Three things higher education can learn from corporations

Three things higher education can learn from corporations

As of this writing, I have been "on the job" at Steelcase for my sabbatical for 55 days. It seems like much longer than that. But I remember that when I was putting the proposal together, I asked my Steelcase contacts whether I really needed a full year for this sabbatical or whether a single semester would suffice. They made it very clear that it would take the better part of 2-3 months just for me to get adjusted to the culture of the corporate environment in general, and Steelcase in particular. And they were right. Learning to be a fish out of water takes time.

But experiencing the corporate environment was part of my plan all along. Officially, the purpose of my sabbatical is to conduct research on teaching and learning and apply that research to help both Steelcase people and teachers do their jobs better. Un-officially, though, I want to conduct a sort of anthropology/organizational psychology research: Namely, to study how leadership, innovation, and creativity work in a corporate environment, especially ones with a track record of excellence like Steelcase. Although I am fully committed to higher education, I am convinced that higher education has serious systemic issues that need to be studied from outside higher education. I am taking the opportunity while I am in such a place to observe, take notes, ask questions, and get involved, to see what I might import back into higher education once I return in August 2018.

Please don't misunderstand me here: I don't think that universities are just like corporations or that higher education should be "run like a business". We've seen the corporatization of higher education, and I'm as much against it as anyone. There are fundamental differences between corporations and universities that make strategies for one inoperable in the other. Namely: The best businesses have a sincere desire to make the world a better place --- but their primary concern is to make money[1]. By contrast, universities need to make money to be viable --- but their primary concern is to make the world a better place, through education and research. Universities that flip those priorities end up being mini-corporations; business that flip theirs become unsustainable. Both organizations lose the plot entirely --- and universities lose their souls.

But: Avoiding corporatization doesn't mean that higher education shouldn't look at what the best companies do and learn a few things. Every organization has threats that arise and forces that influence how the organization works, and the best way to become aware of these is to get outside the organization. At Steelcase over the last 2+ months, I've seen how a good company works, and I've noticed there are three things in particular about how good companies function that those of us in higher ed would do well to consider.

  1. Agility. What I mean by this is the ordinary dictionary sense: The ability to move quickly and easily. Companies like Steelcase move quickly on the best ideas. When there's an idea for a new product, or a lead on a new market or customer, or anything that might possibly be of use in driving the company forward, people just act on it without feeling a need to pass it through endless committees or waiting until "the time is right". It's not a haphazard ready-fire-aim approach where time and money are spent before the value of the idea is known; but when a good idea comes up, action steps are drawn up and people are assigned to it and stuff begins to happen. People are empowered to take action (mostly because collaboration is the default) and are managed with a light touch, and innovation on the personal level is valued. Higher education could use some of this agility. We tend to be glacially conservative (despite our "liberal" reputation) when considering both the forces that act upon us and the ideas that are generated within. Many good ideas get buried in committees; or are kept under a bushel by faculty who want to wait until post-tenure to bring them up; or are beaten back by faculty or administrators who want to keep the old ways intact. Would we not complete our mission in higher education better if we just took a page from good companies and moved fast, in smart ways, on the things that could potentially matter the most to us?

  2. Anti-complacency. If you look it up in the thesaurus, the antonyms for "complacency" are rather depressing: unhappiness, uncertainty, discontentedness. What I mean here is not an opposite to complacency but a mindset that actively opposes it. Although Steelcase is a 105-year old and financially successful company, there is still a pervasive sense that the company has to move forward constantly to survive. In our weekly Steelcase Education staff meetings, we talk about potential customers that decided not to buy from us, about how possible funding cuts to education could affect schools' facilities budgets, about what the competitors in our section of the market are coming up with and how we should respond. Despite the success of the company, nobody believes that local conditions today imply anything about conditions tomorrow. In fact the only thing that is guaranteed about tomorrow is that there won't be one if we continue to live in yesteryear. As with agility, higher education could use a dose of anti-complacency in many cases. I don't believe higher education is globally complacent, but the pockets of complacency in higher ed are numerous and massive. Although it looks different in different places, ultimately complacency in higher education comes down to the belief that higher education should simply continue down the course it's been on for hundreds of years --- because after all, we made it this far on the old models. Tradition and history are important for higher education, probably moreso than it is for businesses. But the moment we start to idolize tradition and history and become complacent, it's over. Good companies get this; good colleges do too, and all colleges should consider it.

  3. Being radically centered on the people you serve. Steelcase and other companies use the term "customers" to refer to the people they are involved with. Students are not customers and I am not about to suggest that higher ed "put the customer first". I have argued before that students are best thought of as clients, people with whom we professors collaborate to reach a goal that is mutually satisfactory. Steelcase takes this approach as well. The main thrust of the business is furniture. But the way it sells furniture is through developing relationships with customers, understanding their needs and crafting solutions that are satisfactory both to them and to Steelcase. Without a deep understanding and valuing of the people who are buying the stuff, the stuff will not get sold. Higher education doesn't exactly "sell stuff"; we do not market commodities. But we most certainly do work with people who have needs in their lives, and our job is to work with those people to provide solutions for those needs. (And, we need to remember, those people are actually paying money for this, often at great price to themselves, and so their personal stake in this process is very high.) It begins and ends with relationships with people in either case. And we need to remember this --- education is fundamentally about relationships.

On this point, I question whether higher education can afford to continue to indulge people --- administrators, faculty, or anybody else in the system --- who don't apprehend the value of students and the critical importance of positive relationships with them, who actively torpedo those relationships through their actions, words, or choices. I'm speaking of those who write student-shaming articles for major websites and claim, later, that they are supposed to be taken with a sense of "humor" or "irony". I'm also speaking of those who post anti-student remarks on social media repeatedly. I'm speaking of those who pursue pedagogical approaches that are known to be ineffective and that actively minimize the value of students and our relationships with them, because those pedagogies are "what works best for me". Are all of these behaviors protected under academic freedom? Yes. Should such behaviors be waved off, because "academic freedom", with no intervention and no consequences? I can guarantee that businesses wouldn't allow it. Should we?

The university is to the moral and intellectual economy of a society what the corporation is to its financial economy. Let's not corporatize the university, but let's also not neglect the things we can learn about how better to serve in our role from our counterparts in other parts of that world.

  1. For the record, I think there's nothing inherenly wrong with a business being profitable. It's when profitability comes at the expense of people, the environment, etc. that it becomes a bad impulse. See also: distributism. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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