Friday, September 11, 2009

What are our institutions learning?

Higher education, by definition, is about learning. Students attend lectures, work on group projects, and write exams. Faculty members deliver instruction and conduct research. And, attending professional conferences to stay abreast of developments is standard practice. All of these behaviors are, in theory, intended to facilitate learning. I wonder, however, what and how our institutions are learning. Ironically, in our efforts to educate students we seem to occasionally neglect our own collective education. There was a time when doing things the same way year after year probably didn't pose a significant problem for universities and colleges. But, to stay relevant it will be critical that institutions find ways to drive their organizational learning.
Institutions that learn don't need to reinvent the wheel every year--there are some educational practices that have worked for hundreds of years and those things shouldn't be meddled with--but, there are some things that I would like to see happen a little more often in higher education.

Learning from other successful organizations and industries. Too often we make excuses for our failings with the refrain "Education is just too different; what works in business, healthcare, government, etc. (you can fill in the blank) just won't work for us." While education is a unique setting, closing our eyes and ignoring best practices from outside our field will ensure that we stagnate. One excellent example of an organization that has increased quality while driving down costs is Intermountain Healthcare (IHC). IHC uses data to trigger reminders to physicians and nurses of "care guidelines" that have been shown to make a difference in patient care. Data also drives the decision-making at IHC hospitals and clinics. The result? Better healthcare and lower costs for patients and insurance companies (interestingly enough, at times this practice has decreased revenue for IHC). For a slightly more abstract discussion of learning from other settings, see this TED talk by biomimicry expert Janine on what designers can learn from nature.

Learning from disasters and failures. This article describes a study performed on the mining industry and whether or not mining professionals learn from fatal mine accidents. Two very interesting recommendations are made by the researcher (Peter Madsen) that could be applied to education: 1) organizations should seek to learn more from minor accidents/failures, creating a culture of continual improvement and 2) investigations into organizational failures should focus more on determining what went wrong and less on scapegoating or finger pointing. Imagine how much more could be learned from our institutional failures if we were more concerned with improving and stopped trying to find someone to blame. Essentially, these practices help organizations adopt the "growth mindset" described by Lois Dweck in Mindset.

Learning from the stories and lives of those within our institutions. There is likely a great deal of wisdom and intellectual capital in places we wouldn't normally look (e.g. students and staff members). On most campuses the only members of the institution with a seat at the decision-making table are faculty members and high-level administrators (who some might argue have the most narrow and biased perspective). It would be interesting to explore ways of involving those on the margins of the academy in meaningful ways, particularly in telling stories about their experiences on our campuses. A qualitative analysis of those stories might yield some interesting lessons for organizations. See "Unexpected Philosophers" and/or The Philosopher Kings for an example of what I'm talking about.

My sense is that higher education is going to need to adapt and change over the next few years. To do that we'll need to be much more vigilant in trying to drive organizational learning than we have in the past.