6th July 2012: Australia’s Potential Internet Futures

Strategic foresight practitioner Stephen McGrail and I have a new article out in the Journal of Futures Studies on Australia’s potential internet futures:

 

Australia’s Federal Government announced the National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2009. NBN’s current roll-out is scheduled for completion in 2021, with market forecasts estimating optical fibre overtaking DSL broadband connections in about 2015. This paper provides a timely contribution to more critical and expansive analysis of potential Australian internet futures. First, ‘schools of thought’ and current technological frames (Web 2.0, ‘the cloud’) for the internet and its possible futures are outlined, which provide perspectives on the emergence of the NBN. We then outline five generic images of the future which, as predetermined images, enable quick ‘incasting’ of alternative futures for a technology topic or related object of research: promised future, social/speculative bubble(s), unfolding disruption/chaos, unintended consequences, and co-existence/‘cooption’. High-level application of the ‘schools’ and generic images to the NBN and Australia’s potential internet futures, suggests policymakers and strategists currently consider too few perspectives.

 

The paper also responds to but is different from the Smart Internet 2010 (2005) report I worked on at the former Smart Internet Technology CRC. It took McGrail and I several months to get the paper published so it also has some pre-Facebook IPO comments. It is part of a JFS special issue on Australia’s contributions to the Millennium Project (McGrail has another article in the special issue on Australia’s science foresight and governance). McGrail and I have used our article’s incasting methodology in teaching technology foresight and also as a framework for potential use in investment decisions about exchange-traded funds and sector rotation. I thank Anita Kelleher, Jose Ramos, and JFS editor Tracy for their help in first commissioning and then ‘shepherding’ the article to publication.

28th June 2012: Should You Publish With Your PhD Supervisors?

I recently started working with a copy-editing colleague and a group of Victoria University higher degree students. I also advise business and law academics on their research programs. Both activities provide a reflection cycle on my PhD studies in political science at Monash University (my November 2010 PhD proposal). These experiences highlight some different approaches and research cultures at both universities.

 

Publishing with your PhD supervisor is an opportunity that should be explored carefully. It is the norm in some scientific laboratory work and was also the case in a Cooperative Research Centre team I was on where the professor was the lead author. In that case, the professor had contacts with industry partners and government policymakers; had deep historical knowledge of the academic field; was able to arrange media coverage and a launch; could secure research funding and budgets; and could make judgments about the analytical research product. Some of the more novel, multidisciplinary and risk-seeking ideas were never published or written up formally from presentations. A professor or PhD supervisor who is the lead author will usually call the shots.

 

A good PhD supervisor will help you publish in certain ways. They will provide developmental editing feedback on your draft. They will inform you about the appropriate journals to publish in; the editorial board and peer review standards; specific methods and research design issues; who the international and national experts are; and what current debates you can tap. They can explain obscure but important research administration like Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) forms and Field of Research (FoR) codes. In doing so the PhD supervisor helps to socialise you into a research community and discipline.

 

A PhD supervisor may also be unable to do this for several reasons. You may be one of their first PhD students and they are growing into the PhD supervisor role. They may be unfamiliar with your research questions. They may have been socialised into a different sub-discipline or sub-field. They may have gaps in their publication track record or may have changed topics. They may have signed up too many PhD students for workload points. They may have accepted a range of PhD students who are not in their specific area of research expertise and are spread too thinly. Or, they may not have kept up with these research and scholarly issues, and may be in a mid-career or late-career drift. You will sense this early on in PhD supervision meetings — and in good cases the PhD student provides renewal for the PhD supervisor. In bad cases you might change your PhD supervisor, and your university research office can advise you on how to do this.

 

So, preferably, do your ‘due diligence’ on your PhD supervisors before you begin to discuss publishing with them. Avoid if possible a situation where you do the work and the PhD supervisor insists on first name on the published article in order to ‘game’ the workload points system. Don’t publish in an obscure journal that no-one will read or that has a ‘pay to publish’ fee. Use social media like academic blogs in an appropriate manner to make your research more visible to others (and don’t let this detract from your research writing).

 

My personal preference is to either publish as sole author or in a team where the roles and name order are clearly negotiated upfront. My Monash PhD supervisors’ preference is for me to publish during my PhD and to publish alone in order to build my expertise and reputation in the field. They already have established their reputations and publishing track record, and have made specific contributions that also differ from my PhD research topic. I have already published in A-level journals without a PhD and been internationally cited. To achieve this you need exciting research questions; good research design; and to write to the standards of the ‘target’ journal or conference. Victoria University’s research culture is different and is more weighted toward PhD candidates co-publishing with their PhD supervisors.

 

I hope this advice helps and good luck with your PhD research.

28th June 2012: Deakin’s Lecture Value Migration

The Australian‘s Andrew Trounson reports that Deakin University is replacing lectures with online, open source, ‘cloud’ content:

 

Traditional lectures look set to go by the wayside at Deakin University. As part of a new strategy students will increasingly access online, open source content from around the world, freeing up academics to focus on smaller tutorial groups delivered not just face-to-face but increasingly through social media like Facebook.

 

Deakin’s decision is an ‘early move’ response to MIT and Harvard’s online courses. It fits both Clayton Christensen‘s disruptive innovation thesis (low-cost entrant to a new market) and Adrian Slywotzky‘s value migration thesis (value migrates from the individual lecturer’s intellectual capital to the open source ‘cloud’). [For more details read a draft research monograph and Masters essay I did on Christensen and Slywotzky.]

 

We can make several inferences from Deakin’s decision. GE and private equity-like models are influencing managerial decisions to cut high costs (including possible offshoring). The espoused rationale is to cut content development costs and prioritise customer-facing activities (with an eye to student experience survey results). ‘Lagging’ universities are responding in a game-theoretic way to what ‘leading’ institutions are doing (in what may be a form of Stackelberg competition). These strategies will place Darwinian selection pressures on academic lecturers who will become either ‘world class’ subject matter experts/researchers or content facilitators.

 

Core Economics’ Stephen King has a more optimistic view: “If done properly, the type of inverted classroom approach that Deakin has announced can work well and improve learning outcomes . . . This is a smart, brave move. But make sure, in the short term, that the University invests in the platforms, training and re-engineering that are needed. If it is just a strategy to save money, it will fail.”

27th June 2012: On Academic Freedoms

 

Mary-Helen Ward tweeted this morning about academic redundancies at Australian National University, La Trobe University and the University of Sydney. Ward points out that ‘academic freedom’ is often equated with a ‘job for life’ ethos that other industries do not have. “Redundancies are always about money. Managers have to manage with what they’re given. Where is academic freedom?” she asks, responding to a tweet from Thesis Whisperer, Dr. Inger Mewburn.

 

An older cohort of academics cite academic freedom as an essential part of their university’s social contract. For them, academic freedom is comparable to political ‘freedom of speech’ and to safely critiquing institutional politics and power. Academic tenure — or a ‘job for life’ — has been the institutional mechanism through which academic freedoms are purportedly secured and protected. ANU’s Rohan Pitchford has argued strongly that the University of Sydney’s academic redundancies will undermine institutional tenure and thus academic freedoms. Richard Hil and his complainant interviewees also express this view in the new book Whackademia, as does critical press coverage that focuses on the interaction of Federal Government policies, university senior management, and job markets.

 

I was studying Terra Firma Capital Partners‘ private equity deal for the music label EMI when University of Sydney announced their redundancies. I could see direct parallels between Terra Firma, GE’s ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch, and university management decisions. I had also been through similar experiences in publishing and university research/administration. I then wrote a blog post on what people could do to deal with University of Sydney’s decision rules. In the months that followed, this led to further posts on disruptive innovation in higher education; academic entrepreneurssuperstar economics; mailroom jobs; trading insights; academic skills externalities; and the academic-productivity debate. I sympathise with former mentors like Dr. Geoff Mayer at La Trobe University who are being made redundant. (Mayer’s class on the film noir In A Lonely Place gave me plenty of personal insights after a first relationship break-up: the kind of real-life experience not captured in a promotions committee assessment.)

 

Younger academics and administrators may have a different view on the link between institutional tenure and academic freedoms. Many in this cohort are in casual or administrative roles that do not have the same benefits that full-time academics receive. They have possibly gone through career changes and may not have the same expectation of a ‘job for life’ (or even for the next five years). They have found their freedoms in forums that are outside universities or that are marginalised in academia. They see professors with managerial skills who are promoted into management and other professors who don’t engage with the university community at all. They see Orwellian ‘freedoms’ like the ‘publish or perish’ norm that you assign your intellectual property to a profit-making international publishing conglomerate — or you don’t get promoted. They are in a ‘winner-takes-all’ workplace in which a small group either meet productivity benchmarks in the workload model or ‘game’ the system. And usually the people who benefit from this are the more established academics and elites.

 

This is why mentorship in universities for younger academics is so important. Yet it varies depending on how important it is to the senior academic or professor. The difference between the professoriate and younger academics can be likened to the shift from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution pension plans in superannuation and private wealth management. Making institutional tenure the underpinning of academic freedom means assuming that universities will maintain your academic, high-paying role forever. As Ward points out, that doesn’t happen in other industries (Margin Call anyone?) and certainly not in a time of changes to government funding, sectoral hyper-competition, and economic uncertainty. It also allows some mid-career and senior academics to drift and to ‘game’ the system whilst their younger colleagues face tougher productivity demands.

 

There is plenty to question and debate in the recent redundancy decisions at several universities. The University of Sydney raised issues about decision rules, due process, fairness, transparency, and budget scrutiny. Other questions: What criteria underpinned the financial forecasts? What risk management systems were in place to meet specific financial targets, and why did they fail? Can the financial forecast estimates be revised? Are the performance goals in university strategic plans really feasible or are they just ‘strategy through inflation’? (Richard Rumelt raises this flaw about strategic planning in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy). Will the strategic plans survive their Clausewitzean contact with competitive ‘friction’? (No, Clausewitz argues they never do, no matter how well-meaning the strategic planners are – Henry Mintzberg‘s influential book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning also deals with this.) Is the strategic plan really unique or are our competitors thinking about the same positioning and value creation? Are we making budget and planning decisions that are really due to ‘institutional capture’ or outdated ‘images of the future’? Is senior management just reacting to short-term fluctuations in student numbers that will detrimentally affect our university expertise? What is the appropriate use and also the potential institutional misuse of research bibliometrics? What psychological support and employment outplacement services are being provided to those who accept or are forced to take redundancies? What are the ‘undiscussables’? What are the possible, preferable and potential futures that we are not exploring? (Maree Conway and Rowena Morrow have insights.) What will be the second- and third-order effects of our decisions, and over time? You can probably think of many other angles and questions that could be raised, debated and constructively explored.

 

Maybe there’s a vigorous debate in a professoriate forum that I’m not privy to. But I don’t see it in the public forums I have attended.

 

For a contrast to universities consider money manager Ray Dalio. He runs Bridgewater Associates which is the world’s biggest hedge fund (as defined by assets under management). Dalio is famous for his Principles (PDF) which outlines his personal management and investment philosophy. Dalio has given recent interviews to The Economist and Barron’s. He has given in-depth interviews in recent books by Maneet Ahuja (The Alpha Masters) and Jack D. Schwager (Hedge Fund Market Wizards) about Bridewater’s work culture. In Bridgewater, every management meeting is taped and made available to employees, who are incentivised to provide critical performance feedback to managers and directly, face-to-face to each-other. This is designed to thwart cognitive biases and decision heuristics that are critical to investment decision-making — I recommend Daniel Kahneman‘s book Thinking, Fast and Slow as a good primer. The debate is often around the computerised decision rules and mental models that Bridgewater uses to make over 100 investments in 15 uncorrelated revenue streams. Dalio’s employees don’t necessarily have the freedom to publicly debate Bridgewater’s investment decisions — but they appear to have more freedom within the organisation to help shape daily decision-making and culture.

 

Universities — senior management, professioriate, and younger academics — all clearly have a lot of catching up to do.

 

(Just look at how Google adapted Stanford’s academic workload model to its ’80/20′ time for innovation projects.)

26th June 2012: How and When To Blog For Academics

Monash colleague and fellow PhD student Andrew Zammit tweeted me about this Felix Salmon piece on Jonah Lehrer, blogging, and self-plagiarism:

 

Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.

Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.

Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.

Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.

 

I’ve previously argued that today’s academics should blog. My reasons why mirror Salmon’s observations:

 

1. Blog to capture initial ‘seed’ ideas. Some academics struggle to get ideas for journal articles. They may follow the route of turning old conference papers into articles or relying on old data-sets. In contrast, I have enough article ideas for the next five years. I looked over unreleased material from the past 10 years and found possible ideas for 80-100 potential articles in various fields: media, foresight, counterterrorism, and technology. In some cases, I have fragments and outlines of these potential articles. In other cases, my online work dwarfs the number of published articles I have. Blogging regularly provides a way to capture these initial ‘seed’ ideas and to see over time whether or not they are worthy enough to become articles or if they just remain fragments. It provides a way to test and play with ideas that can be discarded quickly. Try and ‘fail fast’. It allows further thought than the 140 characters of a Twitter tweet. I sometimes have to remind people that Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the World Wide Web as a communications medium for researchers to share information and not just to share Facebook posts.

 

Some academics have two counter-arguments that are relevant. First, blogging wastes valuable writing time and has little impact. Second, blogging usually involves half-formed or fragmentary ideas. I argue below that blogging helps academics to write more and can have specific impacts that are not yet measured by promotions committees but that are very real and observable. As a developmental editor the problem I encounter with academics is not the workloads model but rather their lack of a regular writing regimen, time management, and project management skills. I know this is the case because academics with these skills can still work within the constraints of the workloads model to achieve the outputs required by their Minimum Standards of Academic Levels criteria in their job contracts. I suggest that blogs are treated as part of the ideation process — and that the drafting and re-editing of doctoral dissertations and journal articles is treated as a separate, parallel process.

 

Some academics still don’t take this view seriously. Their focus is on A* and A level journals and perhaps major book publishers. I respect that view and I know how much hard work goes into that material, and the high standards of research design that are required. Unfortunately, some university administrators use this focus as a performance goal without understanding the time and effort involved. I see a big gap between the rhetoric and the academics who can actually achieve these goals. For example, I have seen CVs with many publications that, on closer examination, turn out to be vanity book publishers and questionable international journals: a sucker’s game. I also disagree with the ‘scarcity’ view that underpins some academic publishing. I’m comfortable with showing the ‘messiness’ of research as it unfolds. Academics can still have a minimalist blog or social media presence to alert other researchers and the general public to their work. Many people do not have access to institutional journal subscriptions but might read and value an article version that is deposited in a university repository.

 

2. Blog to monitor a discipline or epistemic community. Tufts University political scientist Dan Drezner recently joked that political scientists were now more ‘relevant’ because they blogged. Zammit’s own site has an extensive blogroll and interesting articles such as one on jihadism datasets that I wouldn’t probably have known about had he not taken the time to write about them. I now scan Tadas Viskanta’s blog Abnormal Returns on a daily basis when assessing market conditions for my portfolio. I have learned from the Research Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer blogs. I have dialogued with friend and colleague Roy Christopher on writing, rewriting, and how academia can kill writing: an important discussion for professional self development. Spending an hour a week means that I’m across what these experts and communities are up to. Their blogs also capture different kinds of information than the searches I do on the Scopus and Web of Science databases, and in the relevant academic journals in my fields of research.

 

3. Blog to control your public expertise and also to raise the visibility of published articles. I’m a research administrator so my employer university hasn’t given me a public webpage on their site. Instead, I’ve cobbled together a web presence through this personal site; profiles on Twitter, Academia.edu, Google Scholar; and sites like The Conversation. I comment about research in-progress and post relevant news items. I try to turn each article’s publication into a personal ‘release’ event similar to music and film. Blogging has led to several productive collaborations, to higher article citations by international research teams, and to the opportunity to do blind peer review for several international journals. It enables me to comment on new developments not covered in an article. This is a ‘work around’ for the significant delays in journal publishing and also maintains the ‘currency’ of individual articles.

 

4. Keep your major projects separate. I try and blog several times a week or spend 10-15 minutes compiling a daily links list. (I did that for eight years at Disinformation — see the 1998-2003 site archives — so I can do so very quickly.) I also have several articles and a PhD draft that are in-progress. For me, the blog serves as a daily exercise to get writing and to capture relevant information that won’t necessarily be included in the articles or PhD. I found that drafting, re-drafting and understanding quality scholarship in a field is pivotal to the PhD, whilst understanding current debates and editorial formats is crucial to journal publishing. It’s OK to keep your major projects separate or ’embargoed’ if it helps you to complete this research. Just use blogging and social media as a tool to develop your writing prowess and to self-promote your expertise and research outputs.

22nd June 2012: Whackademia

Whackademia

Administrators have very little regard for academics. I’d say that 90 per cent of them can’t stand academics. They think we have it easy, going off to conferences and the like. They think that all we do is teach. They don’t understand the rest of the things we do like research and writing.

“Peter” in Richard Hil’s Wackademia: An Insider’s Account of The Troubled University (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2012), pp. 190-191.

 

Australia’s universities are in a financial crisis. Federal and State government funding has been cut. International student numbers have fallen. Staff surveys are in flux. The University of Sydney, Australian National University, University of Tasmania, and La Trobe University have all announced cuts to academic staff and the closure of academic programs. Other higher education institutions are considering similar options. Into this fray comes Whackademia a polemical “insider expose” written by Richard Hil, a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University and a visiting scholar in peace studies at University of Sydney.

 

Hil’s target is Whackademia: “the repressive and constricting work culture currently operating in our universities” (p. 22) which Hil believes has corrupted academic scholarship and led to the rise of manager-administrator control. Academics must now contend with “‘massification'” and “student-shoppers” which includes “full-fee-paying overseas students” (p. 18). Hil traces Whackademia’s birth and growth to the decision of Australian Federal Education Minister John Dawkins in the 1980s to change Australia’s higher education landscape and to charge student fees (p. 73). This “imposition of free-market ideology” (p. 55) has transformed education into a highly marketed commodity in which institutions rely on an army of casual academics who teach courses (p. 39). In particular, Hil criticises “a new generation of demand-led courses” that offer pseudo-knowledge to fee-paying students (p. 188).

 

Hil shares his student experiences in the 1970s at the University of Essex and Bristol University. He then taught at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland University of Technology, and Southern Cross University. I had very different experiences and I wonder if there are some memory recall factors that may have influenced his self-narrative. I was an undergraduate student in cinema studies and politics at La Trobe University in the early-mid 1990s including a 1994 stint as a student journalist on the now-notorious Rabelais newspaper. I left my degree to pursue a freelance career in publishing before completing my degree in 2001. I pursued a Masters at Swinburne (in strategic foresight); interned in a research institute and saw it axed; worked for a Cooperative Research Centre and on a successful rebid; and did a second Masters (in counterterrorism). I have higher education student debt (and got my latest tax notice today). I worked on Swinburne’s 2008 audit by the former Australian Universities Quality Agency, and for the past three years as a research facilitator in Victoria University’s Faculty of Business and Law. I currently work on research programs, competitive grants, and commercial research contracts (pp. 145, 180), and worked previously for 18 months in quality assurance (p. 96). I am also a PhD candidate in Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry. My career path has been like Billy Beane in the book and film Moneyball, or like the ‘fixer’ in Michael Clayton. This background and experiences informed how I interpreted Whackademia.

 

For Whackademia, Hil interviewed 60 academics from Australian universities (p. 24). In contrast to investigative journalists like Lawrence Wright, Steve Coll and William D. Cohan, none of Hil’s interviewees are named ‘on the record’, because Hil believes the outspoken academics would be targeted by managers if they did so (p. 69). Hil wrote a column for several media publications also under the pseudonym ‘Joseph Gora’ (p. 23). (In contrast, I have an on-going public blog thread on academia.) Hil is thus not as thorough in his interviewees and research as Cohan and Wright are, nor as fair-minded as Coll can be. Instead, Hil believes that “the importance of their observations cannot be overstated” (p. 21) and that “complaint is rife throughout Wackademia” (p. 194). For instance, Hil notes the existence of “ghost work” (p. 167) that university workload models do not cover. Whackademia raises important issues that academics, managers, and administrators have discussed, and which the public should know about. Yet it does so primarily at the superficial level of complaints rather than in a sophisticated, multi-stakeholder approach to why these problems exist, and how they might be solved. Having managed a university complaints process I know that complaints can be significant or they can be noise due to personal factors. For every genuine complaint Hil raises I can provide either a similar and supportive anecdote or a counter-complaint about how administrators have to put up with academics. This is why Whackademia is best read as polemic or a collection of ‘water cooler’ anecdotes rather than as rigorous research: an observation that Hil’s school head pointed out to him during Whackademia‘s drafting process (p. 175).

 

Perhaps the problem is that I am part of the group that Hil criticises: ‘para-academic’ administrators (p. 73) who are “obsequious devotees of micro-management” (p. 88) and who “do little or no research, and devote themselves with feverish intensity to form-filling, co-ordination duties and committee attendance” (p. 183). “Para-academics love this sense of impending doom”, Hil explains about the discussion of university budget processes, “it’s why they get up in the morning” (p. 184). This is pure mind-reading: Hil didn’t ask his ‘para-academics’ what they really felt or do an ethnographic study. Are there ‘para-researchers’ as well? Administrators are described in negative stereotypes including being “performance-obsessed” (p. 132), as “university mandarins” (p. 16), as a “new organisational supremo” (pp. 171-172) and as an “administrative supremo” (pp. 181, 189). This is scapegoating and demonising a social group on the basis of their university HR contract status. Another problem is the proliferation of forms and “deadlines that suit administrators rather than academics” (pp. 93, 172). The worst administrators are those who calculate the workload model (p. 169). As a peace studies scholar Hil understands the power of language, framing, and ‘othering’. Why then does he ‘other’ administrators and ‘para-academics’, none of whom are interviewed or who have an opportunity to respond to the many academic complaints?

 

In fact, university enterprise bargaining agreements (EBA) differentiate between management and academics on the one hand, and administrators on the other. The EBA defines different incentive structures that also shape cultural perceptions between each group. Management and academics are paid by an academic salary scale. They receive performance-based incentives such as conference travel and institutional research funding. Administrators do not receive these privileges — even if they produce research or advise on the relevant policies — and their HEW salary scale is lower. They are often employed on short-term rather than continuing contracts. Hil omits several important things about administrators and ‘para-academics’. They may also be degree-qualified. They may see hundreds of academic CVs and competitive grants, so they can see patterns of success and failure. They can counsel academics not to make career-limiting decisions — which they may in fact have done. Hil raises a number of issues that are important to administrators: perceptions of academic flexible time (p. 14); full-time staff benefits compared with casuals (p. 20); and the potential misuse of leave applications (p. 187). But he then immediately dismisses these concerns as irrelevant rather than signals of status envy. The psychological gambit Hil uses throughout Whackademia is called ‘shifting the blame’ and it weakens the book’s critique.

 

At the root of administrator and ‘para-academic’ concerns is a sense that academics get a preferential set of career, financial and research opportunities that administrators (and casuals) do not. Academics can then have entitlement about these opportunities: they are superior or more gifted than the people around them. Compounding this, some academics do not live up to their role expectations and scholarship, and may attempt to ‘game’ the system. Administrators can tell this from institutional research data. Why should this behaviour be accepted and tolerated amongst scholars and professionals?  Ted Gurr’s relative deprivation thesis; Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance; Barry Oshry’s organisational analysis; Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s biases and framing; and many others have explained why these dynamics exist, and why institutions and managers are very unlikely to change them anytime soon. The deeper dynamic that remains unexplored is the circulation of elites and meritocratic access to it in universities.

 

Hil’s attack on administrators and ‘para-academics’ totally misses this debate and instead potentially contributes to the marginalisation of these valuable university staff. Many administrators don’t produce research because their universities don’t value and incentivise them as researchers in the same way as academics. Senior managers and the professoriate rarely act when this status difference is raised: status protection. I understand how to write and research: I have had many dialogues with university managers and academics on this, including how to interpret and use ERA journal rankings to develop a research program. They are a start to a much deeper conversation that is closer to what Hil wants to occur  (p. 215). The other administrators I know often have deep institutional capital. Some academics ignore this and mistreat administrators and ignore this expertise. Where Hil ‘essentialises’ identity I see a distinction that can be traced to the EBA, to HR contracts, and ultimately to past decisions by university management when they scope and create the administrator roles. It’s a (university HR contract) decision that administrators have to live with but it doesn’t define them as people.

 

The problems that Hil and his interviewees highlight exist for important reasons – not explained in Whackademia. Universities are what Canadian management scholar Henry Mintzberg describes as machine bureaucracies (and sometimes professional bureaucracies) that rely on workload models, and policies and procedures to manage staff. This form leads inevitably to elites, power struggles, patronage networks, information asymmetries, and career ambition. Hil presents a romanticised image of overworked academics, and their Golden Age past, but I have seen and been caught in Machiavellian power struggles that felt like a Game of Thrones episode. I find lessons (not necessarily endorsed) in Henry Kissinger’s Harvard International Seminar and also in the troubled track record of defence intellectual who sought to speak truth to power. Administrators do not blindly collaborate with managers and school heads as Hil suggests, or acquiesce to their whims. Instead, administrators are often negotiators in a multi-stakeholder network of different and competing interests. They can see the unintended consequences of change initiatives and often make process redesign requests that many academics are unaware of. They also often take the academic’s side on research issues.

 

Hil’s advice on career and research management is also problematic. Research administrators give “minimal attention” to “the intellectual content or social purpose of the research” (p. 133) but this is false: competitive grants do not succeed without a compelling, well-formed research program or project proposal. How can Hil know this unless he has attended the grant and project development meetings of many research teams? (I have.) The Australian Research Council (ARC) team that designed the Excellence for Research in Australia exercise had a bibliometrics background and benchmarked similar exercises in the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. The team were shocked at how managers used the ERA journal rankings – but this happens with any ranking system. The promotions criteria that Hil ascribes to ERA in fact existed prior to it: Associate Professor and Professor level academics are often promoted on the basis of their competitive grant and publications track record (p. 156). ARC grants are not a lottery: Hil might have talked with the ARC, ARC assessors or successful teams, or looked at the ARC’s funding guidance to applicants. Academics who follow Hil’s advice will damage the probability of ARC grant success and possibly their research careers. A quality assurance team would log Hil’s process for “on-line marking” and forms as  candidates for a Lean Kaizen exercise of process redesign and improvement to remove ‘muda’ or waste (pp. 178-179). I am on two academic research committees and we do not run our meetings like Hil describes (pp. 184-187) and nor would a commercial environment. I do not respect academics who attend meetings and who don’t contribute on discussion items where they have expertise or roles, or who just attend to get workload points. These academics waste mine and others’ attention and time.

 

I find that in contrast to Hil many academics lack basic time and project management skills, and would benefit from a methodology like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the Pomodoro Technique, Personal Kanban, Lean Startup or Scrum (p. 141). These techniques resolve the ‘busyness’ dilemma that Hil and many of his interviewees raise, as do practices in agile project management and software development. In some cases these problems exist because of failures in strategic investment and infrastructure, and the continued existence of manual work processes when more humane alternatives are available. School heads make private judgments about resource allocation not on the basis of a “differential exercise of power”, “favor” or “today’s regulatory rationalities” (p. 91) but rather a sense of how the academic has performed against the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALs) that the EBA defines for each academic level. My experience in talking with school heads is that the “more seasoned academics who are perhaps most resistant to the new order” (p. 91) get the most attention rather than the academics who actually perform well at their MSALs. In such cases, the problem isn’t school heads or administrators: it’s potentially the academic’s failure to uphold the professional standards of their discipline or the long-term effects of institutionalisation. There may also be personal mitigative factors that have to be handled fairly and sensitively. But I also know many hard-working and research-productive casuals who deserve full-time status.

 

Consequently, Hil’s tactics (pp. 203-205) of “resistance . . . dissidence and subversion” (p. 202) will mostly fail, backfire, and continue to ‘other’ the administrators and ‘para-academics’ who must deal with the consequences. Hil mistakenly assumes that administrators do not support socially progressive projects and research proposals. He does not articulate a theoretical framework that is aware of how organisations respond to, choreograph and build in the scope for such activities as part of their ideological landscapes. Academics who want to adopt Hil’s progressive ideals (pp. 217-220) might gain further insights through direct engagement with the peace studies and nonviolence work of Johan Galtung (Searching For Peace: The Road To Transcend), Mark Juergensmeyer’s interpretation of Satyagrahan ethics in conflict resolution (Gandhi’s Way), Jonathan Schell (The Unconquerable World), Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall (A Force More Powerful), Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade), Sohail Inayatullah (Understanding Sarkar), and the arch-strategist Gene Sharp. Throw in Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen’s study The Evolution of International Security Studies for their discussion of the inter-paradigmatic debates between international security and peace studies scholars that echoes the academic-‘para-academic’ distinction that Hil makes.

 

Alternatively, academics might work for a “paradigm-buster” (pp 208-215) like the Oases Graduate School in Hawthorn, Victoria; Newcastle’s annual This Is Not Art festival; the think tank Centre for Policy Development; or the media outlet New Matilda. Several of these were founded by Generation X university graduates. How does Hil know that today’s graduates do not have the civic awareness he values? Who did he interview? What student experience surveys did he look at? We don’t know how Hil arrived at his opinion and what evidence he considered.

 

“There remains a widespread belief that academics have it good when compared to workers elsewhere,” Hil notes (p. 13). “In some cases this is probably true.” It’s an initial observation that could have been explored further or that could be the basis for a very interesting comparative research project. Hil doesn’t explore it further nor does he examine the varied causes of the problems and complaints that he documents. He appears to take many of his interviewees at face value: we don’t know if there was selection bias in his interview sample, what the inclusion criteria were, who was intervieweed and not included, and who was nominated but not interviewed. There could be confirmation bias and possible sampling effects from specific academic disciplines, sub-disciplines (Hil interviews several peace studies colleagues), NTEU union members, and universities. The media outlets that Hil samples have each crafted their own crisis narratives about universities, and so their reportage can have subtle information biases. This is why I find Cohan, Coll and Wright’s investigative journalism as a more viable model: they interview many people and show several sides to a situation and organisation.

 

Regrettably, Whackademia contributes to the very “negative public mythology” (p. 13) about universities and academics that Hil diagnoses and seeks to counter. In part the problem is when a term like ‘audit culture’ or ‘free-market ideology’ becomes the accepted frame and can thus be a barrier to further differential diagnosis and emergent, reflective insights. If Hil considers writing a follow-up book then he might look to the scholar Rakesh Khurana (From Higher Aims To Hired Hands) as one possible critical model to use.

22nd June 2012: Dr. Geoff Mayer

La Trobe University is cutting 45 academics from its arts and humanities programs.

 

I was sorry to read that Dr. Geoff Mayer will be one of them. I took several of Mayer’s classes as a cinema studies undergraduate, notably in Pre-Code cinema, film noir and western genre films. These classes taught me how film form and genre conventions can change over time and how this may reflect changes in social values. Mayer’s classes informed a 1998 proposal on Spiral Dynamics and cinema studies (PDF), a 2002 presentation on Integral theory and film (PDF), a 2003 essay on film and epistemic frameworks in futures studies (PDF), and a 2003 seminar on Spiral Dynamics that used DVD film clips (PDF). Mayer brought senior leadership and research insights to La Trobe’s cinema studies program for over a decade, and his mentoring, warmth and humour will be missed.

19th June 2012: “How Do You Have So Much Time To Blog?”

Investment broker Joshua Brown on why he blogs:

 

Reading is only part of the equation, though.  It is in the writing that I discover what I actually think.  It is in the writing and the communicating of ideas and concepts that they truly become mine.  This is a cognitive learning thing that is very widely understood in the education world.  When I’m blogging there are two things that are happening – you, the reader, are being exposed to something I think might be important and I, the writer, am crystallizing my own beliefs and understanding of the topic at hand.

 

Brown’s insight applies to academic blogging: it’s the cognitive training that matters rather than if the work is read by others. “Blogging is not a side gig, it is the method by which I’m becoming what I want to become for myself and for those I’m responsible to,” Brown notes.  Blogging forces Brown to be across daily events, global macro moves, and to understand different asset classes. It focuses his investment advice to clients and idea generation process. Importantly, blogging has enabled Brown to stop doing many activities. Follow Brown on Twitter and read about his social media use.

 

In contrast to Brown, I know academics who can go months without writing a journal article or doing research. They might be more productive if they embraced Brown’s blogging approach and his daily writing regimen.

23rd April 2012: The TED Effect

TED (2008)

 

I first encountered the TED Effect whilst on a university research team in 2004-05. A research consortium had tasked the team to consider what the internet of 2010 might resemble. We struggled to develop a methodological framework. The team eventually settled on covering trends that could already be read in Businessweek, Fast Company or The Economist. Interviewees were often taken at face value rather than probed or contrasted with contestable viewpoints. Presentation sound-bites replaced theoretical frameworks. The team’s rising academic star subsequently left to pursue a more lucrative career as a Web 2.0 consultant.

 

Richard Saul Wurman‘s Technology, Entertainment, Design conference is now the benchmark for academic presentations. TED has turned academic researchers and public intellectuals into internet superstars and social media phenomenons. It rivals Austin’s SXSW conference and John Brockman’s Edge salon in promoting the Faustian creative dynamism of culture, science, and technology. Ridley Scott tapped TED 2023 to promote his science fiction film Prometheus. Yet the influential conference also has critics. Hip-hop and cultural media theorist Roy Christopher observed, “A once visionary site of Big-Idea exchange has become the Starbucksification of public intellectualism.”

 

TED originally aimed to strengthen viewers’ “understanding of the world” beyond their personal experiences. It echoed the utopian CNN effect which media theorists postulated after the 1990-91 Gulf War: Ted Turner’s television network could positively influence political decision-makers about international humanitarian events. A decade later University of Manchester’s Piers Robinson carefully evaluated the CNN effect’s record during humanitarian crises in Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Robinson’s book The CNN Effect (London: Routledge, 2002) concluded that, “the media coverage manufactured consent for official policy” (p. 121). The original media theory sound-bite hid a darker institutional truth.

 

Christopher suggests that TED now suffers from a “gate-keeping function” failure and an obsession with “Big Names”. “One person spends years developing idea X and then one of The Chosen mentions X in a TED Talk™, and then it’s their idea. That is a problem,” he writes. This was in part one of the problems that the research team I was on failed to confront in 2004-05. ‘Hot topics’ and ‘hype cycle’ events were an easier sell during TED-style public talks than rigorous research designs. The debate made for lively internal meetings. Christopher points to the reality that the ‘winner-takes-all’ pressure for aspiring, emerging academics to become a Big Name can create its own perverse incentives and moral hazards.

 

There’s a place for cross-pollinators and boundary-spanners in academia. The Conversation blog now fills the gap for Australian academics who want to promote their expertise in the research sector. Many more people will learn about 10,000 hours in Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers (New York: Penguin, 2008) than who will read K. Anders Ericsson‘s original research on expertise and deliberative practice. Popularisers like James Gleick, Steven Johnson, Kevin Kelly and Douglas Rushkoff can bring engagement, fresh insight, and a narrative arc to academic research that is dry and boring in its original form. But many like Seth Godin or Timothy Ferriss are also closer to effective self-marketers than academic researchers.

 

TED’s success blurs this distinction between effective self-marketers and academic researchers. This is the TED Effect in a more negative form. Academics now need to treat each published journal article as a major release event like a film or a music album. They need to create buzz around their research to attract external competitive grants and partner organisations. They should have a social media presence – at least on Academia.edu and Google Scholar. But this doesn’t replace the craft and journeyman facets of academic research. Citation, communities of practice, constructive yet critical peer review, and other scholarly practices remain important.

 

Christopher cites Alex Reid and Ian Bogost that many academics write in order to get tenure and to satisfy promotions committees. Perhaps these academics now write to get on the TED talks circuit. I have pointed out elsewhere that this establishes the wrong institutional conditions to become a self-motivated, productive, intrinsic writer. Over time this subtly destroys ‘the edge’ that an academic may have cultivated and impacts negatively on their original, authorial voice.

 

Universities provide selection pressures which provide varied solutions to different academics who don’t get to give profile-raising TED talks. Some have a productive period during and initially after their PhD and then settle into a mid-career plateau of administrative and overseas teaching work. Some discover the pedagogical joy of teaching-based research. A small core gain institutional incentives and resources to get promoted to Associate Professor or Professor. They may then get promoted into university senior management. However, this also means that Christopher’s problems about academic publishing are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, in the absence of a coordinated institutional response. The conservativeness of promotions and tenure committees will likely trump individual boycotts of academic journal publishers.

 

I reached a similar conclusion to Christopher about post-TED academic life which we jointly discussed during lunch a month ago at SXSW. It involves a self-funded research program, conference travel and resources modelled on self-managed artists. I have the freedom to choose who to collaborate with; what institution to publish with; and where to publicly archive research outputs. Although there are financial limitations it also means I can side-step the institutional mechanisms that take up a lot of potential research time for others. Robert Fripp‘s experience with Discipline Global Mobile was one important influence on my decisions. Trent Reznor‘s experience with The Null Corporation was another.

 

I don’t expect to hear from TED anytime soon: I’m not a Big Name yet.

19th April 2012: Lies of the Academic World/Myths of the Real Degree

fire

 

I recently re-read Don Webb’s essay ‘Lies of the World/Myths of the Real’ on the criterion for initiatory systems and schools. Webb identified six important aspects of initiatory systems from his study of the anthropological literature.

 

Below are some initial comments in the context of a PhD program:

 

1. Process. Each field or discipline has its unique PhD process. It can range from creative work and historical archives to scientific laboratory research. The PhD is also an unfolding process: research classes; identifying initial research questions that identify a knowledge gap; writing literature reviews; doing interviews and field studies; write-up and editing; and oral defence. The goal is to make an original scholarly contribution to a field of knowledge.

 

2. Exchange. This can occur in several contexts. The PhD committee can act as a mentor-mentee exchange in which the PhD candidate is socialised into the norms and practices of particular disciplines. Many programs now encourage cohort-based peer learning. Conferences and symposia may create the suitable conditions for Exchange to occur.

 

3. Real-world testable. Universities and other employers have different expectations of the PhD graduate. For instance, out-of-work physicists ended up on Wall Street in the 1980s as quants and financial engineers. Knowledge transfer across different domains and contexts — such as from universities to policy work, or into business consulting — can provide unexpected medial and daemonic outcomes of PhD research. This is also the domain of research management and collaborative research consortia. Knowledge use has unexpected generative, real-world and self-transformative consequences — why it is useful to read the intellectual histories of a discipline or the anthropology and sociology of its knowledge.

 

4. Transmission. The PhD committee acts as a locus for initiatory Transmission between academics and the PhD candidate. The quality and specifics of this Transmission depends on the initiatory depth of the committee and how they approach their tasks. One secret of PhD work is to give oneself the self-permission to engage with the best quality academic research that you can find, irrespective of your current life circumstances, or the local conditions at your university. Hence, Transmission can also occur when the PhD candidate immerses herself in reading the best journals in their field; examines past PhDs that have made a significant impact; or uses award-winning work as the model to begin their own research design. Transmission can fail if the PhD committee is unfamiliar with the areas that the PhD will explore, and is just supervising the candidate to get workload points.

 

5. Troth/Truth. One of the PhD’s goals is to show that the PhD candidate can conduct independent, high-quality, original academic research. The PhD is thus a truth process, a discovery process involving Runa (that extends the Unknown in a field as new questions arise — usually discussed in the ‘further research’ section of the final chapter), and as a vehicle for Self-change and initiatory growth. It is also the PhD candidate’s major encounter with Troth in an academic context and it may dramatically shape their subsequent career trajectory. Through exploring a topic in-depth, the PhD candidate grows as a researcher and is able to network nationally and internationally with a community of practice. They are able to engage in Socratic dialogue with other senior and emerging scholars, and to join the relevant professional associations.

 

6. Specialisation. The PhD topic enables the PhD candidate to specialise in a particular field, discipline or sub-field. People who embark on academic careers may start with wide-ranging interests but they usually specialise in specific topics that make their worldly reputation. It is common for project scope and focus to change as the project unfolds, and as new insights emerge. It provides a launching pad for the PhD candidate to further develop their career and emerging research program. There may be initiatory or quest-like aspects to the specialisation in which the PhD candidate learns and embodies particular epistemes and norms. The PhD’s goal is in part to advance specialised knowledge in a field or discipline.

 

Photo: willg/Flickr.