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Is Big Education a Barrier to Collaboration?

Collaboration is always expanding and evolving. Particularly in the last twenty years. It has been a slow development but its steady rise as a critical factor in business, government and not for profit sector is clear. There is a strong proliferation of technology which solely focuses on enabling collaboration. There is an increasing number of professionals who work as collaboration educators, strategists and managers. An increasing number of organisations are choosing to collaborate with a broad mix of partners, including competitors. There has been a steady increase in research in the field. And of course more and more employees are demanding better opportunities to work collaboratively in the workplace.

many small light bulbs equal big oneThat said, it is not all smooth sailing. Barriers persist. Many of those barriers have been well identified and documented. A fear of the unknown, which comes with the risk inherent in any collaboration, is one. Another barrier is pure attitudinal desire to avoid the change which collaboration inevitably brings. But we can also start to look deeper into some systematic issues that continue to create preconditions to impact collaboration. One of those is education; more specifically, the type I would call ‘organised’ or ‘big’ education. By that I look at the education provided by entrenched institutions which have had a field day for the past 2-3 centuries. The unprecedented growth of the industry has without a doubt produced an almost unimaginable level of development. Essentially humanity had been transformed because of it. So the achievements of the big education delivered through universities are well deserved.

But that is not a complete story. There is more to education than systematic standardised learning that makes individuals and groups capable of astonishing achievements. Far from suggesting that we abandon enrolling into universities, I think we need to look for ways to increase collaboration in the area. Specifically we need to start recognition that university education does not automatically translates into a successful career, or even a job of choice, let alone fulfilling a capacity to deal with the rapid changes every adult now needs to think about. This is no longer a radical idea. Recognition of the shortfalls of big education has been discussed for a long time. It is the increased intensity of disruptive forces that has made such discussions more relevant – critically relevant I would say.

As far as collaboration as a business discipline is concerned, I think it is up against massive obstacles. The most obvious is a lack of education that rivals the quality of offerings in fields such as, say, marketing or human resources. There are many reasons for that but I would like to point to the connection between the level of investment in research and the logical flow-on into teaching. This is only one of many reasons which make collaboration a hard discipline to master. The existing crop of managers are far more likely to stick to what they know than to venture into a field which is not that well represented in the higher education system.

However things may be looking up. As always, the more progressive business managers worldwide do not wait for signs to be more innovative from big institutions such as universities. On the contrary they look to the market and adapt. So it is with big education. Some like, say, Ernst and Young (specifically in the UK) are already starting to act differently; realising that right employees do not inevitably come with a university degree. With that approach, which comes after PwC also embraced a similar strategy last year, the company now seeks new talent by eliminating a Degree as the minimum requirement for entry level positions. That is a welcome development as it will provide stronger incentive for some universities to think more about their relevance in a disrupted world. More exciting in respect to the collaboration discipline (from my perspective) is the opportunity for many to embrace it and innovate the practice for the benefit of their business.

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