Weave ideas for material change

January 17, 1997

Organisational learning is far more difficult to achieve than individual learning, since knowledge has to be shared and woven into an institution's very fabric.

Ideally, organisational learning results in fast adjustment to external change. In recent years, the concept has received wide attention and become one of the growth industries of management consulting. As a consequence, an increasing number of organisations and businesses have made attempts to enhance their capacity for such learning to stay competitive in an era of ever-accelerating change.

Higher education presents a startling paradox. Institutions of higher education and research universities make the learning of individuals - both professors and students - their raison d'etre. Yet, they are often places with a very slow, almost glacial pace of organisational learning. While academic knowledge within disciplines is making great progress, the building of institutional knowledge remains elusive and organisational change is hard to achieve. Fundamental management and strategic decisions are neglected until financial crises or outside pressure dictate change. Often, there is even an inverse relationship between the rank of an institution in higher education and its capability to learn: the more scientific the institution, the slower its pace of institutional learning. Disciplines are becoming more isolated from one another, rather than more open. Moreover, the way we deliver our services has not changed much since the inception of the modern university.

There is little doubt that the last decades of the 20th century have been a period of radical change for many institutions, change that is likely to continue. In scope and depth, this change is comparable only to the genesis of the idea of the university and the rise of modern mass higher education in the second half of the 20th century. It presents a profound challenge to institutions of higher learning and governments worldwide.

The components of change are manifold. They are, to name a few, a further fragmentation and differentiation of higher education, a shortage of public funds, with governments increasingly devoting their budgets to the ageing population via health care and pension funds, the emergence, consolidation and globalisation of mass higher education, increasing competition among institutions, the increasing necessity of lifelong learning and the development of new methods of learning through interactive media.

Universities and colleges need to enhance their capacity for organisational learning if they are to successfully cope with their trends. One characteristic of the new era is the fact that standard recipes will not work, as increasing differentiation forces each institution to develop its own strategy and profile. This makes the enhancement of the capacity for institutional learning all the more important. Three areas are particularly relevant: institutional strategy and management; interdisciplinary knowledge and dialogue; and the re-engineering of processes in teaching and research.

Increasingly, universities, polytechnics and colleges have emphasised institutional strategy and management. This development began in the Anglo-Saxon countries but has since spread. Even institutions in the predominantly state-centred systems of Germany, France or Eastern Europe or Africa have begun to explore the possibilities of institutional strategy and management. This is a healthy development, but needs to be carried further. An effective strategy must withstand the test or reality, it must inspire and it must be shared by an organisation's members.

The test of reality is essential. How do we as an institution compare with other institutions. Are our goals realistic? Do we have enough resources? What have been the relative positions of our institution? The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems offers such a test based on key quantitative indicators to colleges and universities in the United States. Its outcome is often sobering. Yet sobriety is an indispensable prerequisite for good strategy.

At the same time, an institutional strategy must inspire. Despite the difficulties an institution may find itself in, its vision and strategy must contain goals that command individual commitment. The tensions are difficult - but essential - to resolve.

Finally, institutional strategy must be truly shared among members of the organisation. This is the most difficult aspect to achieve. Strategic planning is often a top-down approach. While it is a commendable start for institutions that have not been involved in this kind of work heretofore, the more important part begins when an institution sets out to develop a shared vision and strategy.

The strengthening of interdisciplinary knowledge and dialogue may serve as an example of an in-depth application of institutional strategy. One large polytechnic I worked with had set itself the goal of providing more interdisciplinary knowledge and team learning experiences for their engineering students. The curriculum commission had unanimously agreed that for today's engineers management and social skills, the ability to work in teams and the capability to apply cost-value-analysis tools are required. Yet, it was almost impossible to get professors to work together on study and design projects so deeply entrenched was the anti-teamwork bias of the faculty.

Today, as far as learning is concerned, there normally exists only one relevant system of incentives; that of the individual discipline. The discipline determines the career of a person. This has not always been the case. The original college was a community of equals in which scholars pursued their scientific interests and had the opportunity to exchange views with colleagues from other disciplines. There was one faculty. Today we are still equals but dialogue among disciplines is rare.

The way we deliver our standards products are often still the same as in the 19th century: the lecture course and the seminar. The emergence of new interactive media means distance learning may become a viable alternative. But there is no standard answer: while some colleges may see radical change, others may use new technologies as a welcome addition to its otherwise unchanged core processes. Again, it is important that each institution itself evaluates the impact of new technologies on its own processes.

Can we transform organisations of learning into learning organisations? The obstacles are immense and include a focus of academics on the discipline instead of on the organisation, a certain unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of institutional competition and a bias against teamwork. Yet, there have been many encouraging signs in the past decade. If we continue the process we have already started, the 21st century may indeed see the radical transformation of the idea of the university.

Max Otte is a senior higher education specialist with Arthur D. Little International in Berlin.

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