Guest Post by Steven J. Gill
Stephen J. Gill is a recognized expert in the field of training and performance management. Steve conducts organizational analyses, evaluates programs and services, and assesses the impact of employee performance improvement interventions.  He has worked as an author, speaker and consultant since 1994. Gill holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Northwestern University and has written over 50 articles and book chapters on needs analysis, program evaluation, and human resource development. Stephen Gill is an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In that capacity he has first hand knowledge and experience with the challenges of supporting student success in the community college setting.  Dr. Gill is a New Campus Dynamics Associate Consultant.

You’d think that colleges and universities would know how to learn; but they don’t. These “centers of knowledge” know how to teach; their own learning is another matter.

No Need to Learn
The fact is that higher education institutions have had little reason to learn. They are teaching and operating pretty much the same way they have for 200 years. They have students who want to earn a credential and faculty who want to teach in their areas of expertise. As for funding, whether public or private, as long as they have students it has not been a serious problem and funding has never been tied to performance. Until recently, there hasn’t been much clamor for change from stakeholders and very little competitive pressure, so these organizations have had no motivation to actively seek to learn different and better ways of doing things.

Certainly, individual scholars in these institutions are learning by constantly adding to their knowledge. Faculty members learn from their own research and that of others and some learn from applying their expertise to solving real-life problems. Instructors learn, also, by sharing knowledge with colleagues in their fields.

However, it is rare for a collegiate institution, as a whole, to intentionally become smarter about how it does what it does.  Jeffrey Selingo summarizes the situation in his new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education. He writes:

Unlike newspapers and bookstores, colleges are mostly protected from market forces by large government subsidies and a complex regulatory environment that does not allow you or me to simply start a new college from our bedroom like we can a website that puts a newspaper out of business. Although as many as a thousand colleges are at risk of closing or merging in the decade ahead because of poor finances, the vast majority of colleges will adapt. Colleges are like cities, as so many evolve as needs change, although many of them will struggle through this next evolution. (p. xvi)

Need to Change
Today, colleges and universities are not as protected as they once were. The pressure on higher education to change and improve is tremendous. Stakeholders (board members, funders, employers, legislators, state and federal agencies, etc.) want their institutions to be entrepreneurial and create businesses from intellectual property, be responsive to the talent needs of the private sector, provide an ROI that justifies the high cost of a college education, and be more responsible for student access and success.

At the same time as these expectations are increasing, colleges and universities are facing competition for scarce resources due to local, national, and global economies. Decreasing government investment in higher education as their costs continue to rise has resulted in colleges and universities seeking new ways of raising capital which has resulted in a shift in mission. They are now in the business of fundraising as much as they are about teaching.

And traditional colleges and universities are feeling competitive pressure from online providers of courses and credentials. Elite institutions are entering the fray, bringing notoriety, credibility, and legitimacy to Web-based courses. The lower cost, greater accessibility and high quality of these programs are giving students options to bricks-and-mortar institutions. This is leading to the commoditization of higher education, i.e., courses being sold on the open market.

If college leaders think that their history and current enrollment will protect their institution from demise, they need to be reminded of the many house-hold names that digital technology has left in its wake: Blockbuster Video; Borders Bookstores; Kodak; Corona Typewriter; as well as most print newspapers. These businesses failed to change sufficiently to compete in the digital world.

The evolving demographics (especially in the U.S.) are putting pressure on higher education institutions to become different than they are today.  More than ever, young college students want to be able to find jobs after they graduate, Baby Boomers want to take courses that will help them start new careers and live fulfilling lives in retirement, and a growing foreign student segment wants to use U.S. colleges as a way to either integrate into U.S. communities or return and be successful in their native countries.

Need for Organizational Learning
All of this means that colleges and universities must evolve, not incrementally in terms of new courses, programs and degrees, but to transform themselves into more effective institutions. This will require organizational learning. Organizational learning experts David Garvin and Amy Edmonson say that organizations learn by:

…one, creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge; and, second, acting, modifying its behavior to respond to [that] new knowledge and insights.

Higher education institutions need to learn how to respond to the mounting pressures, be responsive to the needs of stakeholders, and do things differently so that they are accessible and successful. They need to learn how to learn from their own experience and from the experience of others. Otherwise, these institutions will not survive.

Barriers to Organizational Learning
This kind of change will not be easy for these institutions. They have systemic barriers to organizational learning that are quite challenging. These institutions face functional silos, a culture that does not reward organizational learning, a lack of feedback from stakeholders, and strong traditions that keep these institutions tied to the past.

Silos – Divided into disciplines, programs, departments, centers, and institutes, colleges and universities are collections of academic interests and funding magnets, not integrated groups of thinkers working collectively to solving complex problems. Faculty members seek to control their own domains; they have little incentive to change this. And they hire their own which continues and entrenches the problem. This tendency towards separation makes significant learning very difficult.

Rewards – Faculty and administrators are rewarded for research, publishing, funding, and teaching in very narrow areas of study. Much of that work is professionally and statistically significant but doesn’t teach us much about how to make our organizations more effective. Accreditation of institutions is based on compliance with standards, not organizational learning.

Feedback – Colleges and universities have no mechanism for helpful feedback from their stakeholders, i.e., faculty, students, staff, and communities. Student feedback is about the likeableness of faculty and, maybe, retention of knowledge. Rarely do these surveys and tests tell us anything about what can be done organizationally to improve learning and success for all students. Institution-wide feedback from faculty and staff is rarely specific enough to be able to improve organizational performance.

Tradition – These institutions of higher learning are steeped in tradition. Whether it’s the ivory halls or the gridiron, identity and loyalty are maintained by consistency. Just try changing the name of the football team or moving the location of commencement and you’ll quickly find out how important tradition is to students, alumni, and faculty. Change is not valued.

To overcome these barriers, an organizational routine of feedback, reflection, and active social learning must be created. That is, colleges and universities must develop a community in which administrators, faculty, and staff are constantly sharing information and seeking performance improvement through new knowledge, new skills, and new applications of knowledge and skills to achieving the goals of the institution. They examine what they do, compare that to what needs to be done, reflect on what they have learned from their actions, and make the needed changes in the organization. Learning how to do this effectively will have huge long-term benefits for the organization.

We need strong colleges and universities to give opportunity to everyone, to maintain civil society, and to sustain democracy. However, if colleges and universities are not able to overcome barriers to learning and create an environment where organizational learning is continuous and change constant, they will fail to achieve the purpose for which they were created. These institutions cannot survive in the status quo; they must respond to external and internal demands. Just as individuals must acquire new knowledge and skills to survive and prosper, colleges and universities must learn how to become more organizationally effective.

Comments Welcomed:  Tell us how you have created opportunities for organizational learning at your institutions and what the outcomes were.