Business and Higher Education: convergence or divergence

A truism about business quality is that an organization is only as good as its employees.  That is just about always the situation in higher education. Institutional reputation and effectiveness rests on the quality of faculty and staff, and is often determined by the quality of its students, who also serve as a proxy for its product. Good institutions attract and retain quality employees. It is true in business and in academia.

The May 2012 Harvard Business Review features an article that challenges the notion, however, in an unexpected way. Jody Greenstone Miller and Mack Miller investigate “The Rise of the Executive Supertemp” as an increasingly viable path for refugees from big corporations and professional firms. It is possible, with the right contacts and skill set, to forge an independent path as a supertemp, the Miller’s claim.

It is a global phenomenon and trend, with businesses uncomfortable with commitment and highly skilled professionals unwilling to make the sacrifices. The Millers’ believe that it is a niche market that will become mainstream in the near future. It is fraught with challenges, from health care to security, but it also often makes economic sense. Further, it points to another way that the power of the market forces innovation both from an institutional perspective – what the companies need – and the personal perspective – what the individual wants.

But could this trend make sense in higher education? The opportunity needs are remarkably similar.  Colleges and universities seek highly skilled talent to effect institutional change and shape processes.  Higher education professionals crave autonomy and independence. In fact, those qualities are often what attracted these folks to higher education in the first place. The economics make sense, and so, too, do the similarities across like institutions.

Unfortunately, academic culture stands as a massive impediment to this sort of thinking. Models of shared governance, which often require broad-based input from a wide range of stake holders, are notoriously conservative in their decision-making. The insular nature inherent to each academic institution highlights longevity, seniority and personal trust. The values, stated bluntly, are often inconsistent with an institutional demand for output.

Could supertemps make institutions of higher education more effective and efficient? Absolutely. Will we have an opportunity to see? Probably not without the confluence of innovative leadership in an academic culture eager for ongoing change and experimentation.

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