Clouds: I've looked at life from both sides now...
Is there an academic divide -- a chasm between business and academia? Should there be a divide and, if so, should it be bridged? Cloud, in IT, is a technology that purports to be about bridging the business-IT divide -- it allows evolutionary improvement of IT-based activity, which is a perfect platform for society to advance. Surely there are analogues worth learning from.
My career (if you would dignify anything so utterly unplanned with such a pompous title) has, I suppose, been dominated by the desire to be creative. Today, I might even dare to use the phrase `intellectually creative', but when I was younger I despised the term intellectual as something, which belonged to a pretentious and arrogant part of society that discussed poetry loudly in cafes, where the rest of us were trying to have lunch.
So no one was more surprised then than me that I ended up working mainly in and around universities for 25 years, dipping my toe into the wider world occasionally at regular intervals through projects like CFEngine. In a factual sense I have been what we would call an `academic' -- and it turns out that very few academics are intellectuals, but that's another story. Like the rest of the world, most people are just going through the motions of a day-to-day routine.
Today, a wide part of society believes `academic' is a purely pejorative term, meaning something irrelevant to the `real world'TM, a kind of `emperor's new fool', who sees something illusory or irrelevant. We have largely lost our respect for the institutions of learning in the Western world. Of course, academic means nothing more odious than `belonging to the academy' -- a teacher.
Out of the frying pan
In 2011, I left my position at the university, in Oslo, to work full time at CFEngine, after a moderately successful 25 years first in physics and then in computing.
With willful and even cavalier abandon, I threw away the hard-won and highly coveted title of Professor, and became `CTO' (thus moving from one pompous title to another). My former colleagues still view me with disbelief, perhaps even suspicion or pity - just proving that there is indeed a gulf of understanding between people's motives. But that is not really about academic versus business.
To many outside the university system, Professor just means `boffin' or `lecturer', but to an academic the title of Professor is not something that can be achieved so easily. First, it requires a PhD, then many years of acceptance in publishing original contributions to knowledge through peer reviewed (read: mercilessly critical and insular) journals, and then finally the approval of four internationally reknowned people who already have the title. If this sounds a little corrupt, like the Free Masons or some bizarre cult order, then you would not be entirely wrong, but I can assure you that there was no naked sacrifice or stuffing of my head down a toilet, though the ordeal was certainly humiliating enough.
Why did I leave? The reason was that I lost my faith in the governance of academia, and that I began to feel that the job of Professor was stifling creativity, rather than protecting it. And I was lucky enough to perceive a possible escape route. In particular, what was happening to the funding of research, the cutbacks to and pressures to do more teaching, were turning the business of thinking into the business of thinly-veiled, sponsored plagiarism.
Fewer and fewer academics seemed to want to hear about new ways of thinking -- just take money for toeing the line of the bureaucracy: a triumph of process over thought. PhD students in some countries had become middle-managers for EU-funded science projects -- rigidly bureaucratized production lines for re-hashing old ideas by ordering off-the-shelf papers as if they were ordering out for pizza. Worst of all, academics have come to believe that this is the `new world order', the way it has to be. While they might not like it, they accept it, and have begun to find ways to think only within sanctioned boxes.
Now, people are creative in different ways -- some in the arts, some in the sciences, some in woodwork, and some in gardening. Creativity is about having ideas that are `fresh' in some sense and then doing something with them. It doesn't have to be terribly pretentious -- in fact it is all very pedestrian when it comes down to it. Creativity has value as culture and as a platform for innovation -- but it does need an influx of subversive content -- just as the genetic survival of a lineage needs foreign DNA to adapt. What is so controversial about that?
In search of creativity
A common criticism of universities is that they are irrelevant and elitist. Relevance, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Elitist is not necessarily a bad thing either -- the whole point is to push back the frontiers, after all, so this kind of comment does not say anything very useful or constructive. There is plenty of research to show that it takes up to ten years for a new idea to penetrate the consciousness of a wider audience. Babies need protecting while they mature. They should be allowed to be irrelevant and elitist for that length of time, providing a buffer for the gestation of a new version of `the real world'.
Academia is rarely in the business of answers. Answers are more the domain of business, because answers are mainly about persuasion. The Business of business is to shamelessly convince people to maintain a business-relationship with them. Academia's role is to be subversive, by asking questions, and by picking away at the veneer of certainty that we often pretend exists about old knowledge -- it is in search of some kind of impartial perspective, but let's not go so far as to call it truth (that only exists within the isolated realm of logic). Society needs such islands of calm in which this kind of persuasion-warfare is under some kind of truce. When I travel, for instance, i.e. get away from the office, my brain starts pumping out ideas like never before. Distance from the mundane is good for creativity.
Academics are trained to think more deeply and more carefully about problems, just as athletes are trained to have more stamina in physical activity. PhD's are not written because there are so many frightfully important questions to answer, as much as they are written to help new generations of researchers learn how to formulate good questions.
This is not to imply that academics are super-human. Like athletes, scientist have disappointed us publicly with exhibitions of fraud and bribery, especially where big money is involved. So it is just like the business world actually. The fact that the money came from our taxes shouldn't make much difference. Oh wait -- who was it that bailed out the banks recently?
We are right to be suspicious. But instead of trying to prove accountability, governments should be educating the general public about the value of taking risks -- of a deep education. You either spend a lot of money on control (a certain loss) or you risk losing a little money on a failed investment (a possible win).
Knowledge based society - the Third Wave
There have been times in history when universities were revered, but this is not the case today. Today, the best protectorates of the knowledge-based society seem to be innovating companies, large or small, but mainly smaller -- along with just a few privileged institutions that are exceptionally well funded. The reason is not that companies are necessarily full of superior thinkers, but because their time is wasted far less with bureaucratic overhead and their staff are still valued for their work.
Governments have increasingly found the need to get involved in the activities of universities and regulate them through financial means (even with the help of by-laws in some cases) - embarrassed apparently by the freedoms that have been afforded to thinkers at the tax-payers expense. Ironically, businesses have begun to see the value of creative thinking as a cultural force for good, something that motivates staff to do better work. Many companies offer their staff `time for personal development', up to 20% of time to work on personal projects for the company, and have seen unexpected benefits from this time. What happened in the public sector to frown upon this simple notion? Surely thinking is not a suspicious activity that needs to be carefully approved and regulated.
Today's universities are under pressure to deliver predictable quantities of results, like the factories of the industrial age. However, because knowledge is not easily measured in countable units, universities are strong-armed into producing things that are easy to count: artificial written documentation, and process reports. This is a criminal waste of the resources that are put into universities, simply to fit the book-keeping system. The paradox is that sometimes knowledge requires you to change, delete or even abandon something. How can you count minds-changed? Academics are driven to produce endless copies of so-called `scientific papers', with embarrassingly little value, simply to justify the production goals and the bureaucracy. A triumph of law over substance.
As teaching institutions, universities are amongst the few places where one can justify going beyond mere skill-training (repetitive stress injury), to teach first and foremost the culture of learning.
Recently I read Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book "The Third Wave", which offers a simple explanation for the changes happening in society today. The thinking is rather clear and goes like this: that our economic system has passed through three waves of development. The first wave was agriculture -- essentially a subsistence economy where people are trapped in poverty consuming what they produce. Eventually, innovation leads to a technology for the second wave of industrialism. Here one uses technologies to amplify human effort and generate wealth, but the transformation generally involves humans working like replaceable parts in a massive machine (the factory). Markets are created from surplus production and trade takes off. However, people basically consume what they can get -- and a small number of producers control the market. Much of our society is still geared up to second wave behaviour. The Third Wave is the knowledge economy where there is sufficiently widespread wealth to put consumers in charge. Suddenly there is demand for variety and "one-size-fits-all" (any colour as long as it's black) is no longer good enough.
Whereas the second wave industrialization was concerned with predictable, machine-like, mass production, the third wave, knowledge-based society, is concerned with adaptation, freedom and variety. This is where the West has been heading ever since the second world war. But today, it seems that this push to the third wave is coming from innovative companies, and the institution of universities has fallen behind.
Are universities or governments (ir)relevant?
Have universities fallen behind? Yes, but not only that, but they are actively being held back.
Governments have very certainly fallen behind. Instead of encouraging universities to embrace the changes of the third wave, we see fear of the freedoms that we are moving towards. Government bodies say that universities are being tasked to be more `relevant', but relevance is in the eye of the beholder, and you cannot measure innovation on a 5 year return, when we know that it takes 10 years for ideas to be accepted.
Under the aforementioned pressures to deliver measurable results, universities are still being made to gear up for a second wave production-line methodology for educating the larger numbers of students arriving at their doors, some fifty years behind the curve, grasping on the coat tails of training colleges and trade schools who were designed for that. Our growing lack of respect for knowledge is in stark contrast to the need for it.
To paraphrase Newton: If universities have not seen far it's because giants were standing on our shoulders.
Clouds: Education and Research as a Service?
It is all the rage in IT Management today to speak of the Cloud: infrastructure as a service, or on-line IT resources. "Wha'ever As A Service." Never mind the origins of the term, the basic idea is to productize resources as utilities (a bit like electricity and water, actually more like banking), stripping away the overheads and restrictive controls of management, and replacing it with the relative freedom of a market. In a knowledge based society, knowledge too should be a utility.
For all the hype, the purpose of the IT Cloud is simply to bring business needs and IT resources closer together, in a strategic way. It began with Amazon, who needed this themselves. IT management had become slow and bureaucratic -- stuck in second wave thinking, typified by ITIL and a plethora of project management frameworks and standards. To escape that, more agile approaches were needed, of which configuration tools like my own CFEngine were one enabler.
Cloud technologies are not fully Third Wave, in my view, but they bridge the gap between creativity and productivity by deregulating access to resources -- by making it easier to be creative, not trying to put on the brakes. Cloud allows quantity, by making it easy to create and destroy -- and configuration rigour brings quality to it. It is an evolutionary algorithm for IT governance. This partnership has been business-value inspired, or just value-inspired. The same principle could be applied to education and research.
In Third Wave society, there is naturally a focus on smaller (less uniform) groups with a greater level of social interaction. There is evidence from anthropology that human intelligence emerged from the benefits of social interaction. So once humans are no longer cogs in a machine, communication can play a much larger role once again to bring agility and adaptive behaviour as the competitive advantage. Knowledge, after all, is transmitted by communication. This tasks universities to change the widespread sausage machine approach to education for something more evolutionary that can yield quantity and quality.
Should education be run like a business to bridge the divide?
What politicians have done to align with business is to try to turn universities into businesses. This has just intruded on the culture of learning. Surely, if we make universities more like the Real WorldTM, it would be better for everyone?
But second wave politicians and business leaders believe that there is nothing very hard to think about in the world. Just follow a boilerplate pattern, and what more is there to worry about? It's just a production machine. They think that way because they were trained to think that was in a classic second wave educational programme, designed for the age of industrial manufacturing. Business colleges still mainly teach second wave business models, where thought was commoditized into boiler-plate procedures -- so the value of creative thinking is often not understood. Unfortunately second wave thinkers still control the purse strings in most institutions.
Although I eloped from academia hoping to be free of the shackles of regulation and begging for funding, I am not advocating that business replace colleges and universities for learning. Nor am I suggesting that universities necessarily be run naively as businesses in which `students are the product'. Rather I am suggesting that one should embrace the risk-business in education, and let thinkers emerge again -- a latter day enlightenment.
Governments are willing enough to invest money on international stock exchanges (gambling in the casino of global finance), but they are seldom willing to accept risk when it comes to value creation at universities. What is wrong with this picture?
If this simple economic idea is not clear enough, our economy is certainly doomed. Forcing creative individuals to behave like machines, turning student education into production line economics is not the answer to meeting the challenges of the future. It imprisons universities in the museum of industrial machinery.
Keeping the business-academic divide
Since starting a business my actual role hasn't changed. I still do the same sorts of things. I still see my mission in life to make people think, and I still solve problems and spend a lot of time talking through personal communication issues -- just like in college. I see no great divide between what I do now and then. That is because my company, CFEngine, is more or less a third wave knowledge oriented company, where deep thinking and execution are a part of the day to day.
My strangely military title of CTO is a cultural relic of second wave pride. Since I neither have feathers nor a uniform, I cheerfully tell people that my CTO title does not stand for "Chief Technology Officer", but rather "Clear Thinking Organizer", which is basically my original professorial job description. And it is what the company needs too.
Universities are struggling (ironically) to capture the changes in a knowledge-based society, because they are increasingly under the thumbscrews of political intervention that belongs to second wave industrial thinking. The real division to cross is from second wave to third wave governance.
If there is a divide between business and academia, it is more cultural and ideological than practical. And that is a strength. Multiple perspectives on the world (multiplicity in general) is the very substance of the third wave. Whether these are real or illusory is a matter for philosophy and perspective. The point is that they are valuable. As philosopher Joni Mitchell pointed out: "It's life's illusions I recall..."