The irony was clear as Clay Shirky, a leading thinker, writer, and professor focusing on the impact of the Internet on society and communication addressed a ballroom full of higher education master planners and strategists at the 49th International SCUP Conference. His point was simple – students are not waiting for planners to shape their future, they are pulling the changes through in higher education themselves, reshaping the infrastructure of colleges and universities as academics slowly form their committees and task forces and study the issues at hand.
Shirky described how his ITP program at NYU had traditionally supplied students with computer labs full of expensive machines located at desktop computer stations to produce their work. But faculty started to notice that students were pushing aside these desktop machines to set up their own laptops and cluster together to get busy collaborating. The labs were artifacts of an older way of working, and students were moving ahead. The administration learned from the students and soon got rid of the machines, realizing that students valued open lab space in their laptop-centric environment than the fixed stations of the past.
Shirky’s broader theme was how the Internet and new technologies continue to rapidly change education, and were going to continue to do so at accelerated speed. And the users are more firmly living in the future than faculty and administrators. Yet his counter-theme was also fascinating – how can organizations best deal with such extensive and potentially disruptive change? We focus on this problem a lot with our clients, working with them to prepare for the future that is already washing over them. What the faculty at ITP have been doing – seeing what the students want and trying to respond – is akin to an approach we call “listening in,” observing what people inside your organizations or customers and partners outside, are “asking for,” the changes they are already putting in place, then trying to move to that future with them.
Shirky’s great insight is about the futility of trying to predict change, to predict where the world is going and the next big thing that will arrive. As he said, “What would you do if you knew?” Shirky made the point that organizations that survive change best are not those that predict it but those that are nimble and flexible enough to adapt to change. This insight about the critical capabilities of organizational adaption strikes me as a strong takeaway from his talk. How many organizations have this capability? And how can we, who work with organizations, help them get there?