Saturday, November 29, 2008

How to Make it Last

I just finished an article Survival Strategies (pdf), which is a theoretical examination of how something--anything--can survive an indefinitely long period. There are some practical bits of wisdom to be gleaned from this for higher education or any business enterprise.

First, longevity requires one to 'be many' or 'be smart.' The former case works well for biological life, which can multiply and fill every evolutionary niche available. The latter is the only strategy open to an individual subject. It has to constantly work to increase its probability chances in two ways.

External threats and opportunities have to be anticipated in order to be successful. This means doing something like science: observation, experimentation, and creation of inductive hypotheses. The more you understand and can predict and control the environment, the better your odds are.

The second way in which an organization needs to improve its odds is internal. There is always some chance of self-destruction. For a college this might mean the decision to close the institution down because of lack of funds. It's hard to imagine an institution doing this except out of necessity, but there are other ways in which it can become self-destructive. As a case in point, this article describes a nearby college that made some bad decisions about who to let manage its endowment.

The point is that in addition to being able to anticipate and take advantage of external conditions, an institution ought to be continually striving to make its decision-making better as well. We see bits and pieces of this with an emphasis on assessment, TQM, and the whole idea of institutional effectiveness. We audit expenses assiduously. Why don't we audit decisions? If there were such a thing as documentation and retrospective analysis of decision-making, it would lead to better decisions down the road (my opinion). It's the difference between being curious and self-reflective and being stubborn and blind to the past. We would probably accept this description for individual humans, but it's not commonly discussed, in my experience, for institutions.

Update: The paper is now on the arXiv science preprint server here.

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