As some people already know, I have for many years indulged a rather unhealthy interest in higher education. In the last year, this interest has found its way into a number of conversations with people who have made it their business, so to speak, to provide post-graduate educational offerings to working professionals. Their pursuit, I was quick to declare, is something that is desperately needed and long overdue.
In these exchanges, it did not take long for my enthusiasm to head in directions that my colleagues were reluctant to follow. In retrospect, my rationale, and the way I used to communicate it, was a little unorthodox and probably defied easy comprehension. I guess that when dealing with academics I should endeavour to be more direct.
During these encounters, I set out the background to my position by describing the types of projects I typically pursue with customers around the world. In these projects, a variety of derivative technologies are introduced by which organizations plan to advance and share knowledge when designing, building or evolving highly complex engineered systems of various shapes and sizes. My observation has been that the people on these projects are placed under tremendous pressure and that they work exceedingly hard. What is asked of these people is more than can be reasonably expected of anyone and I find myself thinking about how these intense project experiences can be made more beneficial for these people.
I then consider the projects themselves and the organizations sponsoring them. Do they get everything that they could be getting from their substantial investments? Do they get better at this type of innovation project after each successive experience or are similar potholes encountered repeatedly? My answers to these questions align quite neatly with my conclusions with respect to the individuals involved in these projects. We could be doing much better on all fronts.
And this is how I come to the point that there is, from my vantage point, a desperate need for practical educational offerings for working professionals that can be directly and intimately integrated into these types of project environments and experiences. I then build on this position in two ways. One focuses on the people participating in the projects and the other focuses on the sponsoring organizations.
It is one of my contentions that the extra effort being extracted from people in these project environments should really be contributing to their professional identity in a meaningful and portable way. In addition to a paycheque and another notch on the project experience belt, these people should be working towards genuinely recognized academic credentials that can help secure their future by making them more valuable to their organizations and, if necessary, more marketable within their respective industries. On another level, these people deserve a chance to step back from the fray from time to time and to reflect on what they are doing - in effect learning with this being an opportunity uniquely afforded by educational activities.
From the perspective of the sponsoring organization, the integration of practical learning activities into the project fabric can be used to ensure that adequate attention is directed towards reflection and analysis so that each project can learn from its experiences and each subsequent project can learn from its predecessors. If there is a weakness in the ways in which projects are typically progressed it lies in the poor learning processes that are deployed. Under the guise of being focused on dates and deliverables, most projects in fact spin out of control and are usually found peddling madly in all directions.
Believe it or not, I contend that there are lessons that academia can supply to projects in the domain of reflection and analysis and that the integration of formal learning activities into projects is one way to achieve this end. This is not to say that academics can be especially useful in supporting the more operationally focused aspects of projects, where things actually need to happen, but rather to say that the reflection guided by formal research methodologies and learning strategies can provide a useful counter-balance to the grinding pace of action. Just to be clear, few things are more comical than academics mimicking business people and pretending to know something about making things happen. On the contrary, what I am advocating is that academics be engaged precisely because they are academic – focused on the learning processes manifest in research, reflection and communicating what has been found.
It is interesting, in a slightly off-coloured way, that universities seem to be uninterested in genuinely addressing the needs of real working professionals who are typically embroiled in these types of demanding projects. It is more surprising that, in an increasingly competitive educational marketplace, universities do not seem to have found ways to collaborate with organizations more constructively on integrating learning into the context of projects. Doing so, it should be pointed out, would secure funding for these activities as much from operational funds as from the generally constrained human resource development budgets. The most puzzling thing of all about the apparent lack of progress in this area is the fact that such engagement would offer academics opportunities to engage in research activities that offer novel and useful research results, hewn from the coal-face as it were, and that offer opportunities to make a positive difference in the way business is conducted.
As I chronicled last year in a paper called Adventures in Learning: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Professional Education, I have been searching for exactly this type of integrated learning opportunity and I now recognize that I have been doing so not so much for myself as for the many working professionals I know who need, and deserve, this type of opportunity and for the many organizations who would benefit accordingly.