There has been a lot of chatter about how universities should operate more like businesses, specifically calling out tenured professors as under worked, self-interested, and unaccountable. The claim is that if universities were run like businesses, market forces and accountability would weed out poor performers. Sadly, there are indeed lazy abusers of the academic freedom tenure provides, just as there are corporations guilty of any number of abuses.
But my experience at top research institutions is that technology professors—of which I am one—are hugely accountable. The accountability, however, is not in the marketplace of dollars and cents, but in the marketplace of ideas, influence, and impact. In my eyes, the business world has a lot to learn from academia and should strive to shift focus away from short-term “bottle rocket” gains and towards creating long-term value that will create even richer rewards for business and our society.
Contrary to popular belief, tech professors are deeply concerned about building and maintaining their reputations as innovators, pioneers and world-shaping futurists who create the foundational breakthroughs that can lead to the next wave of blockbuster companies. As noted in the New York Times, government-sponsored university research has played a major part in the breakthroughs underlying companies like Google, Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, Microsoft and more. In fact, a study of 30 well-known companies like these by the National Research Council found that $500B/year in their revenues were attributable to discoveries from university research.
So how is it that academics are at the same time under worked, self-interested and unaccountable, and yet producing many of the fundamental breakthroughs that lead to world-changing impact?
Having worked as a tenured university professor and a VC-backed startup founder and CEO, I have seen how both roles have much to learn from each other. Business leaders would do well to take a page from the playbook of academics if they want their firms to define the technology landscape for the next decade and beyond. Here is that page:
Focus on generalizable solutions, not point solutions.
Academic research is characterized by tackling open foundational problems whose solutions generalize to many individual circumstances. By contrast, point solutions are narrow results that may solve one particular problem but have no reusability. Although most companies do not engage in generalizable research, every firm can benefit from thinking about solving problems in ways that go beyond point solutions. Toyota’s lean manufacturing approach not only produced better cars, it laid a foundation for producing better cars for decades to come. It was a generalizable solution of the kind for which academics strive.
Continually ask “why?”
Inquiry precedes innovation. Academics are required to ask “why?” of any major phenomena. Business executives and employees alike must be encouraged to question the status quo for the sake of innovation. Startups inherently do this, but large firms must encourage it. Lori Fouché, CEO of Fireman’s Fund, requires herself and her executives to regularly meet with both customers and employees to directly answer their questions.
Make rank secondary to reality.
Academic research teams are usually small and flat, with professors working hand-in-hand with doctoral students and even undergraduates. Rank has no place in such teams. Great ideas can come from anyone, and business cultures that harness this capacity have a major advantage over those where “the boss knows best.” The famous Palo Alto design firm IDEO codifies this in its human-centered team-based design process, with impressive and repeatable results.
Truth is found in simple, elegant solutions.
The principle of Occam’s razor—that when all else is equal, the simplest solution is most likely to be correct—is widely embraced by academics. Simplicity is elegance in nearly every human endeavor, especially technology design. Apple has shown just how much consumers are willing to pay for elegant simplicity. Businesses and the products they make would better serve society if simplicity were always a top-shelf principle.
Make room for creative thinking, even if it leads nowhere.
To outsiders, the academic life can seem slow, but this apparent slowness is not without purpose. Researchers need time to think, and thinking deeply is ruined when haste, stress, and fatigue are overwhelming the mind’s ability to make connections. If business executives want innovations from their employees, they need to give them time to think. Google champions this by giving each of its employees one day per week for their creative pursuits.
The five practices above, ingrained in every academic researcher from their first day as a doctoral student, and enabled by universities, have produced many of the fundamental breakthroughs that we, as a society, enjoy today, despite there being no direct profit motive for students or professors. Running universities like businesses would destroy the delicate ingredients necessary for creating such breakthroughs.
A common stereotype is that professors are ivory-tower types out of touch with reality. But that’s misguided, at least for technology professors. It’s not that they are out of touch with reality, it’s that the reality they are in touch with is five to 25 years out. Wouldn’t every business trying to win the future love to be defining that reality?