The other day I was having a conversation with a colleague about how universities have made drastic changes in how their operational and leadership models in recent years. The change is especially apparent in the Humanities, where scholars are deeply, viscerally offended by the idea of the numbers of “bums in seats” as being an indicator of a faculty’s success.
My friend remarked, “It’s totally a business model!”
I cringed, as I often do, when I hear remarks like that. I’ve worked in post-secondary institutions, with non-profit organizations, with small businesses and entrepreneurs and yes, even with corporations.
I replied, “That’s not a business model. It’s the worst aberration of business. It’s a business model in its most hideous and grotesquely mutated form.”
Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that some businesses exploit their workers, their customers and anyone else they can. There are some businesses who mistreat and abuse their employees. There are some businesses who misreport their numbers and mismanage their money. There’s no denying that.
But not all businesses are that way. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins looks at the qualities that differentiate good businesses from truly great ones. He describes the characteristics of both and then goes on to give examples from industry. It’s a book that many business people know well. While he talks about profit as being one key indicator of success in business, it is not the only key factor. In fact, as the author points out, companies that are driven purely by profit often never make the leap from good to great.
Collins wrote a subsequent work that is less well known, though equally brilliant. Good to Great in the Social Sectors looks at what makes an organization — any organization — great. He shows what he means by focussing on schools, non-profits and other social sector organizations, demonstrating how we can define success in ways that have nothing to do with generating profit. In fact, he says that business can learn a lot from non-profit organizations.
Business isn’t always the great evil that those who work in education and non-profit think it is. The problem is that they see the worst mutations of business practices being employed as leadership models. When that is the case, how could they think anything else?
David Cooperrider, known to many as the “father” of Appreciative Inquiry wrote an article worth reading. “Business as an Agent of World Benefit: Awe is What Moves Us Forward” (It’s available as a free download. It’s 7 pages and it is worth reading.) In it he talks about trends in the business world relating to ethical business, green business and corporate social responsibility, ultimately arguing that business has the potential to unleash wildly creative, progressive, helpful and powerfully transformative change in the world.
I sometimes challenge my academic colleagues to talk to their spouses and friends who work in corporations about concepts like corporate social responsibility, ethics, green business practices and how their corporations are finding ways to give back to the community. It’s surprising how many people in the corporate world volunteer for community events and are committed to practices such as recycling, pursuing innovation and being creative in their work.
Educational administrations seem to be adopting the worst aberrations of business management models, becoming more self-absorbed, more self-serving and less caring, while business itself is evolving past those models and becoming more responsible, more ethical and pursuing excellence and creativity more diligently than some educational institutions.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.