Posts Tagged ‘education’

The true role of government

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

From education to healthcare to economics, we love people with visions, and aim to translate their visions to policies. The various federal, state, and city administrations look for authoritative experts. Universities, think tanks, and pundits provide those experts, and they gladly opine on each topic, advocating the killer policy that will solve the problem once and for all.

There’s only one issue with that approach: no top-down policy ever worked. If it had, wouldn’t we have solved education, healthcare, and economic growth problems by now? At best, what we call inspiring visions or successful policies are revisionist interpretations of experiments that have “degenerated” into favorable results at a sufficiently large scale to have been renamed a policy. The revisionist nature comes from the fact that we define the policies by selecting the winners with the benefit of hindsight, and conveniently forget all the failed experiments that were part of the original lineup.

Every successful policy emanates from a bottom-up experiment that has gained momentum by mobilizing a set of key players with a vested interest in making the experiment successful. If this is true, the name of the game is to frame the field of experimentation, engage a large number of the right self-interested players to participate in a large number of experiments, and provide the infrastructure that allows the successful ones to emerge as a result of the co-creation process. The true vision lies in structuring the right process of collective engagement, not in guessing right at any particular outcome. The policy is what this collective process of engagement will produce once a large number of experiments have been tried and the protagonists have settled on what works for them.

I don’t know whether the ratio of students to teachers matters more to education than quality of teachers, children’s safety at home, or nutrition, but I trust that the right school administrators, teachers, students, and parents can work out the best solution in the unique context of their community more effectively than any expert. Once some communities have figured it out, I also trust that the right models will be picked up by their neighbors, establishing a de facto migration path across towns and cities that a smart Department of Education will eventually call “a policy.”

I also do not know whether the US will make the most progress in healthcare by clamping down on unnecessary tests, opening borders to imported medication, capitating reimbursements, or encouraging hospitals to become insurers, but I trust that local doctors, hospitals, employers, and patients will work something out with state insurers and regulators if provided the right process of engagement. Most underplayed of all is probably the opportunity to engage businesses, consumers, and the population at large in creating economic success at the local level.

I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, for neither side appeals to me with attempts to lure me into agreeing with their policies, which would automatically pit me against the other half of the country. Democracy is not about choosing visions and policies. It is engaging all citizens in an effective, structured process of co-creation. By that yardstick, we have a long way to go.

Reinventing executive education

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Executive education is hardly relevant to business. This is why it is always one of the first items to get cancelled in tough times, as has been the case over the last twelve months. In most organizations, executive education is not viewed by C-level executives as a transformative force for their organization. Unable to link to the strategic agenda, many senior HR people console themselves by hob-nobbing with star professors and select over-priced programs where canned teaching is provided to a small number of manager students as reward and entertainment, in exchange for cash to the school and supplementary income to its professors. From the business schools standpoint, it is a brochure-mailing and call center-selling machine that tries to put “buns on seats” on an industrial scale for hard-to-sell programs, while trying to keep professors sufficiently motivated to accept the distraction these programs represent to their research agenda.

O.K., I’ll admit this is a bit of a cynical view. But it comes from dejected love. I view executive education – “exec ed” as it is affectionately referred to in the trade – as a giant missed opportunity. Before I die, I’d like to see at least one major corporation link up with one major business school and reinvent executive education as it ought to be. So what is this “ought to be” model?

Exec ed ought to be a series of programs where the solution to vexing business issues is co-created between company managers and leading business academics. I dream of executive education programs that would be co-designed and co-taught between a few business school professors and a large number of managers in the company. These programs would not be canned modules taught by business school professors and organized along the traditional disciplines of marketing, finance, operations or leadership, with passive audiences soaking up knowledge.

These programs would bring together particular issues of interest to many people inside the company – say, how to reduce cost in the cabinet-making division of a large manufacturer of household products – with a particular set of internal company resources that could contribute to solving that issue – for example, people in the sourcing department, in manufacturing, in marketing or in legal, whether part of the cabinet-making division or not. These “new teachers” would comprise managers of the company with insights on the issue and some ability to teach what they’ve learned over the years. They would be supported by, say, one or two business school professors in design and manufacturing, who would share a few relevant frameworks and teach them how to teach.

I dream of a thousand professors creeping out of the company woodwork and becoming the transformational force of the organization. We need to inject massive leverage in exec ed. One of the main limits of executive education today is its very high cost per trained manager – in theory, managers attending exec ed programs are supposed to share their newly acquired knowledge with other people at the company, but in practice, this never happens because we do not provide them with a convenient way to cascade their learning. There ought to be tens, if not hundreds of trained managers for every intervention of business school professors, or else the exec ed market will remain what it is today, i.e., an overpriced perk for a few people the organization wants to recognize.

Creating this open market of seekers of business solutions and internal business teachers would require first setting up a process to surface the issues the company faces, and a second one to “smoke out” the would-be professors of the organization with relevant knowledge. This could initially be done through live meetings, evolving over time into some kind of electronic platform – an eBay-like system where solution seekers and would-be professors could continuously frame the issues and the available solutions to tackle them.

A few programs on either the corporate or the business schools side have made some progress in this general direction. General Electric, in the tradition of its Work-Out program, continues to bring together internal managers and executive education resources from the outside to solve specific issues. The Ross Business School at the University of Michigan is also making a commitment to co-creation in some of its classes (full disclosure: I teach in the executive education program at Ross). But by and large, the pace of change in executive education remains pathetically slow.

Everybody would win in the co-created system. Exec ed, if provided on this scale, would catch the attention of C-level executives. Senior HR people would naturally find their place at the strategic table if they became brokers between owners of business issues and capable providers of resources to solve them. Executive education managers at major business schools would find it easier to sell large-scale, recurring programs and would avoid being priced down to smithereens by corporate purchasing departments. Professors willing to submit themselves to the harsh test of business reality would become more relevant than they are today. Managers who attend those programs would be able to use what they have learned in-day-to-day life, not to mention the fact that some of them might receive personal gratification by teaching in partnership with a major business school.

As for me, I could at long last die happy, knowing that teaching has finally found its legitimate place in the business world.