Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Collapse of Universities? Not so fast.

"The Collapse of Complex Business Models" Clay Shirky, www.shirky.com Accessed April 12th 2010

Much talk on the web about Clay Shirky's recent blog post. Shirky draws on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies to make inferences for complex business models. The idea goes that societies get more and more complex, and the benefit of each added complexity reduces until eventually a break point is reached. The layers of complexity make the society inflexible and incapable of change, so when confronted with external strains, it collapses. I haven't read Tainter's work, but Shirky, as ever, provides a sharp précis, and draws inferences for the future of conventional, complex, media organisations. 

This was widely praised and argued across the web. While Harold Jarche talks about the differences between 'Complex' and 'Complicated' , Christopher Sessums draws the inference over into the educational space, moving on to argue that
"The affordances of social media and open educational resources are making the time and space used for formal education nearly worthless. "

Steady on there.

While to many commentators working within the walls of a University, it may seem that the University, their University, is in fact a Complex Society, in the same sense as Ancient Rome, Maya, etc. and is thus doomed.

This is not the case. Universities are closer or organisms in an ecosystem than a self contained and isolated society. An organisation, or an organism exists in an ecosystem, as one of many. A society, almost by definition, occupies an entire ecosystem, and has limited interaction, if any, with other societies. Most of the collapsed societies on History (and I think of those listed in Jared Diamond's work 'Collapse') existed in near isolation.

As organisms in a system, universities evolve. They eat up smaller institutions to dominate a niche, or split of side campuses to enter new spaces. They relentlessly share their DNA, as Universities heads look over their shoulders and shamelessly copy the innovations of others. Universities fight for resources, funding, students among themselves, where a Society usually co-opts all of the resources in it's zone of control and operates without competitive challenge.

Make no mistake, Universities are dinosaurs. They can crush you, outrun you and outbreed you. They dominate their ecosystem to the exclusions of all others, existing in astonishing diversity, and repeatedly adapting to environmental change. What it took to get rid of the dinosaurs wiped out almost everything else as well. The same is true here. If Universities become non viable institutions, then their collapse will be the least of our worries.

Universities are not going to go gently into the night. They won't wave their hands in the air, cry that it's all to complicated (or was it complex?) and shut their doors. Some will no doubt go under, but most will adapt and survive, ruthlessly ripping out the DNA from models that work and re-engineering themselves for Internet Age. They will do it in University Time, not Internet time, but they have enough inertia for that not to matter. In fact, a slower response to change will insulate them from short timescale fads (Would you wish you had bet the farm on CD-ROMS? WAP?). 

It may not seem so from this blog, but overall I'm bullish about the likelihood of Universities surviving the next century. So long as there is a need for people to be educated to a high level, beyond what can be learned in a self directed way, Universities will be doing that business.

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