Understanding the academic box

This week I've been making delightful progress on the chapter I'm proposing for a book on PLEs and on a framework for resolving conflicts with collaborative networks. Meanwhile, I've wanted to get back to the exploration I started here on higher ed innovations outside the academic box. First lets better understand how the academic box functions.

The academic box is an incumbent system that has proven to be very resilient and adaptable amidst dramatic upheavals in technologies, societies and governance. Academia is much like the consistent use of horse drawn carts and riders on horseback that endured from antiquity through the 1930's.

Incumbent systems develop sustaining innovations to compete with rivals, maintain their appeal to customers and fit in with contextual changes. Like the introduction of horseshoes, livery stables and burlap bags for horse feed, academia has incorporated many sustaining innovations such as parking garages, televised sporting events, and online course registration.

Incumbent systems are very complex and defiant of simplistic efforts to fix, change or redirect them. They demonstrate staggering amounts of momentum in their persistent direction that outsiders misperceive as "stagnant" or a "lacking responsiveness". The prolonged use of horses included fields of grain, feed and straw storage, shipments to stables, manufacture of bridles and saddles, iron smelting, horseshoe fabrication, manure recycling, enterprises that supplied fresh horses for long-distance travelers, training in horsemanship and much more. A change to lighter-weight fire wagons would not disrupt that very complex system. Likewise the introduction of campus IT departments, email accounts and course websites would not disrupt academia.

Incumbent systems are predicated on self preservation. They serve themselves first rather than serving special cases, needs or constituencies. They cannot embrace changes that weaken their chances of survival or undermine their stability. The system for the perpetual use of horses could not respond to business people who wanted their Pony Express messages delivered as fast as a telegraph signal, military who wanted their battlefield motive power to be as sturdy as a tank or carriage drivers who wanted to neglect managing feed supplies, manure, horseshoes and breeding.

Incumbent systems revolve around a central premise or strategy driver that organizes most activities without getting questioned. members of the system who defy that premise are instinctively shunned and stabbed in the back. They appear dangerous, demonic or traitorous to those devoted to the unquestioned premise. Like the highly suspicious inventors of steam and gasoline powered vehicles in the heyday of horse drawn carriages, anyone assuming academia is antiquated is presumed to have a screw loose by those inside the academic box.

As we'll explore in the next posts, all these dynamics of incumbent systems set-up innovating outside the box superbly.

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