Missed Connections

2 ways that corporate and higher ed people misunderstand each other.

October 21, 2013

My most productive interactions at the EDUCAUSE conference are the discussions that I have with leaders from the corporate participants.  

The CEOs, Presidents, VPs, and Directors.  

The people responsible for the strategic directions and new initiatives for the services, software, hardware, and publishing companies whose presence (in the exhibitor hall, in corporate sessions, and through sponsorships), that make up so much of the value of attending EDUCAUSE.

I wish that more EDUCAUSE attendees, and more of my faculty and administrative colleagues in higher ed, had more of an opportunity to have these sorts of one-on-one conversations with the leaders from the edtech and publishing sectors.

I think that more opportunities for these sorts of in-depth conversations would go a long way towards moving beyond the unproductive relationships that higher ed and corporate people often find themselves navigating.  

The fact is that we need each other. Whether higher ed likes it or not, we will increasingly depend on corporate partners to collaborate with us in defining, constructing, managing, delivering, evaluating, and funding postsecondary education.   

This corporatization of higher education scares the pants off many in the higher ed community (maybe you?) - and rightly so. We are driven by social goals and a shared set of values that have been explicitly derived (and long cherished) outside of market forces.

The key will be to leverage what is good about market incentives to realize our non-market based goals.  

Can we find partners who will help us advance our mission (education, research, and service), even when the overriding mission of these partners (profit?, shareholder value?) is not synonymous with our own?

As with most problems, the big challenge in realizing productive partnerships often comes down to culture and to communication.    

Here are 2 ways that corporate and higher ed folks often misunderstand each other - and a few thoughts on how we can close the gap:

Misunderstanding #1. Higher Ed People Assume That Corporate Motivations Start and End At Profit:

If you run a services, publishing, software or hardware company (or increasingly some combination of all 4) then you need to pay attention to the bottom line. A company is not a charity. At some point more money has to come in than goes out. Value needs to be created.   

The most important thing for higher education people to know about corporate education people is that the corporate education people are working to created shared value.

Value that is enjoyed by both their customer (higher ed) and by their investors.

This is neither an altruistic nor a cynical strategy. It is simply a good (perhaps the only good) business strategy.

In the medium-to-long run, a company playing at any level in the edtech space will only be successful if they deliver true value to their clients.  

Companies need us to do well so eventually they can do well.

In practice, this truth about the imperative to create shared value tends to attract people to the edtech corporate sector whose goals and motives are pretty well aligned with those of people in higher ed.  

Corporate edtech employees hope to contribute to improving quality, lowering costs, and increasing access.  

They believe that higher education can become both better and more affordable, and they hope to play a positive role in evolving the higher ed to better meet the demands of a 21st century globalized society.

Misunderstanding #2. Corporate People Don't Get That Higher People Engage By Critiquing:

What corporate people often don't get (at least not those who did not come from a college/university job), is that the structure, organization, and culture of higher education bears little resemblance to the world's in which they work.   

Higher education is not designed for efficiency. Higher education is not designed for productivity. 

What (I think) higher education is designed for is to advance society. To improve people. To create knowledge. To catalyze progress.

Many of you higher ed folks will disagree with these claims about the purpose of higher ed.  And that is good - as that is exactly how higher education operates.  

In a company everyone knows (basically) what the goal of that company is. In higher ed we are constantly debating and figuring out and reinventing what our goals are.

If I could wish one thing for corporate / higher ed relationships it would be for us to have more debates, more discussions, and even more arguments. What corporate people need to understand is that if we are arguing with you, or about you, it means that we find it important enough to spend our time on you.    

The real danger for edtech companies when it comes to higher ed is not criticism but irrelevance. 

We want you to debate with us on all aspects of higher education.   

We don't need to agree with your actions or your motivations, but we need to understand them.

We will always mistrust a corporate message, but will be appreciative of those corporate leaders that are able to speak honestly about both their constraints and their goals.

And if you take the time to return our critiques of your business with critiques of our business (and as long as your critiques are informed, knowledgeable, and creative), then we will thank you.

You tell us what we are doing wrong at our colleges and universities, we tell you what you are doing wrong at your companies, and we will get along famously.

How do you think we can bridge the culture and communications gap?


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