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The Future of the Future: Building the university of the future today

This article appears in the issue July/August 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 7]

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As you may have observed from previous columns, nobody is safe from the ravages of the global knowledge economy—not even librarians. This month, we take a look at another traditional institution that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the knowledge age—the citadels that have been the custodians of human knowledge for centuries—our colleges and universities.

The industrial-age university

Our current educational system is like an assembly line, hence the term "diploma mill." Many students we talk with openly admit their main purpose is to obtain the credentials they need to advance their careers. As a result of that mindset, most of their real learning experiences take place outside the classroom, such as working in the field or in everyday life.

There are several reasons for that condition. Hiring organizations pressure universities to produce a steady stream of credentialed technicians to meet specific job needs. Losses in the financial markets and a soft economy have reduced the availability of capital. Budgets are tightly controlled and planning horizons shortened, dictated by the anticipated size of the next incoming class. Instructors are viewed as frontline workers amidst a larger body of administrative staff and myriad other personnel.

What has been lost is the university as a center for the generation of ideas that are refined and developed into knowledge. Rather than turning out technicians, universities should cultivate successive generations of thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs. Take a look at most university mission statements and you’ll see references to achieving that ideal. But as is often the case, theory is far from practice, due to many longstanding barriers.

It’s time to break down those barriers. Academic institutions have no choice but to become modern, agile, knowledge-based enterprises.

Transforming the traditional university into a "knowledge universe"

The good news is universities already have an abundance of resources for educating a multicultural society aimed at expanding human knowledge. The problem is those resources are often isolated and untapped as an integrated whole, which seriously limits the competitive ability of both the university and its graduates.

That is the result of entrenched departmentalization, which stems back to credentialing within tightly defined areas. While specialization is certainly necessary, the dots are usually not connected until well into a graduate’s career, if ever.

A highly complex, rapidly changing world demands multidisciplinary skills. More than any other type of institution, universities have tremendous potential for integrating the components necessary for success in work and life. Adopting knowledge management as a core discipline will enable universities to transform themselves into centers in which rapid learning and innovation are both practiced and taught on an ongoing basis. But to achieve that, large-scale knowledge integration must occur.

For example, high schools can no longer just "hand off" students. Rather, universities must become tightly coupled with the primary and secondary education systems. That means moving beyond the traditional approach of education as a standalone major for teachers (the "technician" model we mentioned earlier) to embedding the discipline of learning within every other discipline.

Similarly, integration must occur among universities and hiring organizations, research institutions, governments and non-governmental organizations. For example, universities and hospitals have made tremendous strides as integrated institutions. Why not integrate high schools and universities in the same way, as pioneered by Bard College President Leon Botstein with Bard High School Early College in New York City?

Research and academics are typically located on the same campus, often under the same roof. So why does it take so long to migrate research results into practice? With the vast amounts of social and behavioral research being conducted, why aren’t subjects such as life skills and balance more prevalent?

Finally, universities do a respectable job of fostering innovation on the research side but tend not to be as innovative on the teaching side. It’s time to replace the one-size-fits-all approach with highly customizable learning. If universities don’t soon wake up and get on board, they’ll be left behind as other organizations and enterprising individuals continue to develop their own learning systems.

Everyone has a role

We can’t expect universities to carry the burden alone. Knowledge has to flow in all directions, with active participation by individuals and hiring and sponsoring organizations.

Individuals must start acting as knowledge resources. As a society, we are moving from a model of one-teacher-to-many-students to one in which everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, enabled by massively interconnected networks.

Blogs and self-publishing are the tip of the iceberg, as are the many "how-to" audios and videos appearing on iTunes and YouTube. Look for an explosion of interactive learning content in the coming years. And don’t worry about vetting. If it’s junk, it will be promptly labeled as such.

Hiring organizations must start putting an end to the demand side of "diplomanomics." Of course, you need people with specialized skills. But make sure those skills are augmented with attributes such as self-awareness, an attitude for both learning and contributing, critical analysis and creative problem-solving skills, decision-making ability, whole-brain thinking, etc. Demand candidates who are social knowledge entrepreneurs rather than technicians.

Sponsoring organizations need to stop flooding the market with billions for the "cause du jour." Instead, take the lead in returning to a basic research focus, and direct some of those resources toward understanding the laws governing nature’s functioning, and addressing the root causes of problems in critical areas such as health, energy and the environment. True knowledge integration means looking at the human physiology, society and our planet as complex, interdependent and evolving systems.

By working together, we can help redefine the university as a center for the creation, dissemination and innovative application of knowledge. The university of the not-too-distant-future must refocus its mission toward developing enlightened men and women who are willing and able to take on the exciting challenges coming our way.

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