History and business are rarely taught or even studied together. That’s a pity. Economic history, as subject, has disappeared down the memory hole. What is more worrying perhaps is that the methods of historical analysis, careful source text reinterpretations, critical data analysis and a cool analysis, are not often applied to business. Enter Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, to remind us why this ahistorical business analysis is a weak approach
In a longform New Yorker piece she takes apart the foundation text of Clay Christiansen’s empire of ‘disruptive innovation’. For those who do not know, the essence of that approach (its not a theory – business education doesn’t have theories) is that too much focusing on serving existing customers will, not might , will result in a business ignoring disruptive innovations that result in whole new classes of products and customers. Replace will with ‘might’ and it makes a lot more sense. Slate has an excellent summary of the debate so far.
In higher education this approach has been lept on with glee. As I have noted there is a headlong rush towards converting universities into innnoversities, with university managers flailing about looking for disruption and achieving it, alas. Thus china, moocs, flipped classrooms, cooperative learning, block teaching, the whole beckerian movement towards the introduction of the market, making every student an entrepreneur, a whole multitude of management fads, universities have charged into them in the last decade as the financial crisis has deepened and income become strained. Intellectual armour has been given to the meta approach of seeking disruption by Christiansen’s work. This is particularly interesting in Ireland given the lowly status of business education in most Irish universities. But what if it is wrong?
Universities, I suggest, have lasted as a organizational/cultural form for centuries because they have been conservative. I do not suggest that they should be immune to change, nor closed to innovation, far from it. What is in their DNA however is caution, a helicopter perspective to fly above the hurly burly of day to day activities and observe them from a distance only dropping in when needed, to stand back and be critical. Keynes famously said “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” Were he around now he would no doubt have included strategy professors in with economists and political scientists. Chris Newfield has a great post on how the Drucker-Peters approach towards a post capitalist learning organization would have led to a faculty led, rather than managerial led, university. The debate on how modern organizations work played out in the mid and late 1990s with the Christiansen approach coming out on top, at least in terms of media and management buyin. In a disruptive innovation world the key decision makers are visionary senior managers; in a Drucker-Peters world they key are the knowledge workers, faculty and research staff. That is the core distinction in organizational structure, one that is abundantly clear in the modern university. Faculty are not even to be led but herded, as a government of Ireland Scientific Advisor stated “It’s very difficult to herd cats, but I can certainly change the position of their feeding bowl.”
Leporte notes that properly considered disruptive innovation is simply a discussion on how organizations fail. It is manifestly not a prescriptive theory of how organizations succeed. My reading of it is that universities should not seek disruption but should be aware of what is disruptive, to not seek first mover advantage in their space but to use the small c conservatism of the organizations to carefully move into that space when it is clear that the disruption is permanent. That’s dull compared to the CEO driven approach that characterizes much of higher education management now. What the CEO-Presidents of universities should recall is that more people are remembered for massive failures of institutions than for conservative stewardship.