Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On Roadmapping the Future

Yesterday's Huffington Post included a blogpost by Don Tapscott on the impending demise of universities. It is a subject of some interest given that I work in academic publishing and my eldest child is almost 16, so the university years lie ahead for her and her siblings. As ever the comments following the post are as interesting as Tapscott's typically iconoclastic piece, divided as they are into some voices of support and a number wondering where Mr Tapscott has been for the past couple of decades. For me neither blogpost nor comments ask the crucial questions which focus around how we facilitate change management conducted in an economically viable manner within long established businesses and organisations. And I mean viable for the individual institutions that need to change - and viable for our society which requires an educated and enabled population.

The post was placed on the Huffington Post specifically to solicit feedback, as Edge, where it was originally placed, does not publish reader comments. True to form I read and I commented. Only to find (infuriatingly) that what I had written had exceeded Huffington's maximum comment word count (by 311 words). So I have decided to place it here instead...

Dear Don
I read your post with interest as it addresses what are currently two of my most pressing (and parallel) personal and professional concerns, viz
(i) what sort of university education should I be envisaging for my (currently young teen) children, and,
(ii) where will academic publishing be in five years time.
Regarding education I am torn between a sense of excitement about how much more interesting and purposeful learning is becoming, and, watching my children, a despair that although they know how to source, interact with and dissect information intellectually, they find it very difficult to write and structure a sustained analysis. As an employer I still value the skill of written analysis.

I find it useful to think about publishing and education together because both are businesses (often long-established, frequently old-fashioned businesses). Yes, educational establishments are often semi-public sector businesses but nonetheless they have budgets to meet - and it helps to remind ourselves of this when considering their future. Universities and academic publishers are faced with markets that are evolving by the hour in their demands for new delivery channels and methodologies. Both are being rapidly pulled into a world where they are increasingly driven by the requirement to respond to the ways in which changing and emerging technologies are modulating what students and employers want and how they want, it rather than being driven by traditional pedagogy and academic values.

So far, so good - and nothing wrong with this. I am all for dragging academe into the real world. The crux is how to effect such change at the same time as remaining a viable business. The problem is that educational establishments (like publishing companies) are restricted by their histories, their funding models, their obligations as employers, and multiple other pre-existing social and commercial contracts. It is all very well to comment that they have to change - but they have to be enabled to change - and at the moment the impedimenta of their histories (and their business models) is making that difficult.

Seeing where they need to go is not that hard. There are plenty of visionaries and change evangelists out there - yourself included - who are thinking, writing and speaking about what needs to happen. However what we are remarkably short of is people with the skills, the insight and commercial acumen needed to chart the roadmap from "here" to "there". How does an institution or business with a model built around a pedagogical approach remain a viable enterprise whilst rapidly adapting to deliver - or rather enable - learning in a completely different style, channel and model (subject to rapid change and therefore ongoing cost to adapt and develop)? Just because the future of education could be significantly Internet-based, that does not for one moment mean that it will necessarily be cheaper.

The interesting question for me is not - "do we have to change?" That we do seems axiomatic. Much more important is how we free up institutions and businesses to be able to adapt quickly in a way that does not destroy what is still inherently valuable in them. The education and publishing establishments urgently need advanced change management skills of the most pragmatic and enabling sort. In both publishing and education if we don't find ways of roadmapping and structuring the change that is required within viable business models, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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