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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Co-op-ucation
April 29, 2010 - 5:14pm

Just one more thought -- really, a question -- on the subject of co-ops. Cooperation isn't just a form of business, it's a social skill. It's a business necessity (even in these days of social networking). It's an expectation in many societies and, when we're at our best (think natural disaster, from blizzard on up) it's characteristic of ours.

Before I came to work at Greenback U., I hired a lot of people. Some were "permanent" hires (I always feel the need to put that in quotes) and some were explicitly temporary, but all of them were selected for a particular set of skills and characteristics. Unless technical skills were particularly hard to find in the marketplace, or the assignment was both brief and immediate, or the only person the new hire would have to interact with was me, I generally hired on the basis of "works and plays well with others" even before technical skill set. I'd rather have a moderately skilled team player than a highly skilled toxic asset. A lot of other managers I knew hired on the same basis.

(Oh, and I rarely hired based on possession of a particular academic credential. In fact, a couple of employees I inherited in one job had PhD's and were among the most useless people I ever had to work with. At Greenback, of course, it's pretty much a given that every mid-level clerk has a BA or a BS -- Master's strongly preferred. I doubt that we're unique in that regard.)

So, the first question is this: If, in Pre-K the emphasis is on "works and plays well with others" and in post-graduation hiring exercises employers have a strong preference for "works and plays well with others", why does the US K-16 educational system place such an emphasis on individual achievement? Why is cooperation so often considered "cheating"? Sure, most kids in most years of their education will participate in one or more group projects, but let's be honest -- those projects are the exception, not the rule. For most jobs that truly require a college degree, my observation is that group work is the rule and truly individual projects are the exception. Why the disconnect?

I'm thinking that the way we think about how businesses (for-profit and not-) should operate is influenced by the way we were organized/evaluated as schoolkids. (Not the only influence, for sure.) Kind of like the way we naturally think about real-world problems being influenced by the academic discipline in which each of us was trained. (And, truth be told, by the whole idea of knowledge being divided into disciplines.)

Interestingly, the one college I know about which does things differently is one highly attuned to the needs of the employer post-graduation: West Point. My understanding (I'm not a ring-knocker) is that cooperation -- with acknowledgment -- is both expected and encouraged. Of course, cooperation is a key to success in many combat situations. So it was no surprise when the couple of USMA grads I ended up hiring had "the teamwork thing" figured out pretty well. I'm wondering whether the civilian sector of higher education might not be able to do something similar.

 

 

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