Solution shops in academia

The Innovator's Prescription: a disruptive solution for health care is Clayton M. Christensen's best book yet. With his coauthors, he has taken on the most complex issue I see: the American health care system. Experiencing him apply his model of disruptive innovation to so many different facets of the industry has helped me grasp the profound significance of his insights better than ever. My own management consulting for doctors and hospital administrators two decades ago served up a memory bank of experiences to vividly situate the issues in the book. Of course, while I've been reading it over the past few weeks, I've been pondering how it applies to disrupting higher education. It will take many posts here to explore all the notes I've written to myself. Today, I'll consider the implications of a kind of business model from The Innovator's Prescription: coherent and disjointed solution shops.

A "solution shop" business model develops custom responses to each request. Professionals are customizing solutions to the problems brought to them. There are no standardized, off-the-shelf or template-based procedures to follow. The solutions are labor intensive because they require so much professional involvement to formulate each variation. The solutions require considerable expertise to anticipate consequences, make difficult tradeoffs, consider the big picture and fine tune the solution to the particulars of each unique request.

A coherent solution shop orchestrates numerous professional disciplines into concerted efforts. They arrange effective conferences which incorporate the diverse viewpoints in formulating a diagnosis and solution. They resolve differences by respecting the need for a diversity of contributions to avoid blind spots, mistaken evaluations or short-sighted conclusions. The work is creative and collegial. The result saves money over scattered efforts and produces more efficacious outcomes.

I witnessed this approach when I was a Teaching Assistant (T.A.) in grad school. The faculty I worked for mostly worked with me in developing the courses and weekly classroom experiences. We functioned as sounding boards to each other and valued our different viewpoints. I saw this again when I was teaching college courses and watched other faculty members collaborate on research projects or contribute to temporary task forces.

A disjointed solution shop faces the same professional challenges as a coherent solution shop without success. The conferences regress into committee meetings with politicized struggles to take control, win out over others and take positions at other's expense. The professionals operate in silos that keep each other unaware of collaborative possibilities and benefits of diversity. Commonality is perceived as a threat to one's own prestige, superiority and turf. The solutions formulated are costly, ill-conceived and short sighted.

I've seen far many more examples of disjointed solution shop practices in academia than coherent approaches. I've had glimpses of what goes on involving Provosts, Deans, Faculty Senates, Accreditation Boards, Departmental committees and tenure reviews. Almost every instance fits the pattern of disjointed solution shops. The participants feel like politicians vying for influence rather than professionals valued for expertise. The meetings are dreaded rather than fruitful. The outcomes are disappointing and frustrating.

The predominance of this pattern of disjointed solutions shops keeps the quality of higher education deficient. Because it's not good enough yet, the seller's market, I explored yesterday, defeats any success with price reductions, improved customer service or changes in the business models

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