Education for Employment: Why Models Are So Difficult to Build?

Everyone loves a good theory. In this difficult job market, the idea that one can conceive an education closely aligned with what the employers need sounds like a good idea. It works for the employers too, who are having to look harder and harder for the right talent and frequently blame the education process for this problem. 

All too often, this does not work. McKinsey believes that this is because the employers and educators have different priorities. For many educators, getting the students to successfully complete the courses and earn the requisite credentials are good enough. For many employers, the requirements are very very specific and they want to do as little educating as possible themselves. Besides, the employers' requirements are always evolving whereas education remains a long process: Even if a perfect solution could be found to bridge the gap of understanding - through, for example, building corporate universities - the time lag still remains a significant challenge. 

But even if the workplace practices are assumed to be relatively constant over a period of a five year period, one would still face problems of building a general education system servicing multiple employers. One reason for this is the nature of knowledge in different workplaces is not the same. Even if we exclude the workplace specific knowledge - the things that you learn once you work there - and focus on just the explicit knowledge bit, the kind of knowledge they focus on while interviewing you, different kinds of employers look for different things.  

Blackler (1995) came up with four different types of companies and different types of knowledge each emphasize on. Dividing the employers between two kinds of work - Working with Familiar Problems (Retail, Hospitality, Healthcare, Utilities) and Working with Novel Problems (Consultancy, Advertising, High Technology) - and two kinds of cultures - those which emphasise collective behavior and those who emphasize key individuals - he came up with a 2x2 matrix with four different knowledge types.

The four types of employers in his framework were:

A) 'Machine Bureaucracies', like McDonald's, which are working with familiar problems and emphasize on collective behaviour. The knowledge needed to do the job has been 'routinised'. The type of knowledge that counts for these kind of organisations is 'Embedded Knowledge', knowledge of processes, rules and technologies. This is at all levels, not just for the unfortunate front-line person. The ability to learn the processes and discipline to follow them is crucial for success in this environment.

B) 'Professional Bureaucracies', like a Hospital, which focus on familiar problems but is dependent on key individuals, the Doctors in this case. Accordingly, the culture is much more 'expert dependent' in this case, and individual credentials count a lot. These organisations prioritise on 'Embodied Knowledge', credentials, professional reputation etc. and having good degrees matter a lot in these environments.

C) 'Adhocracies', like Management Consultancies (say PWC or Deloitte), which have to deal with novel problems but has a more 'collective' culture. These organisations are 'communication intensive', in that they are crucially dependent on the communication with the clients. The type of knowledge that seems to matter in these environments are 'Encultured Knowledge', the lingo, types of behaviour and presentation that differentiates one firm from another. In these environments, the integration to the culture is the key.

D) 'Knowledge Intensive Firms', like High Tech Firms, which has to deal with novel problems and have an individualistic culture. The work in these organisations are dependent on 'symbolic analysis', often 'finding the problem', and the type of knowledge valued in its hallways is 'Embrained Knowledge', the geeky stuff that we hear about so much. Credentials are less important - people in these organisations would love to boast that Harvard was too boring for them (and hence they dropped out) - and creative achievements are the most important things people are respected for.

This framework looks intuitively correct and one way to apply the framework in the context of current discussion is to think how the universities, particularly the non-selective ones, can handle the competing demands of different types of employers and yet meet the soaring aspirations of its students. It is not surprising that each institution in the end settles for one type of employer or the other.

However, there is a second way of thinking about this framework and that is the point I really want to make. It is quite obvious that the universities themselves fall into one type or the other: A mass institution can not perhaps avoid the pull of being a 'Professional Bureaucracy' whereas the more selective ones usually develop the culture much alike a 'Knowledge Intensive Firm'. The For-Profits, which often encourage a collectivist culture, end up being either Machine Bureaucracies or Adhocracies themselves, and intuitively prepare students with one type of knowledge or the other. The problem, however, is that this diversity in Higher Education is mostly unacknowledged: This happens, but no one wants to talk about it. Every Higher Ed institution wants to pretend that they are knowledge intensive and everyone seems to suffer from a strange disease, which goes by various names ('Carnegie Creep', 'Harvard Envy', 'Oxford Pretensions'). Models work better when one is aware of its own culture and chooses its objectives carefully: They are hard to build when one does not know where to stand.


Blacker, F (1995) ‘Knowledge, Knowledge Work and Organisations: An Overview and Interpretation’, Organization Studies, Vol. 16, No. 6


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