Trying to Apply 'The Seventh Sense' to Higher Ed

The risks and opportunities of our networked postsecondary world.

November 3, 2016

The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Published in May of 2016.

How can we apply the ideas in Ramo’s The Seventh Sense to higher ed?

Ramo doesn’t talk much about higher ed - with education only getting the briefest of mentions in the book - but that shouldn’t stop us.  There are some things in this book that we should talk about.

First, what is Ramo talking about?  What is the Seventh Sense?

You know about the first five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.  The Sixth Sense is Nietzsche’s idea of developing a feel for the currents of history, and of placing the present moment within a larger historical story.  (As I understand Ramo’s description of Nietzsche’s ideas - but some Nietzsche expert reading this post will expand on my definition).

The Seventh Sense, according to Ramo, is the cultivation of a feeling for the power, possibilities, and nuances of networks.

According to Ramo, our transition into a networked world - one in which we are always connected to everyone else through the internet and our phones and by algorithms - is an historical transition on the scale of the Industrial Revolution.  Those individuals, companies, and nations that can develop a feel for networks will prosper. 

How can The Seventh Sense be applied to higher education?

One area of connection is around risk.  Ramo makes the point that any organization that depends on digital networks to run their core business is vulnerable to attacks at the weakest points in that network.

Many of us in the world of edtech believe that the majority of postsecondary leaders do not give network security enough thought.  We see how the running of the university increasingly depends on the security of our digital connections, the integrity and privacy of our digital data, and the uninterrupted uptime of our systems.  If the learning management system (LMS) goes down, then blended and online courses grind to a halt.  If the student information system (SIS) stops working, then grades and credit and credentials are not processed.  

In higher ed, as in other systems, we prioritize speed and openness.  We want our systems to be fast and transparent, but these two attributes also work against security.  Ramo argues that part of developing a Seventh Sense is understanding the power of networks to transform, but also of grasping (and then mitigating) the inherent risks involved in our networked organizational, economic, and political arrangements.  

The other risk of our networked society that Ramo talks about in The Seventh Sense is one of asymmetrical competition.  Small competitors, be they networked terrorist organizations such as ISIS or networked car sharing services such as Uber, can damage and displace slow-moving incumbents.  This argument is familiar to all of us in higher ed who are so over “disruptive innovation” - and who are in danger of seizing up anytime someone (usually outside of education) starts talking about the next Airbnb or Netflix of education.

Still, we should not discount the risk of small, nimble, and heavily networked competitors knocking incumbent institutions off their current place in the status hierarchy.  I often wonder what would happen if a mid-level institution (in rankings, endowment, etc.) decided to deeply specialize in learning science.  If they built their teaching and research agendas fully and completely around how the brain learns.  Could such an institution then use the power of networks to get the word out to potential applicants about this new approach?  Would a network driven awareness about an education built on brain science and cognitive research cause potential applicants to re-order their selection priorities?

One could argue that this has been the approach of Minerva University.    A startup university free from legacy constraints.  Could an established non-profit tuition dependent institution make this change?  And then could they figure out some way to change how traditional students (and their parents) think about a non-traditional education?

Reading The Seventh Sense is like experiencing a really great late night dorm room bull session.  Tons of great ideas.  Lots of insights from Asian philosophy and history.  (Ramo has lived in China for many years, and is fluent in Mandarin).  Fun stuff.

The extent that you will like this book, I suspect, will depend on your ability to apply its lessons to your own work.  Ramo does not make this particularly easy, as he like to operate on the macro level (nation states) in his analysis. 

This challenge should not stop you from reading, enjoying, and discussion The Seventh Sense.  This is a book filled with big speculative ideas, ideas of unknown staying power or continued impact.  

It may be a low probability event that The Seventh Sense will teach you something profound about how your college or university should be run, but as we know, low probability but high-impact events are worth thinking about.

What are you reading?


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