Universities as User Network: An Update

I wrote about universities as user networks earlier (see post). Since then, I have engaged into several projects attempting to challenge the existing models of Higher Education, and it is worthwhile to clarify the concept farther.

The key argument that the universities of the future will look different from those today because their business model is likely to change remains intact. The framework of this argument draws upon Clayton Chistensen's work, and view organisations through the prism of three distinct business models: Solution Shops, Value Chain and User Networks.

Solution Shop business models are employed by Professional Service firms, which, as in a Law Firm, assemble a team of experts to solve each individual problem. Their business model is to create value through providing solutions to complex problems, and the key value determinant remains the expertise of the individuals involved.

Value Chain business models, in contrast, create value through a process, which transforms the raw material input into a processed output. It is obviously the business model of the factory, and by far, the most popular modern form of business. The ability to create value resides, for these organisations, in the strength and relevance of their processes.

User Network business models derive their value from the network, by connecting 'stakeholders' (a cliched but perhaps the most appropriate term). This is the business model of telecom companies, for example: No one would want to subscribe to a network of one. The business model depends on creating a platform by providing infrastructure for users to come together, and value is created through the number of nodes, or connections. This is the reason why everyone wants an Open network, rather than a closed one: Because once you are a network business, the value comes from not from the excellence of your processes, but how many people you can connect.

Now, the modern university, state funded and process driven, is very much a value chain business. It takes the young students and attempt to turn them into citizens, employees and consumers. But it was not always so. Before its modern institutional form emerged, it was very much spaces led by a 'Guru' who instructed rich kids to solve the problems of life. The value of the university came from the expertise of the people involved (in some cases, it still does): So it operated more under a solution shop model than the value chain. It was only through a complex set of social changes, the rise of professional management and large scale industrial enterprise, the creation of welfare state, a professionalised academic class, and the rise of standardised testing and textbook industry, that the universities emerged as process driven, multinational entities that they are now. In essence, they did not choose the 'Value Chain' business model: It was the most relevant form that emerged corresponding with the industrial civilisation.

Several reasons why that is now changing. Businesses are getting smaller, work is more varied and entrepreneurship more common, both inside and outside an employment. Content is no longer king in the age of Google, context is. The welfare state is receding and the modern consumers are born indebted more or less. Technologies are transforming the nature of the communities, where, the value of personal relationships notwithstanding, keeping in touch is increasingly easier. The intense intellectual connection still matters, but what's new is the ecosystem of shallow connections that sustain our ideas and enterprises today. Globalisation has thrown new challenges to our industrial forms, leading to a sort of disaggregation and rise of aspirations at an unprecedented global scale. So, if we view the modern university as a fundamental social technology enabling the creation and functioning of modern society, time to change has perhaps come.

There is another reason why universities as user networks may make sense. Whenever the case of universities has to be argued, the golden days of universities as knowledge communities are usually invoked. Critics and advocates of university life both seem to agree on this one point, that the rise of modern bureaucratic university has undermined what the universities were meant to be, a place of conversations and connections. Indeed, the dogged historians of university life would justifiably claim that this was only an idealistic view of what universities were (and usually say that universities were always a collection of different things), but even if this is idealistic, this reflects a deep and consistent desire of what the universities could be. The tyranny of the processes, couched in the vacuous claim of 'quality', often ran counter to the community, the collegiality being subordinated often to the committees of various hues. The disjuncture, that the society has changed and is demanding the transformation of the university, may result in several different things, but transforming the university as a meeting place, a social infrastructure to enable conversations among the various shaping forces, may reclaim the university ideal all over again.

This is the shape that seems to be emerging. I see the creation of an open system of education, freed up from the artificially erected barriers of what can't be done, into one where employers, educators and communities can all contribute. I see that the change of the nature of knowledge, from the received truth to knowledge-as-conversation underpinning a new system of learning engagement, where learners come together to explore and to connect, and to join global communities united by interest rather than accidents of geography or social or linguistic groups. I see commercial and community interests in alignment and in contrast, but together shaping a dialogue that enables a new form of education. And, I see new universities as the container, an enabler, a social infrastructure, to provide a safe and productive space for such interactions to be had. That I see as the university of the future, at ease with the society as well as its own ideal.


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