The battle for universities: innovation and the knowledge economy

I was chatting with a friend of mine in the pub the other night, a lecturer at a good British university. I was talking about innovation in relation to my job, he in relation to his. The common factor is that we both work in a knowledge economy whose role it is to develop new ideas and move practice forward. We both had excellent university educations – ie we are well versed in exploratory learning. How to make connections, form hypotheses and develop arguments. But he started describing how that situation was crumbling. I was aware of the drive to certification. Aside from the headline-grabbing BAs in Golf Course Design there has been a growing emphasis on utilitarian degrees which involve learning a method so you can go out there and practice. As a result, we have loads of Marketing grads who can write great press releases but haven’t got a clue how to actually change behaviours. Plenty of IT grads who can plumb together systems, but can’t empower a transformational shift. This is not a good basis for a knowledge economy. These off the shelf degrees are easily commoditized and sold by others often overseas. The rise of very strong IT providers in India should be a warning to any undergrad choosing a course right now. In a world where change is accelerating, the ability to adapt and learn on the fly is a far more important skill than how to do something.

But recently the problem has begun to accelerate. My friend pointed me toward this article from the New York Review of Books.

In it the author connects the slashing of budgets with an expensive and misguided new management layer. Misguided because it is driven as ever by short term gain – courses that return on investment in a financial year, courses that attract maximum numbers of applicants. All at the expense of those disciplines that struggle to demonstrate impact – humanities – the exact one that gave the educational foundations I’ve relied on all my career. But managers need results, and those results have to be measurable. And the other thing – management’s tendency to breed and expand. The business of management and fund raising needs people – an managers not lecturers.

This is all pretty upsetting, not just because my friend is at worst, at risk of losig his job, and at best of losing the sovereignty of his department, but because it massively misjudged the importance of true university education to our position as a knowledge economy. Managers hate risks. It is something to be mitigated. Educators recognise that their world is risky – the chap taking six years to write a book could be the next leading european philosopher, opening up lines of thought an opportunity no-one had ever thought of. Isn’t that how it worked with Wittgenstein? Of course he might not. That’s the risk and it’s worth taking in mind. Worth protecting.

The lady opposite me on the train is reading the Evening Standard: “BA strikes to cause Easter chaos”. Well I think it’s time for one that reads “University strikes to cause applications chaos”. We’ve already sold out the next generation financially and environmentally, it’s time to fight for their education and the future foundation of our shared prosperity.

Training versus Service Design

I was chatting to a prospective client the other day, talking though the benefits of service design for a change programme they’re embarking on. One thing came up repeatedly in the conversation – the client’s instinct to rely on training. This interested me in two ways – firstly, is training really a good solution for a service organisations? Secondly how did training reach this sovereign position – where it is instinctively regarded as a powerful instrument of change, to the point that it rarely has a clear return on investment.

Every new recruit asks about training in their interview, knowing that the certificate is a tangible CV asset. As a result an enormous industry of providers exists, pushing out certificates for any number of skills. And in an era of “education, education, education” few people ever seem to ask “is there a better way?” So why do I think service design, or design thinking, offers a better approach?

Firstly, as a methodology, one of its most exciting characteristics is that it recognises people’s innate resourcefulness, and through co-design seeks to unlock that and apply it in innovative ways. It says “you the people at the coalface know what to do, so let’s work it out”. Regardless of education, most people – given space and a bit of encouragement – can offer up amazing insights into the things they do every day.

Secondly, put people on training and they get away for a few days, come back and – maybe – implement about 15% of what they “learnt”. Maybe I’m being uncharitable but this is my experience. If anyone’s seen any research to this end, I’d love to see it. But even if it was 50% I’d suggest this is a very poor return on investment. Instead, gather your employees together and get them to focus on what they do using design methods, and you’ll not only galvanise them as a group (so scratch the raft building cost too!), but you’ll also have them focusing on the business at hand – not some abstract theory of the business. I guarantee the next day they’ll still be at least 75% and as much as 100% engaged. Again – this is my experience.

Instead I’d argue that modern education and training, with its increasing reliance on certification, rather than the critical and creative skills I believe it should aspire to, puts a massive dampener on this inner resourcefulness. Instead of saying, “you have the answers within you, based on your experience”, it says “you don’t know enough, so listen to this expert”. Sending someone on training therefore risks undermining innovation, and actually damages your ability to truly innovate in a sustained way. And why do that when it’s also not giving you a good return on your investment?

Imagine saying to an interviewee “no – we don’t offer training. We like to work it out for ourselves.” It might sound like heresy, but imagine the sort of people who’d want to jump on board. Aren’t those the sort of people you want running your service?