In yesterdays Higher Education section of the Australian, Dennis Tourish writes a crushing article on the state of Australian higher education policy. And he makes some good points. Tourish – now a professor at Aberdeen Business School in Schotland – writes:

I came to Australia in 1999 to work at a sandstone university. But within three months of my arrival I started applying for jobs back in Britain and left within a year. My recent visits tell me that many of the problems that existed then have intensified. At the bottom, these can be summed up in one word: managerialism. This is the wholly unreasonable conviction that those at the top always know better than those they manage, who must bow in all matters to the wisdom of their betters.

On the basis of other studies on organisations he suggests the following lessons for Australian policy makers and managers in the field of higher education: improve employment security, decentralise decision-making, and improve pay and encourage trade union organisation. He illustrates these suggestions mainly by referring to studies on manufacturing companies. Although I agree with many of his arguments, I am not sure whether universities can easily be compared to manufacturing companies. Maybe more knowledge intensive organisations would be a better unit of comparison.

In a special issue of Newsweek on ‘the Knowledge Revolution’, Google presents 10 golden rules on how to get the most out of knowledge workers. They build on the late Peter Drucker’s argument: “smart businesses will strip away everything that gets in their knowledge workers’ way. Those that succeed will attract the best performers, securing the single biggest factor for competitive advantage in the next 25 years.”

Here are five of Google’s Golden Rules that might present a lesson for Higher ed:

  • Hire by committee. Virtually every person who interviews at Google talks to at least half-a-dozen interviewers, drawn from both management and potential colleagues.

I think in Academia, this is still very much in the hands of academics and has not shifted to managers. Not yet…

  • Cater to their every need. As Drucker says, the goal is to “strip away everything that gets in their way.” Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.

Here’s a lot to learn for university managers: academics want to teach and do research, not fill out forms!

  • Make coordination easy. In addition to physical proximity, each Googler e-mails a snippet once a week to his work group describing what he has done in the last week. This gives everyone an easy way to track what everyone else is up to, making it much easier to monitor progress and synchronize work flow.

Hard for me to say since I am basically working on ‘my own thing’, but I think that many departments have too much become a collection of a lot of small ‘shops’ run by individual academics.

  • Strive to reach consensus. Modern corporate mythology has the unique decision maker as hero. We adhere to the view that the “many are smarter than the few,” and solicit a broad base of views before reaching any decision.

Tourish would clearly agree with this. In his view however, it are the managers who decide, not the academics. Of course most universities have some consultation procedures in place. The question is however what their impact is…

  • Encourage creativity. Google engineers can spend up to 20 percent of their time on a project of their choice. There is, of course, an approval process and some oversight, but basically we want to allow creative people to be creative.

Probably no academic in the world would disagree with a policy like this.

Can university leaders and managers learn from Google?

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