Sabbatical lessons, part 2: More lessons from industry, particularly about agility

Sabbatical lessons, part 2: More lessons from industry, particularly about agility

In part 1 of this ongoing series on lessons learned while on sabbatical in industry, I argued that business and higher education have more in common than we academics think. Specifically, while business and higher education have important differences, they both involve people; they both involve organizations and the cultural issues that come with being organizations; they both involve financial viability; and they both require innovation. And I also said repeatedly in that post that given higher education's current state, it makes sense to ask what works in the business world and how we might adapt it for higher education.

In this post I want to think about what, specifically, higher education could take from business and apply to itself. Because I verged into this territory in the last post, and because an unexpectedly busy April travel season kept me from writing about this earlier, I'm going to combine lessons 2 and 3 from the original post in this series and look at those as a group:

Lesson 2: Higher education can, and should, study and adapt the practices of highly effective businesses.

Lesson 3: The most important characteristic of great companies, that higher education lacks the most, is agility.

My argument for Lesson 2 is simple: Higher education is in a state of flux unlike anything I've seen in 20 years of being a prof, and perhaps unlike anything for many years prior to that. Higher education is struggling externally, with funding running out and public support dwindling. It has tremendous PR problems that are not helped by the actions of certain professors. The world around higher education is changing rapidly, and colleges and universities are struggling to stay relevant while making their offerings affordable. And that's just the external issues. Internally, higher education is beset by cultural and organizational issues that are familiar to anyone who's worked in higher ed: siloed departments that don't talk to each other, political fiefdoms that arise over squabbles for resources, faculty within single department who engage in unethical behavior and cutthroat competition, a refocusing away from students and teaching and on to winning research grant dollars to name just a few. Not all universities are like this and not all struggle with the same things. But the internal politics of higher education are real, and whereas in the past the prevailing landscape around higher education could support a certain amount of organizational dysfunction and still produce a world-class education, the world today is different, and those dysfunctions are now revealed for what they are. And if we in higher education don't change this, we can't expect higher education to continue on the way that it has for so many centuries past. It's a different world and we have to adapt to it, and learn to live with it.

And in order to adapt and survive in this world, we have to eat our own dog food --- we have to learn things. How ironic would it be, if an institution built on learning and discovery finally collapsed, because it couldn't bring itself to look over its own walls and learn from others? We need all the help we can get, and this means getting over whatever squeamishness we may have about the private sector and industry and beginning to look at what companies do, to learn their language, and adapt and adopt anything that looks like it could be useful.

One such practice I saw at Steelcase was remote work. When I first started at Steelcase, I wasn't sure how the whole "showing up to work" thing was supposed to work. When did they want me on the premises? Did I have to clock in, like when I worked part-time jobs in college? Am I in trouble if I come in late? What if one of my kids gets sick --- do I take a vacation day, or something? This was all new to me. It turns out I didn't need to worry about it, because the general philosophy was: We need you to get your work done, but it doesn't so much matter where you get your work done. It wasn't uncommon during the week for as much as 1/3 of the education team to be gone --- working, but not on the premises. Given that Steelcase is a global corporation, it couldn't be any other way. And that level of remote work had zero effect on our productivity, or the sense of comeraderie you get from working together.

Universities, on the other hand, don't seem to like remote work. I recently spoke with a faculty member whose college required he hold ten (10) office hours per week --- and they had to be in his physical office. I had a siimlar rule at a previous institution, and it was not acceptable to hold some (a reasonable, sane amount --- like 5 hours a week) in the office and the rest online. There was a default --- a bias --- toward physicality. As far as I can tell there are no data involved in making up rules like this. Certainly we need to be physically present for a lot of our work. But why can't we also work remotely when it makes sense? Wouldn't a generous remote work policy help out faculty such as parents with young kids who are struggling to find and pay for child care? Or students, for that matter, who have busy schedules too and who will struggle to have the time for physical co-location with a professor no matter how many office hours we hold?

Another interesting practice I saw was that of having organizations within the organization designed to innovate. In The Innovator's Dilemma, the "dilemma" itself is that of a successful company being trapped in the very habits that caused it to be successful in the first place, only to have smaller companies come along, introduce a disruptive technology that isn't high-quality at first, but which eventually finds a niche, moves up-market, and unseats the incumbent company which is not prepared to deal with the disruption. The solution to this dilemma was for incumbents to create small, semi-autonomous companies within the larger companies whose mission was to act as a sort of skunkworks, trying new technologies and acting as an in-house compartmentalized startup. If the new products failed, then the parent company wasn't harmed as much as if it had itself invested in it; the skunkworks could be closed down without much lasting effect. But if they succeeded, then the successes could be carried over to the parent company, which could then literally own the disruption and reap the rewards.

At Steelcase there are two such companies-within-a-company: turnstone and Coalesse. These two organizations focus, respectively, on architectural products for startups and products promoting collaborative work. Their facilities are located in parts of the Steelcase campus that are a little out of the way, and it feels like a different organization when you walk in. turnstone in particular has done exactly what Innovator's Dilemma said such an organization would do. For example, the Buoy chair was a product that was introduced and (if I have the story right) took a while to catch on; Steelcase didn't make anything else like it. But when it finally caught, everybody wanted one, and now it's a standard part of the package when many schools order active learning space furniture from the main company. Likewise, I've seen prototypes lying around the turnstone area that clearly never made it out of the alpha stage and will probably never see the light of day, and it's no big deal that they won't because there are enough successful ideas from turnstone that it's a net win for the company.

I don't see anything like this in higher education --- institutions within a university, whose mission is to try to enact off-the-wall innovative educational "products", and who live within the university but essentially function as their own separate organization. Such a sub-university would be tasked with innovating, and if an idea took off, the university could broaden its adoption, otherwise the idea ends up like the failed turnstone furniture. Looking around at the various "disruptive" forces in higher education --- digital badging, MOOCs, competency-based education, online education, and so on --- what if universities stopped fretting about or dismissing these, and instead developed their own skunkworks to get out in front of those ideas and do them right and avoid being disrupted?

That gets me to Lesson 3: The power and necessity of agility.

Agility means the ability to move quickly and easily. Agility requires awareness of one's surroundings, knowledge about one's context, and the ability to learn and respond quickly to changing situations. It has the same essential meaning whether we are talking about a soccer player making a break toward goal through a stout defense, or whether we are talking about an organization trying to conduct its business in a rapidly-changing environment.

The best companies seem to be defined by their agility. Steelcase certainly had agility in great quantities. Sean Corcorran, who for most of the time I was on sabbatical was the general manager of Steelcase Education, said something in a meeting that really stuck with me: The only real competitive advantage we have over anybody else is that we learn faster than anybody else. It's true. The sales leaders had the results of dozens of local bond issue elections memorized, because the outcomes of those elections determine where to focus on furniture sales to schools. The education division employs an anthropologist, a former ed tech startup leader, and a quantitative market analyst to research and scout emerging trends. An enormous amount of thought and strategizing goes into to the daily operations of the division --- ask me about the six 6-hour business strategy sessions I was involved in --- for the sole purpose of making quick decisions about ideas and directions when the time is right. When there's a good new idea in play, the company runs with it.

Higher education... well, let's just say we're not well known for our agility. You can choose any number of examples: The glacial pace of academic publishing. The endless committee hashing and rehashing of simple curricular proposals. Our 8 month long hiring processes. Getting IRB approval. Certainly, there are items in higher ed that require due process. And we value collaboration and shared governance, and that necessarily requires more eyes on, and discussion of, whatever it is we are governing.

But how much is enough, and can we do better on certain things? I will end this by humbly suggesting that there are ways we can be more agile in higher education, by looking to the best practices of the best companies, without sacrificing who we are. For example:

  • We're really big on strategic planning in higher education and having long-term vision, but how much do we emphasize peripheral vision --- looking around and not just forward to research, dialogue with, and learn from other kinds of industries other than higher education, and to scout out the potential disruptions to higher ed and get ahead of them? The whole point of this article and the previous one was that we should be learning from industry; whose job is this in your university? Is there a person or an office responsible for this? Shouldn't there be?
  • See the discussion above about semi-autonomous organizations tasked with innovating on behalf of the larger organization. Could universities form such groups within themselves and then giving those group special dispensation to follow their ideas with less red tape? Yes, this means less faculty governance, but for a small sub-organization, could that be OK?
  • In what ways within our existing structures can we make more streamlined paths for good ideas that need to see the light of day sooner rather than later?


Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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