How to craft an oak tree on a wildflower?!


In this month's column by CBS' Senior Management, Jan Molin, Dean of Education, talks about the importance of retaining innovation as a general trait among students and employees at CBS.


Jan Molin

By Jan Molin, Dean of Education, CBS

How to craft an oak tree on a wildflower?!
(Theodore Roszak 1969)

In the sixties’ youth revolt the American social scientist Theodore Roszak wrote a book (“The Making of a Counter Culture” ) in which he described his reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful opposition. Forty-five years down the road it seems fruitful to look back and revisit some of these reflections:

Over the last decade, the implementation of technocratic, political decisions and public focus on ‘contracts and gradings’ throughout the entire education system have produced disturbing and unintended side effects:

Students have adopted an exogenous and dependent mindset making them reactive and slightly submissive They find it complicated to develop their own ‘standards’ – and they fight to comply and align with externalized ambitions of high achievements and good grades.

Those who find it too hard to compete tend to drop out or in many cases seek psychological assistance.

The ambition to comply with so many conflicting goals and interests increases the risk of falling short in their own eyes. They cannot be a full-time student, have a full-time relevant job, have a time consuming sport/hobby, hang out with their friends, relate to their family – all at the same time. It simply doesn’t add up.

But it is not just an individual challenge. At the institutional and national levels this mindset has enormous impact. We have so successfully brought up generations of young people to look for externalized assessment of their contributions that they have become addicted to this kind of authoritative feed-back. Even to an extent that takes away the possibility of looking for competing and/or better goals to pursue.

Whatever ‘revolt’ left in these generations of young students is channeled into complaints about grades, critical evaluations of poor courses etc. etc. The fundamental challenge to university values, structures or demands is absent.  

There is little help to expect from university faculty. The decade’s focus on contracts and performance measurement has generated academic staff highly focused on their own ‘production’ (counted in number of publications and citations in internationally recognized journals). Management has brought it upon themselves and should not be surprised to find it increasingly difficult to persuade faculty members to take the necessary time to indulge in new and unconventional projects and ideas – without assuring that the efforts and time invested by the individual professor is accounted for and remunerated through the norm-system (or in cool cash).

The paradox that is emerging is that university professors have (like the students) adopted the official ideology of systemic measurement to the extent that taking part in innovative processes at the institutional and national levels, is considered to be alien to what a university professor can be expected to spend time on.

What’s measured gets done.

It used to be the consultants’ favorite one-liner, a one-liner that did not capture the stimulating diversity of everyday organizational life. Lately, though, it has become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spearheaded by senior management. Gradually CBS’ management has introduced a variety of institutional standards and key performance indicators (KPIs). No doubt, this process has increased ‘productivity’ in different areas. No doubt, it has been a somewhat successful and consequential change.

It is, though, important to point to some of the unintended side effects:
Staff in general has gradually adopted the underlying pattern of governance behind these devices. The logic of both students and faculty seems to illustrate the lessons learned from studies of organizational culture:

People act in accordance with what they see as being at the center of attention of senior management. Voila, what is measured indicates the attention of management. What is attended to by management is mostly getting done, leaving out of the picture all the interesting stuff that people do or would like to do. In such a governance structure most people feel (students and staff alike) that complying with the performance measures is the ‘total task’ (for which they get paid as staff, or get diplomas as students). If you expect them to involve themselves over and beyond this, they tend to expect ‘compensation’.

The baseline is that the young generations of students and faculty are neither lazy, nor disengaged. They are merely coping with the system, trying to adapt to what is perceived as institutional expectations to their performance.

The institutionalized pressure for conformity

The unintended side effects of public performance management have indeed become an institutional standard. Danish educational institutions comply and it is no surprise to see how they develop isomorphic structures and governance ideals.

Under such conditions we witness a vulnerable university sector, open for political and ideological control. The role in society of the modern university is not part of the public discourse. Instead, what is at the center of the debate is a call for ‘increased production’ and financial control (across the political spectrum of different parties).

To be recognized as a legitimate institution, university management and boards are expected to demonstrate that their institution performs satisfactorily when benchmarked against not only their peer institutions, but more so when compared to private companies.
The impact of institutional pressure in this way have introduced an amazing example of coercive isomorphia (DiMaggio&Powell)

The erosion of a university culture

Recently we have seen a revitalized interest in analyses and understanding of organizational culture. Universities like institutions and corporations in general, may be described as significant sets of values, rituals and assumptions about what is the raison d’être of the organization.

CBS demonstrates a cultural paradox:
The CBS culture of yesterday could be described as egalitarian, easy going, and creative. The basic values have over the last thirty years mostly been of a collective nature, rewarding internal dialogue across disciplines and hierarchical levels. New ideas have been ‘the hero’ more than the individual who brought it forward. The tradition for cross-cutting collaboration has developed an amazing flexibility and curiosity vis-à-vis new projects and opportunities. Generations of students have benefitted from these cultural elements in being socialized to a similar curiosity and drive towards new and surprising combinations of knowledge and experience.

Alongside this, CBS has in recent years developed a strong international position not least measured by the ability to attract and recruit international faculty. Today more than one third of CBS full-time faculty comes from an international background. In most of the recruitments personal relationships with CBS professors play a significant role. But the most powerful argument we hear again and again, is the wish to join CBS because of its culture and values. International colleagues in many cases are fleeing universities or business schools where they are treated as individual units of academic production. They seek the CBS way of being supportive, collaborative, and tolerant.

The paradox is imminent.
The more international faculty CBS employs, the more pressure on the existing cultural values that attracted new faculty members in the first place. Coming from other institutions they bring in the experience and habits from different institutional cultures. At the same time the Danish educational system is transformed in the direction of North American inspired principles of governance. These two ‘drivers’ produce a surprising effect:
International faculty end up disappointed with a CBS that is different to what they had hoped for (and heard about) – but having worked under similar conditions in the institutions they left, they soon comply. This constitutes a double pressure on the ‘what used to be’ values and assumptions about what CBS should be like.  

The loss of distinctiveness

This is by no means saying that the recruitment of international faculty is a cultural problem. This is an attempt to demonstrate how the success with international recruitment coincides with coercive isomorphic changes to fundamental university governance structures and organizational values, also affecting CBS. The unintended side effect being that the distinctiveness of CBS is caught in a catch 22.

CBS will have to comply with the political agenda for legitimate university management – and CBS will have to accommodate to a growing population of staff members gradually complying with values and norms in opposition to the existing culture.

CBS’ distinctiveness lies in its ability to encourage, nurture and develop diversity. This is the competitive edge we have. Institutional pressure for compliance with the standards of generic governance structures and values constitutes a challenge to CBS’ culture. We simply run the risk of trivializing what is a unique value-based business school, to become a mediocre imitation of a North American, middle of the road institution.

The call for innovation

So we are revisiting Roszak and the sixties. Not to go back and repeat. Rather we are (paraphrasing the American neurologist Oliver Sacks) demonstrating that innovation comes out of intelligent reinvention of repetitive patterns of behavior. The knowledge of our history and the analysis of our present context may open for surprising changes to our perception of everyday activities. The power of the relationships we are part of is the platform for desires and attempts to make a change. And let us remind ourselves that “doing something – requires doing something” (to quote Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer). CBS is a wildflower. The challenge is pertinent. How may we make our institution robust without loosing our light-footedness and unorthodox approaches to constraints and opportunities?

So what…….

Every year on September 1st, CBS welcomes its new bachelor students with an event known as ‘Responsibility Day’. This was done for the first time seven years ago, and is now considered a CBS tradition. The event builds on an ambition. From day one in the new bachelor students’ experience with CBS, we want to focus their attention on the call for shared responsibility. We want to highlight the need for investments in social capital – and we want them to see that student life is all about becoming a responsible campus citizen. We need to make new generations of students realize that studying at a university is similar to being a member of society at large. You need to integrate, to form opinions and to take part. Next year’s version of ‘Responsibility Day’ may also invite our new bachelors to discuss what a university should be like. Open a debate that makes them realize that they share the responsibility with faculty and management to further develop and clarify the role of a university in tomorrow’s Danish society.

This of course must also involve faculty, whether they are locally or internationally recruited.

And perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel comes from the amazing fauna of student-driven interest groups and associations at CBS. CBS hosts more than 70 extra-curricular activities in all shapes and sizes. CBS sports, the wine-tasting association, the young consultants’ group, CBS Case Competition, etc.

The entrepreneurial spirit, the energy and the engagement is certainly there. The challenge seems to be to channel a little of this surplus, this unexploited capacity to take part and develop ideas, into a joint effort to develop a better university.

The page was last edited by: Communications // 12/17/2017