Disruptive Innovation at Universities… and Science Societies

Here’s an excerpt from the Silicon Valley Business Journal that describes an interview with Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

A new course for academia

Christensen wrote his first opinions on why Harvard Business School and other higher-ed institutions were in line to be disrupted back in 1999. Much of what he predicted then is coming true, and the disruption is accelerating.

“For 300 years, higher education was not disruptable because there was no technological core. If San Jose State wants to become a globally known research institution, they have to emulate UC Berkeley and Cal Tech. They can’t disrupt,” he said on Wednesday.

“But now online learning brings to higher education this technological core, and people who are very complacent are in deep trouble. The fact that everybody was trying to move upmarket and make their university better and better and better drove prices of education up to where they are today.

“Right now, Harvard Business School is investing millions of dollars in online learning, but it is being developed to be used in our existing business model, and we’ll sell it to other universities to use in their existing business models.

“But there is a different business model that is disrupting this in addition to online learning. It’s on-the-job education. This model of learning is you come in for a week and we’ll teach you about strategy and you go off and develop a strategy. Come back later for two weeks on product development. You learn it and you use it. These are very different business models and that’s what’s killing us.”

I think if Christensen’s concern are equally applicable to scientific and professional societies.

For example, the Royal Society in Britain is one of the oldest and most prestigious scientific societies.  According to a history of science societies published as a dissertation in 1913, the Royal Society was originally formed in 1660 as the Invisible College for the promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning.

What’s interesting about that is that the idea of a virtual (i.e., “invisible”) colleges existed 350 years ago.  At that time, Gutenberg’s printing press was the disruptive technological innovation that allowed people to exchange information through writing, rather than in person. For hundreds of years prior to the adoption of the printed books, University instruction focused on “readers” that would literally read a book from a lectern, allowing students to transcribe the contents over laborious (and by hand) thereby instituting a parallel information structure that was previously slowed by the fact that if multiple people wanted to copy a book, they each had to borrow the original in series.  Cheap printing revolutionized higher education, making the first form of “distance education” possible.

Since then, any number of professional and scientific societies have been founded, each more specialized than those that came before.  The model of knowledge organization was fitting for the Industrial Revolution, which relied on a specialization of labor to boost productivity.

However, the industrial-era vision of a science society is no longer sufficient for a post-industrial approach to science.  We need a society that promotes knowledge exchange across disciplinary boundaries.  We need experts capable of integrating knowledge from multiple domains — i.e., who speak multiple “languages” of science.  Moreover, we need to establish new modes of knowledge transfer that leverage information-communication technology (ICT) and are even more effective at a distance.

I intend for the Sustainability Conoscente Network to be a platform for exploring what the post-industrial professional society should look like.  That doesn’t mean that the old societies will necessarily go away (although some will).  They might adapt to new norms of publishing, peer-review and knowledge transfer enabled by the information revolution.  But they’re unlikely to become adept at the kind of horizontal knowledge integration that is so critically necessary now.  That’s a role the Conoscente can play.

Until the printing press made books and journals comparatively inexpensive, the Unver

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