We see it in newspapers and blogs, much of higher education is in crisis. Many believe that colleges and universities are not meeting the needs of today’s market, while others argue that it is outside of the scope of higher education institutions to constantly adjust to market forces.
The basis of the above misalignment lies within the organizational boundaries where colleges and universities live compared to those in which businesses live. In essence, colleges and universities are a unique organizational type with distinct boundaries that allow them to do what they do: educate, contribute to knowledge generation, and serve their communities.
Every organization must have defined boundaries. What are boundaries? They are lines drawn in the sand that indicate where an organization ends and the outside environment begins. Only by clearly defining boundaries, can an organization exist, as well as thrive in a competitive environment.
There is a large body of literature on the importance of organizational boundaries in nearly every field. In their review of the literature, Santos and Eisenhardt (2005) discuss four distinct concepts of organizational boundaries that deal with specific foundational issues:
- Efficiency, demarcates the transactions undertaken by the organization with the goal of minimizing cost;
- Power, defines the domains over which the organization exercises influence with the gain autonomy;
- Competence, determines the resources possessed by the organization in order for the company to reach a state of growth, and;
- Identity, establishes the dominant mind-set of “who we are” in the organization to create coherence.
Without boundaries, an organization cannot survive. We can all think of organizations who ultimately failed due to a lack of definition of one or many of the above boundaries. Examples of companies that fail to identify their direction, or attempt to scale too quickly are very prominent among tech start-ups. Issues with properly managing scalability often hinder today’s “Fastest Growing Companies”, commonly when they focus too narrowly on one aspect of performance (e.g., sales revenue), and fail to accurately assess other organizational performance metrics that have a larger impact on sustainability (boundary of efficiency). Other examples may become apparent in the form of a merger or acquisition, strictly due to a culture clash that was mismanaged by leadership. It is immensely difficult to be “all things to all people”, while maintaining a consistent sense of identity throughout the organization.
Boundaries in Higher Education
Like other organizations, higher education institutions have defined boundaries that have allowed the American University to survive through turbulent periods and in some cases, flourish longer than nearly any other organization in the United States. Historically, their strong identity and power boundaries have many American colleges and universities situated among the best in the world.
Although boundaries are compulsory for organizations to survive, these boundaries cannot be so large that the organization is isolated from the surrounding world. When boundaries are so vast that an organization acts independent of the environment, the organization loses its relevancy and thus its purpose.
Many have argued that higher education institutions generally have operated independently of the environment or market for decades–especially in relation to their efficiency and competence boundaries. Artifacts of this isolation are found in antiquated technologies, business processes, budget models, teaching practices, and student experiences, among other things that leave higher education institutions operating suboptimally. Although many believe that it is inappropriate to equate a college or university to a business because they have radically different organizational goals (the goal of a business is profit of the business and those who hold shares in the business while the goal of a university is the well being of those that it serves), much can be learned from spanning the boundary between higher education and the business world.
As a Ph.D. student studying Higher Education Administration, I have one leg in academia while my fairly new role as a Higher Education Analyst at TSI situates the other leg in the business world. I have the unique privilege of seeing a problem through two different, often contradictory perspectives. I am serving as a boundary spanner in the loose definition of the term. My presence in the gap between boundaries extends my reach outside of one organization and allows me to both affect and be affected by other organizations.
From the perspective of the business world, solving the problems of higher education can be simple. In fact, many of the problems that higher education institutions currently face have been solved in other industries by other organizations. Why not just repurpose similar solutions for problems in higher ed? Can it be that difficult for a university to cut costs, pivot, adapt, or shift boundaries? Everyone else is doing it.
Let’s take the example of Ford. Over one hundred years ago, Henry Ford changed the automotive industry forever when he discovered a way to mass produce a car that was affordable to nearly all Americans in a time where cars were prohibitively expensive. He cut production costs and produced a car that was sold at nearly half the wage of the average American. Although reducing cost and mass producing automobiles was an effective solution to the problem of high cost in the automotive industry, cost reduction and mass production have not played out as effective solutions in higher education. In fact, over the years, thousands of attempts at reducing the “production costs” (the costs a university occurs to educate a student) for a college degree have failed. Across the country, the current cost for a degree is at an all-time high and mass production of higher education is showing diminishing student outcomes. It is commonly accepted by college educators that you can’t simply “scale up” a college education. In fact, the latest evidence-based college teaching practices require more from educators than ever before. The cost and investment necessary is not scaleable. Luckily, we are seeing gains in student learning measures when these costly teaching practices are implemented in the college classroom, so instructors are choosing student learning over minimizing cost.
Conversely, from the perspective of the academy, issues can seem too complex to solve. The combination of decreased public funding, increased regulations, low student outcomes, administrative bloat, hostile campus climates, declining enrollments, and increased competition, to name a few of today’s issues in higher ed, have many universities struggling to take the first step towards reducing the cost of their degrees. Further, once change is identified as needed, balancing multiple internal and external stakeholders, institutional policies, complex priorities, deeply rooted tradition, and complex shared governance structures make implementing change to produce a more affordable degree seem much more difficult. The same boundaries that allowed the university to survive over 350 years can be the factors that hold back its growth and ability to adapt to changing environments.
Spanning the Boundaries
From my perspective, sitting in the gap between the boundaries of higher education and business, the problems facing today’s colleges and universities cannot be fixed with one-size-fits all solutions or application of solutions born in other industries. I also believe that it is inefficient for higher education to “recreate the wheel” for every problem that they have. Rather, it is important to understand the boundaries of higher education institutions alongside the business sector trends, and analyze the available and/or necessary tools to create solutions that fit within the boundaries of individual colleges and universities.
In my first sixty days at TSI I have realized that the solutions to higher education’s most challenging problems are not hidden away in the success stories of the business world just waiting to be applied by a vice president on a college campus. At the same time, they aren’t sitting on an hard drive in a university lab written in 1’s and 0’s waiting for the right analysis to be run. Rather, they are born in a more collaborative place between the boundaries.
Spanning the gap between organizational boundaries is a magical place where low risk collaboration and problem solving can occur. Here, information can be processed independent of industry norms, in a place where ideas can be thought about from different perspectives simultaneously, then combined with other ideas, refined, and packaged to fit within the boundaries of a different organization. Solutions can be found in a space where the complexity of the issues are not lost, rather valued, evaluated, discussed, and used to strategize specific implementations of a combination of both novel and borrowed ideas in an organization defined by an identity foreign to the business world.
The TSI Difference: Higher Education Consulting
The Higher Education Team at TSI prides itself in spanning the boundaries between higher education and the business world. We strive to continually redefine our work in both the higher education and the private sector by challenging norms and learning from every organization that we see. Within that boundary gap, we bring a combination of knowledge from three distinct domains to all of our work.
First, our team is lead by Dan Feely, a battle-tested consultant with over 25 years of experience between Big Four firms and his time since he founded TSI. He has a portfolio of experiences that demonstrate his proficiency in “making change happen, and making it stick”, while also helping organizations identify and solve complex problems.
Second, we have a team of experienced content experts including financial gurus, admissions buffs, advancement experts, procurement prodigies, and others who provide deep technical insight into specific problems and implementation of specific types of change.
Lastly, TSI brought me on to the Higher Ed Team to challenge the norms of our practices. My role is to maintain identity with the university (i.e, the client) and view our projects through their definitions of specific boundaries. I use qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in conjunction with my formal studies of the higher education literature to form a deep understanding of the context of each issue that a college or university faces. With that information, we come together to produce truly tailored custom solutions to a wide array of problems.
Together, our team ensures that we produce solutions that fit the specific needs of each college or university. We value alignment with institutional mission and goals over other metrics. TSI offers a diverse set of services that fall within each of the four boundary types. For more information, check out our Higher Education Consulting Service Offerings.
We look forward to learning about your institution and providing you with the tools you need to reach the specific goals of your college or university. For questions about our Higher Education Consulting Practice check out our Higher Education Page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hill, L. B. (2016). Advancing undergraduate STEM reform through multi-institutional networks: The role of formal boundary spanners (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).
Santos, F. M., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (2005). Organizational boundaries and theories of organization. Organization science, 16(5), 491-508.