Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Disappointing Discusion of Disruption

This post has been corrected. See note at the end.

After watching the video of Walter Isaacson interviewing Drew Faust and Larry Summers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I went to bed grumpy, feeling I had heard it all before. Summers's overall message was that universities need to be bolder and more innovative. Faust was, I thought, more nimble---she had to be because Isaacson gave Summers the first question, and Summers took about 5 minutes to give a set speech, without answering the question. Isaacson conducted a well-mannered dialog, not asking any questions that were too challenging, and the two principals, though they clearly had different roles, treated each other with respect and civility. (Summers was the advocate of change and risk of failure, Faust insistent that changes were actually happening.)

In other words, I thought it was a bore. Until I took a long walk the next morning and replayed it in my head. A few things then began to stand out.

It would be too easy to say of Summers's take on the Lepore-Christensen argument that Summers doesn't think Lepore can do math, so I won't say that. I'll just report what he did say:
… Clay got substantially the better of that dialog. …[T]he evidence is at the edge of overwhelming that that a large part of major change comes from noon-incumbents and comes from not traditional organizations … Jill Lepore didn't really fully recognize in her critique the statistical aspect of social science theories and that to observe that certain companies have continued to remain strong for a long time doesn't really challenge what was the core of the disruption theory.
Well, I actually thought Lepore was challenging the very same case studies that Christensen was using to make his point. Steven Syre in the Boston Globe has what seems to me a curious take on the controversy:
I never thought of Christensen’s ideas as tools to predict the future. I saw them as a framework to make sense of a turbulent present and think about the best way to respond to new competition. If that’s the point — and it should be — his theory performs a useful purpose.
I always thought a theory wasn't really a theory unless it had some predictive power, since you can always fit a curve through any set of points. Geocentrism worked well enough as a theory of the universe until it had to explain things that weren't already known. But I will leave that to the philosophers of science, and of economics.

I should add here that I am grateful to the reader who took seriously my question about whether anyone had challenged Christensen before Lepore did it. (See also my followup post.) This reader directed me to "Ambidexterity as a dynamic capability: Resolving the innovator’s dilemma," by O'Reilly and Tushman (professors at Stanford and Harvard Business Schools, respectively; Research in Organizational Behavior 28 (2008) 185–206). Christensen, they write, "concludes that it is not possible to resolve the 'innovator’s dilemma’ and argues that, confronted with a disruptive change, managers cannot simultaneously explore and exploit." Not true, they argue. Here is their bottom line.
Comparatively, there are more examples of firm failure than long-term success. However, we argue here that under the appropriate conditions organizations may be able to both explore into new spaces as well as exploit their existing capabilities. Although not easily done, we believe that these strategic contradictions can be resolved by senior leaders who design and manage their own processes …. To accomplish this difficult feat is primarily a leadership task rather than one of structure and design. 
My goodness. I wonder if Summers knows about this finding, that good leadership can make a big difference in how an organization adapts to change.

I found the discussion at Aspen of change in higher education unsatisfying. It was driven by Summers's provocative statements, which seemed to put Faust on the defensive, and which Isaacson failed to pursue. At times Summers almost seemed to be reading from the publicity for the Minerva Project, one of the would-be disrupters for which Summers used to chair the Advisory Board:

Summers: I think [the coming disruption] is going to be a crucial issue for higher education as it confronts technology … will the leaders in this 25 years from now be Harvard and Yale or will they be the likes of Coursera and Udacity? I would bet that a large part of it will come from the private sector. … the Forbes 400 sits with $2 trillion that many within it aspire to have the kind  of impact on the world going forward that the Rockefellers and the Carnegies did. [I think Summers here means the for-profit sector, given that Harvard and Yale are, after all, in the private sector.]

MinervaMinerva Project was founded by CEO Ben Nelson in 2011 and received a $25 million seed investment from Benchmark Capital in 2012.

Summers: I hope they will have embraced technology in major ways. 

MinervaSpecial software the startup is developing will be crucial in guiding faculty members as they work with students. “You can assess students not just on subject matter, but on how they are progressing on their skills. And then you can feed that data back to the professor in real time,” says Nelson. He says the system, still under construction, will be able to say, “ ‘Look, Suzy is exceptional at ill-structured data analysis, but she has real problems with complex systems analysis. If you are exploring complex systems, call on Suzy next.’”

Summers: I hope that [universities] will have rededicated themselves to making a difference in the lives of individual students, that in too many universities in too many ways the basic university function of teaching and learning have given way to a focus on extracurricular life, to a focus on things away from their preparation for for the challenges of careers in the 21st century.

Minerva: At the core of Minerva’s educational philosophy is a focus on learning outcomes, based on the latest teaching methodologies.  … The Minerva model is highly interdisciplinary and designed with the student as its focus. And  Minerva will help high-performing students become mature, confident individuals and put them on a path to meaningful careers and fulfilling lives.

Summers: I hope that the next decade will have been a period of more change in higher education …
Minerva: Minerva provides a reinvented university experience …  a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum …

It was a disappointing show all in all, because the hard questions never got asked or answered. Suppose, as Summers said at one point, there will be fewer people doing presentations in the university of the future, because the good ones will have become commodities, and instead there will be more people leading discussions. Will those people be research scholars? Will they have PhDs? Will society put up with their spending part of their time producing knowledge rather than discussing it? Will the nightmare of the philosophers at SJSU being replaced by Michael Sandel's MOOC come to pass? If so, who will be the generators of knowledge  in the future? Who will cure diseases, as Summers elsewhere in this piece says universities should do more of, if the researchers are no longer being supported as teachers? What of subjects without a mass market audience, what will be the funding model for keeping alive those areas of human culture?

I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but it would have been interesting to hear them raised and discussed. Or dismissed as unimportant, which would have been a real contribution to our understanding how the future of the university is viewed by the authorities on the subject.

This post has been substantially rewritten to correct my statement that Summers was still on the Advisory Board at the time of his remarks at Aspen, and inferences I made based on that statement. I based my post on a statement in a Minerva Project web page which turns out to have been out of date and has now been removed from the Minerva site. In fact, Summers stepped down from the Minerva Advisory Board as of December 31, 2013. I regret the error, and am grateful to the several parties who pointed it out.


  1. The great disruptive innovation in higher education has been its extension to women. Harvard had to be dragged into that by its heels, and Larry Summers will go down in history as the last knuckle-dragger.

  2. Here is a BibTeX entry containing multiple lively maxims relating to "disruption" (the book is well-respected in the business world)

    Author = {Robert A. Burgelman and Andrew S. Grove},
    Publisher = {Simon and Schuster},
    Title = {Strategy Is Destiny:
    How Strategy-Making Shapes a Company's Future},
    Year = 2002
    Annote = {
    p.~65 (Andrew S. Grove speaking): ``One of the toughest challenges is to make people see that self-evident truths are no longer true. I recall going to see Gordon [Moore] and asking what a new management would do if we were replaced. The answer was clear: get out of \DRAM [computer memory]. So, I suggested to Gordon that we go out through the revolving door, come back in, and do it ourselves.''

    p. 51: ``Insight 2.1 High-technology startups are often founded as the result of autonomous strategic objectives that emerged within, but were not supported by, established companies.''

    p. 51 `Insight 2.3: The evolutionary path of corporate transformation is seldom clearly envisioned \emph{ex ante}.

    p. 52: ``Intel's transformation illustrates the importance of strategy-making as an \emph{adaptive} organizational capability, that is, a capability that transcends the traditional view of top management as the prime mover of strategy-making.''

    p. 98 They wanted to create an egalitarian meritocracy in which knowledge power was not subjugated by position power. They created a culture of openness that encouraged ferocious intellectual debate and focused on substance rather than style.

    P. 378 ``Exercise two distinctive competencies simultaneously. (1) Exploit opportunities in the core business. (2) Exploit new opportunities outside the core business.''

    p. 379. This chapter offers four strategic imperatives to help top management design the internal ecology of strategy-making: embrace strategy to control destiny, capitalize on strategic dissonance, exercise two strategic disciplines simultaneously, and manage the cycle time of strategic change.''

    p.~31 ``[Intel founders Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove] had a strong appreciation of technical depth and excellence. They insisted on discipline in thinking and action, they insisted on results and output, and they wanted to create an egalitarian meritocracy in which knowledge-power was not subjugated by position-power.''}

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  4. An interesting post.

    Has Larry Summers made any serious effort to assist Harvard fundraising since his departure from its presidency? When he left he said he would continue to be active in fund raising, but I am unaware of any such substantial activity other than some basic counseling of some shocked donors who had agreed to give large amounts at the time of his departure but had not yet done so. His success in those efforts were distinctly mixed (Ellison).

    Jill Lepore is a female Harvard professor of American history, which suggests that she may have a strong relationship with Drew Faust. Clay Christensen has had lots - a book - to say on how Harvard should be reformed and evolved, and a lot of it is quite inconsistent with Faust's expressed thinking and apparent agenda. He is said to have a strong relationship with Larry Summers, and Summers' comments reported here are certainly consistent with those reports. Christensen also has a strong relationship with Jay Light, the former Dean of HBS who was fired by Faust and has low regard for her.

    All of which raises the question of whether the Lepore/Christensen fracas may well be a reflection of some underlying competition between the Summers/Light/Christensen camp and the Faust/Lepore camp over Harvard's future. Did Faust put Lepore up to writing that New Yorker article?

    Why did Lepore not even contact Christensen - even for lunch or a general fact check - before publishing such a heated attack? I'm not suggesting that she run her draft by him in advance, but his response to her attack indicates that at least some of the assertions in her article are questionable and could have easily been checked without sacrificing anything that matters. For example, this post mentions Lepore's incorrect claim that Christensen's theories have not been subject to serious criticism. He would have corrected that if she had asked. She also says in her article that he advised an unsuccessful investment fund based on his theories, but he says although he was approached to do that, HBS wouldn't allow it, so he was uninvolved in choosing the stocks. There are a lot more apparent factual errors in Lepore's piece that could have been corrected in advance by some basic academic consultation with a colleague across the River ... and Lepore must have known such consultation was appropriate. The whole Lepore piece has the trappings of the kind of savage hit job executed with white gloves and complete deniability which many of Faust's former colleagues say she has long practiced.

    Is this any way to run a university in the throes of a major fund drive?