's worthwhile for us in higher ed to identify those companies and ask, What are they doing that's so good, and how can we in higher ed do the same?

Goodness knows that when we get to the point that we are soliciting unpaid academic labor, something has hit rock bottom with our collective culture, and it might be time to start looking for answers wherever we can find them.

Business and higher ed both involve financial viability.

Somehow this is less obvious, maybe because so many of us in higher education don't want what we do to be about money. I think that's a good impulse. But still, universities have to be financially viable in order to carry out its main mission of education and research.

At Steelcase, one of the most interesting things I saw was that nobody at the company made any assumptions about its financial viability heading into the future. During the 2008 recession, the company came dangerously close to going bankrupt. A lot of people were laid off and never returned once the economy turned back around. Although the business is doing quite well today, the basic assumption throughout the whole business is that today's success is no guarantee whatsoever of what happens tomorrow. This has had the effect not of causing a sense of pervasive gloom, but rather people were constantly on their toes, scouting out potential opportunities and threats, and absolutely nobody in that organization was complacent. Doing things that protect the company from threats and shore up our existing markets is seen as everybody's job (even including me, the intern).

What a difference this is from higher education. Maybe it's different at the upper-administration level, but my experience in higher education is that most people believe that the college or university will be around for another 100 years simply because it's been around for the last 50, or because people expect that the government will finally reinvest in higher education and save us from ourselves. The possibility of a massive contraction in higher education, including downsizing academic departments, laying off tenured faculty, and even closing entire institutions is thought of on the same scale as the sun going nova --- sure, it could happen, but it probably won't and almost certainly won't in my lifetime. So why pay attention?

It's dangerous thinking, that leads to (and comes from) an even more dangerous complacency. I don't see a lot of faculty members saying: What can I be doing to help my university become more stable and financially sound?[3] And it's another area where universities and colleges can look to exemplary businesses to see what practices that seem successful can be adapted and put into place.

Business and higher ed both require innovation.

I just mentioned complacency in terms of financial viability, but it's more than that: In order to stay viable, both universities and businesses have to move forward, adapt to changing times, and use what they know to produce things that are both novel and useful. This is known as innovation.

Early on in my sabbatical, I read The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen as part of a series of books on innovation, leadership, and creativity that formed the backbone of my "secret sabbatical". This is a classic business study that gave us the terms disruptive innovation and disruptive technologies. The "dilemma", simply put, is that great incumbent companies often fail because they become entrenched in the very rules that made them great in the first place, making them susceptible to "disruptive innovations" that come from smaller, down-market companies that eventually grow to displace the incumbents.

Steelcase is dealing with some of this disruption now, as smaller companies are producing furniture and architectural designs very similar to Steelcase's at a much lower cost; a big question for us in the education group was how we might move beyond simply selling furniture in order to be relevant in the next 10-15 years. I was pulled into over 30 hours of intensive design sprints and meetings to help the management at Steelcase try to begin to answer this question. While 30 hours of meetings sounds like an academician's nightmate, in fact it was fascinating, because I got the sense that Steelcase was asking the right questions, laying everything on the table in a quest for innovation that could chart a course for the future.

"Innovation" doesn't just mean mindlessly throwing away the old and replacing it with the newest, shiniest thing. It means learning and growing, listening to the people you serve, and then taking the best of what you are and adapting it forward to produce something truly new, cool, useful, and groundbreaking. Universities have historically been hotbeds for innovation --- almost all the great ideas in history came from universities. And yet, why have I never been to a meeting in a higher ed context like the ones I attended at Steelcase? Higher education, despite its nearly-1000-year heritage, is in a period where it must think about different ways of carrying out its mission, or it will fade away. The parallels between higher ed and the failed incumbent businesses in The Innovator's Dilemma are strong and unsettling. Maybe we should be asking: What are our friends in business doing to cope with the rapid pace of change, and what can we adapt from their practices? Otherwise we may end up permanently disrupted, and on the outside looking in as history moves forward.

Higher education and business have more in common than we think, and that's a good thing, since we need all the help we can get. In the next post, I'll share some thoughts about finding and adapting lessons and practices from business and making them work in higher education.


  1. In case you're wondering, I was not technically an employee of Steelcase; Steelcase paid half my year's salary to my university and then my university paid me like it normally does, so my taxes, retirement, benefits, etc. all remained with the university to avoid a mountain of paperwork. It was a bit like being a contractor, but I wasn't technically a contractor, either. I'm sticking with "intern". ↩︎

  2. By the way, the comments at this article are a perfect example of what I was talking about in the third paragraph above about open skepticism regarding getting close to the coporate world. And they are a great example of how terrible the Chronicle's comment section is/used to be. ↩︎

  3. One reason for this, is that the workplace culture in so many universities is terrible --- there's no belief among faculty that the university is taking good care of them, so they have an obligation to help take care of the university. The university treats them poorly and so they are just going to do what they want, and trust that the university stays open. There's a thorough cultural issue in many universities that needs to be addressed. More on that in a later post. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.