Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brighter Tomorrows: The Product Launch

(Continued from Monday's post.)

At the seminar on the relevance of research that I attended last week, Rikke Stampe Skov represented the practitioner's point of view. She is director of sales at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Denmark (but it was made clear that she represented herself, not her company, which is only fair; the academics were not representing the positions of their universities either). And her perspective was openly shaped by her many years of experience in marketing. Like the others, her presentation was on topic and focused and gave us exactly what we needed, namely, her thoughts about what "the relevance of research" means. Given Andrew Van de Ven's suggestion to listen more to the concerns of practitioners, this was an excellent opportunity to "engage".

What struck me about her views was mainly her image of the academic "product". Some might object to applying the language of "product" and "sales" to academic life altogether, but I think it's familiar enough now not to sidetrack the discussion. Most of us talk easily and largely without irony about "the production of knowledge" these days, but I think we do so without reflecting enough on where this "business" model best applies. Stampe Skov was very clear about where she was applying it: she believes that academia should produce ideas and that these ideas should then be sold to people like her, the practitioners.

Now, she clearly didn't mean that there should be a straight economic transaction, nor that she favoured a "transfer" rather than a "co-production" model. She was, in a deeper sense, worried about our brand. She said that we were not "visible" enough in the market. When she needed ideas, she didn't know who at the business school to contact. When we (presumably) came up with a new idea, we didn't do much to let her and her peers know about it. What we needed, she suggested was a "product launch".

But we also needed to rethink our product a bit, she said. Whenever she did stumble on our products, she found them difficult to apply because, as is our wont, we presented them in highly technical forms (like journal articles) and with too much detail. She reminded us that she always needs "80% solutions" and that we seemed to be perfectionists in this regard. She reminded of us what she called "the need for speed".

What struck me was this focus on ideas as our product. (Again, as I'll show in a second, I don't object in principle to the idea that universities make something, i.e., that we have a "product".) After all, Stampe Skov is completely right to suggest that we do a piss poor job of selling our ideas to society; the great majority of our ideas circulate only within the academy and would be of little use to the practical concerns of business. Indeed, our knowledge seems largely "adademic", "theoretical", etc.

But what if knowledge (in the form of ideas) is not really our product? What if observing that ideas only circulate in the university is like wondering why car companies never get their nuts and bolts sold. Or why the machines on the assembly line never get sold or aren't, in any case, familiar to the customer. What if ideas and knowledge are not our product as such, but merely that which goes "into" our product? That which goes into the making of the product.

After all, we do have a highly visible product launch. It's called "graduation". Every year we send a new cohort of graduates into the job market. They are hired (or not) on the basis of their grades and the institutions that granted them their degrees. The quality and distinctness of this product (compare CBS, University of Copenhagen, Harvard Business School, etc.) is not only visible but outright famous. Moreover, practice has become pretty good at getting value for money. There is a good understanding of the reasonable price (starting salary) of the product on launch day.

So long as we have students and so long as our students have a reasonable chance of getting jobs, I don't think we have a sales problem. Universities may, in a sense, produce "knowledge". But this is only a sort of marketing gimmick. Or better: it's just a very general description (and positive spin) on our much more workaday product. It's like an electrical company that sells "brighter tomorrows". We sell bright people to organizations who need such people.

Interestingly, many of them, those who have been getting perfectly good grades throughout their education, are exceptionally good at producing 80% solutions (that's how they graduated on time). Like I said to Rikke at the seminar: "We have your 80% solutions. They're called B students and, frankly, you can have them." Practice might also want our A students, but it will have to pay them more because we have a competing offer. We're going to offer them careers in research where they can cultivate their intellectual interests. We're going to let them pursue 100% (and more!) solutions. Our need for speed is not so great. I think it's a fair arrangement.

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