Friday, March 26, 2010

What can the corporate world learn from education?

The "corporatization" of education is so well-established that it is hardly worth mentioning any more. Any business trend imaginable gets imported into the schools, business leaders are always at the table when the future of education is discussed, business leaders leap straight to the presidency of colleges or the superintendency of schools with hardly a remark.

In some ways this is a good trend, for by focusing schools on their markets it has forced us to pay more attention to what we do, why we do it, and how we communicate it to students. In some ways it is hardly a trend at all in a nation that has long had business values at its heart, and at the heart of its educational systems.

But as a believer in reciprocal relationships, I wonder how education can return the favor. Especially in a period when parts of the global corporate model are coming apart, what can education teach the corporate world? (Please note that this is a different question than "How can colleges and universities educate students to be better employees?" which is really more evidence of, among other things, the corporatization of education.)

I need to think about this question more, but here are a few things that come immediately to mind:

1. Peer review. Much of the business world uses a hierarchical model to evaluate its employees. If your boss likes you, you get ahead. If not, too bad. Where peers are asked to comment, the comments are almost always kept secret, which makes room for back-biting and -stabbing. In higher ed's model, peers evaluate each others' work, regularly and publicly. Of course there is plenty of back-biting in higher ed as well, but this system of evaluation encourages reciprocity as much as back-biting.

2. Decentralized decision-making and implementation. The business world is slowly coming to understand that centralized power doesn't guarantee either profits or unanimity. In contrast, the decentralized decision-making system in education at least opens the opportunity for an organization to be very responsive. A single school or a single discipline can remake themselves to respond to particular needs must more easily than can an entire corporation.

3. Resisting the urge to merge. There are a handful of major accounting firms with national (or global) reach. There are thousands of institutions of higher education with the same reach but much smaller size. In this, education is much more market-responsive than are big corporations.

4. Learning, not knowledge, at the core. Businesses are coming to think that it is knowledge that is at the center of the American economy. While this is healthy (at least when compared with putting manufacturing there) it also encourages the sort of information-hoarding that limits growth and creativity. Education does its share of info hoarding itself. But a learning focus relies heavily not just on sharing information but in training people to remake it for their own use. Compare, for example, the ways that the music industry regulates its product with the way schools regulate theirs. Re-use a track and get threatened with copyright infringement. Re-work someone's argument in class and get an A.

What else can corporations learn from education?

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Is it possible that some of the engagement-focused practices of higher ed could benefit the corporate world? I recognize that in the current market things like retention (is that the same thing as low turnover or corporate loyalty in the business world?) may not be all that pressing given that most Americans are just happy to have a job. But that said, I wonder what the impact would be upon productivity and innovation if managers and executives paid more attention to "employee engagement."

In higher ed we orient new students (help them feel connected to each other, to the institution and its mission, and to faculty members), provide opportunities for deep learning, encourage students to establish meaningful relationships with academic peers/mentors, encourage dialogue, and nudge students to do more than what is required (internships, study abroad, campus involvement, etc.). We seem to believe that when students do those sorts of things they benefit and, in return, the institution is better off in the long run.

Could the same be true in a corporation? What would it look like? And, how could an organization "engage" employees without paying for them all to take a sabbatical in a foreign country?