Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

Universities as a business – but which business

Last week I gave a presentation to new academic staff at CQU, a part of their “induction” process. The presentation was titled Some possible futures of e-learning: Lessons and enablers.

The basic premise was something along the lines

  • Current e-learning practice is far from good.
  • Future e-learning practice will look nothing like it.
  • What are some the contextual factors, the lessons and the enablers that might guide the creation of that future practice?

One of the lessons I proposed was that the idea of the “University as a business” was a bit limited.

University as a business

The literature in and around higher education has, for at least 20 years, included a large percentage of discussion that universities should be run as businesses. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen references that this has been a complain, typically from business and politicians for a lot long than that.

This following quote summarises much of the current rationale behind that idea (Dodd, 2004)

Declining revenues and public support … coupled with increased competition, performance requirements, constituent accountability, globalization and changing political climates. All of this has forced a new reality for higher education … one that requires greater efficiency, effectiveness and business-like processes.

So if we adopt business-like processes then universities will be better value for money and all will be right with the world.

The main problem I have with this is that not all businesses are the same. Which type of business should a university borrow its practices from?

Types of businesses

I don’t believe it is possible to treat all businesses the same. The strategies and tactics required to run IBM are different from those to run a supermarket chain, a local corner store or a professional sports team.

I also don’t believe that each business or organisation is so unique that it needs to be entirely individually catered for. I think/hope that there is a useful middle road. McKelvey & Aldrich (1983) seem to agree, at least the quote in Rich (1992) indicates this

Classifying organizations into types presents an alternative to the idea that organizations are either all alike or are all individually unique.

University as a professional service firm

An ex-Harvard Business School professor, David Maister has made a name through working with professional service firms and is the author of the book Managing the Professional Service Firm. His description, from this book, of the professional service firm has, for me, striking similarities with universities.

Two aspects…create the special management challenges of the professional service firm. First… a high degree of customization in their work … Second, … strong component of face-to-face interaction with the client

Straight after this description comes the quote which strikes at the heart of the current “efficiency” emphasis in university management.

Management principles and approaches from the industrial or mass-consumer sectors, based..on standardization, supervision, and marketing of repetitive tasks..are not only inapplicable…but may be dangerously wrong.

What does that say about the adoption of such practices as quality assurance and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems by universities?

The Oxford Said Business School has an article online about professional service firms.


David Dodd (2004). Decisions, data and the universities as a business. College Planning & Management

B McKelvey and H Aldrich (1983) Populations, natural selection, and applied organizational science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28: 101-128

Philip Rich (1992). “The Organizational Taxonomy: Definition and Design.” The Academy of Management Review 17(4): 758-781

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “Universities as a business – but which business”