After some 30 years in universities, I should not be surprised when I hear someone make the comment about universities not being in the real world. It's as though somehow, universities live in a bubble that is unaffected by the trends and drivers that affect other business and non-profit organisations. And, no one seems to challenge it - it's just one of those assumptions that everyone just accepts and says without thinking - because that's just the way it is. Isn't it? Universities in 2008 are complex organisations, with thousands of staff and customers, running multi-million dollar budgets, with considerable physical infrastructure, and continuing to respond to changing demands from their customers and from governments. They are educating students for jobs in the so-called 'real world' and the staff who work in them certainly don't think they work in a non-real world. Like all organisations, universities are balancing operational imperatives and strategic directions and manage budgets to achieve both operational and strategic objectives. They deal with the same people issues that business organisations do, and increasingly the job for life is a relic of the past. I am not sure what is 'unreal' about this? And how different is it from business organisations?
What is different is the culture, but that's the case with business organisations as well. Universities also aren't focused on profit, although there is universal recognition now that they must run 'like' businesses, and they do. There is still an element of the good old days that surfaces occasionally, but the people who manage universities are realists and pragmatists, not isolationist.
Yes, some of the processes in universities could do with a shakeup, and some of the staff could have lessons in internal customer service, and they could blow up some of the silo boundaries that have emerged over time - but I'm not sure that this is that different to business organisations?
I stayed in university management for 30 years because I liked the open culture. There was an acceptance of difference and of being a little eccentric (although this is declining today), and because I was working with very smart people (well most of the time). The work I did ran the gamut of boring to challenging, but it was work about people, and work about education and its relationship to society, not only about profit and stakeholders. Every time I thought about moving to the 'real world', I was told that no one would understand my skills (writing, budgeting, strategic planning, staff management, survey management, quality management, KPIs and performance reporting....) because universities were so different. Huh? Universities are in a different industry, but does make them impossible to understand in terms of the skills and knowledge required to run them?
Like many taken for granted phrases and comments, "universities aren't in the real world" uses a reference point that is no longer valid. In medieval times, which is where the comment probably originated, it was very true. But, it's not true today - things have changed, but that message doesn't seem to have filtered out to the 'real world'!
In a previous post, I wrote about the need to re-think our reference point, our idea of the university, if we were to be able to understand the role of the university into the future. The fact that I keep hearing 'universities aren't in the real world' suggests that we are clinging to our outdated reference point.
This means the old reference point has not been challenged publicly or loudly enough - and that on the scale of things people have to deal with today, re-writing an assumption about universities is not hight on the list. It might also mean that we haven't found a Vice-Chancellor or President who has the credibility and kudos in the business world to be able to make people listen and realise the foolishness of their ways.
The lesson though is simple: before you open your mouth next time to repeat a phrase like "universities aren't in the real world", stop and think. Is this something you believe, or is it something that you have mindlessly accepted without considering whether it's true or not? This is one of the fundamental principles of futures thinking -challenging our assumptions on a continuing basis, to never assume the world will stay the same, and to never assume that the rules we use to interpret that world will be relevant and useful forever.
Yes, universities are different to business organisations, as are non-profits, as are professional associations, as are community organisations, as are non-governmental groups. But, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't think there is a phrase like "well, community organisations aren't in the real world"?