Transforming Silos to Networks

I have been a faculty member at four universities – two in leadership positions and two in one-year visiting positions.  Nevertheless, academia is a bit of enigma to me, perhaps because of my thirteen-year “leave of absence” to found and lead two software companies.  In terms of content, in my case science and engineering, universities tend to be hotbeds of new ideas, often expounded by very talented and impressive free thinkers.  However, as organizations, universities are among the most conservative I have encountered.

How can groups of highly educated, mostly liberal intellectuals create such conservative organizations?  In People and Organizations (Wiley, 2007) and Don’t Jump to Solutions (Jossey-Bass, 1998) I addressed this question.  The organizational structure of disciplinary departments, schools, and colleges is almost sacred – having begun with the founding of the University of Bologna in 1119.  The incentive and reward system that totally emphasizes individual accomplishments by faculty members is, in fact, sacred.

I have often used this bit of history to explain the roots of academic organizations.  A few years ago, I encountered a faculty member from UCLA whose specialty is the history of academia.  She mentioned that Bologna formed departments for the specific reason of keeping members of disciplines from killing each other, as they all carried and used swords in those days.  Now, we just use words rather than swords, just as lethal but not nearly as satisfying.

Despite the limitations and frustrations, academia has created some remarkable outcomes in science, technology, architecture, the arts, and so on.  Aided by government largess since World War II, we have become increasingly specialized.  Surely we will soon see whole academic schools devoted to (nano or neuro) (chem or bio) (geno or proteo) (information or computational) technology.  Actually, there are enough combinations for 16 schools here, which could create one to three colleges.

All of these new schools will need enormous human, financial, and physical resources.  There will be long lines at government agencies that fund research.  With the specter of Social Security and Medicare also standing in line for resources, can we expect the government to fund all these new disciplines and subdisciplines?  Can we continue to refine the game defined in Bologna and optimized throughout the 20th century?

Beyond the availability of resources, a key issue is whether or not the old rules of the games will still work in the future.  Bob Lucky, in a recent issue of IEEE Spectrum, contrasted two lists compiled by the National Academy of Engineering – one of the most significant accomplishments of the 20th century, and the other of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.  The 20th century list, topped by electrification, the automobile, and the airplane, mainly included things that had emerged from individual drawing boards, ideas that had made it through the gauntlets of invention, innovation, and market success.  The 21st century list, headed by energy, the environment, urban infrastructure and health informatics, addresses national challenges that we are not sure how best to address.

These types of challenges cannot be addressed by decomposing them into little pieces, each of which is addressed by a highly specialized professor and his or her graduate students – and primarily results in an article published in a highly specialized journal.  A more integrated approach is needed whereby the requirements for each of the pieces are driven by a top-down view of the whole problem and the bottom-up solutions for each of the pieces are integrated into an overall solution.  Without such integration, the whole may be less than the sum of the parts.

To accomplish this integration, we need networks of disciplines working in an integrated manner rather than silos of disciplines working independently of each other.  This, in turn, requires a different organizational model for how universities conduct large-scale research, and how we reward faculty and staff for their pursuit of large challenges.

As a junior faculty member in a Bologna-type system who made it up through the ranks to tenured full professor, the system was great.  There was no doubt about what counted and no doubt about the rules of the game.  If you could publish lots of journal articles, bring in sizable amounts of grant money, and earn above-average teacher ratings from students, your success was assured.

However, incentives and rewards that focus solely on individual accomplishment do not necessarily create great organizations.  They also do not create institutions that can contribute to solutions of complex problems such as embodied by the NAE challenges.  What they do produce, however, are students, especially at the graduate level, who are programmed to recreate the “standard” academic organization wherever they work.  This, in turn, makes it very difficult for academic organizations to face their own organizational delusions.

Beyond reward systems, we need to reconsider how research is funded.  The traditional model involves one or two researchers writing proposals to cover one or two months of their summer salaries plus a couple of graduate students.  These types of grants are great for beginning junior faculty.  However, this model does not scale for addressing national challenges.  Having 100 grants of $100,000 is very different from having one grant of $10,000,000.

To pursue larger funding opportunities, we have to offer more than piles of obscure journal articles.  We need to provide integrated insights and solution concepts for large-scale problems.  Academia need not provide “installed” solutions, but should provide sufficiently proven ideas that industry can run with them, confident that they will work.  Beyond being a key source of ideas, academic research needs to be a means of risk reduction for those who will translate research inventions to market innovations.

The pursuit of larger opportunities will require robust relationship networks and strategic alliances involving academia, industry, and government.  We should not wait to form strong, competitive teams when the solicitation of proposals is about to emerge.  Instead, we need to build and nurture these teams to pursue portfolios of opportunities over many years.  Personnel need to move across the organizational boundaries within the team.  Students graduating provide a great mechanism for this, as do industry and government team members seeking graduate degrees.  Retired executives joining the faculties of universities provide another wonderful mechanism.

All in all, the new game will require some new rules for how we formulate problems, develop proposals, acquire resources, and deploy knowledge.  The strong organizational traditions of academia may undermine our abilities to define and adopt such new rules.  Indeed, as Paul Samuelson, who recently passed away, said in 2003, “Funeral by funeral, theory advances.”  (Samuelson was referencing Max Planck who said in the 1940s, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”)  However, I think that the true leaders among academic enterprises will be those who proactively embrace and create change.  The national challenges we face will not get easier if we wait.

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