Thursday, October 14, 2004

Learning Organisations: how do universities rate?

Have you ever stopped to think about what a “learning organisation” should look like? While a learning organisation is not necessarily a place that offers a range of educational products, it is generally what comes to mind.

The post war reconstruction of Japan saw the US provision of management expertise to re-start the Japanese economy. Part of that assistance involved providing expertise in quality management and systems. Edward Demming was without doubt the best known of these consultants and the results of he and his colleagues and now doubt responsible for the outstanding success of this venture.
Ironically, it has taken many years for the Japanese solution to filter into most Western industries. Discounted as a cultural phenomena by some, the West trailed the success of the Japanese and then later the Koreans.

Nowadays Western businesses are embracing the quality management model with some outstanding successes.
Key to the success is the way in which staff view the organisation. Older and more traditional approaches assume a top down or hierarchical approach. This means that the most important person in the organisation is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) followed by their second level managers and all the way down to the workers with little or no management role.
More contemporary and successful approaches offer an alternative view that defines the most important staff as those who are directly involved with doing the core business of the organisations. Diagrammatically, this can be explained with the use of an Ishikawa diagram. Demming and Scholtes expand on this model by declaring that those not directly involved with the core business should view those who are as customers—a support role if you like. This approach is generally referred to as Total Quality Management (TQM).

So what has this got to do with learning organisations like Universities? Well quite a lot really! Western universities have a complex and hierarchical structure with the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor viewed as the organisation’s most important person. So in this sense they are an artefact of the past and somewhat unwieldy with their decision-making.
It is often very difficult for senior managers to have sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions. By the time the information has passed through the excessive layers of management the story is rarely as was told at the beginning.
Also, Universities are political organisations that allow for deliberate distortions of fact to be promulgated for personal gain with few safeguards in place to prevent this from occurring.

In his article on TQM, Amsden suggests that there is a need for a paradigm shift to be able to embrace this approach to management and this is indeed a difficult thing to achieve in organisations steeped in tradition and relatively low levels of financial accountability.
The hierarchical and political nature of these organisations discourages risk-taking and re-enforces mediocrity because of the culture of blame engendered.
So while universities are delivers of education, they are rarely learning organisations.

The ramifications for e-learning are enormous—low levels of risk-taking result in corresponding levels of innovation. Without innovation in e-learning, universities are likely to fall well behind the emerging commercial education organisations.
Already in Australia private companies like Qantm are delivering targeted undergraduate degree programs using state of the art technologies and pedagogical approaches. The same in happening in the US with companies like Thompson Education Direct offering similar educational products.

So how do our traditional universities make the required paradigm shift? I’m not sure, but it needs to happen soon.

More soon,

Scot.

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