Google vs. University strategies

May 21, 2009 · by David Campbell · education

Universities increasingly like to think of themselves as businesses, demanding flexible and entrepreneurial approaches from their staff. This is usually a fancy way of saying ‘do more with less’, and it’s said in numerous meetings, working groups and review panels that produce endless audits, reviews and strategy plans. Often it seems like we plan more than we do. Indeed, if you have ever wondered where the spirit of eastern bloc planners — with their penchant for five year strategies — migrated to, you could do worse than look in the UK higher education sector, where we are subject to an unholy bureaucratic alliance that marries centralized planning with a neo-liberal discourse.

I’ve often wondered, though, what real, successful businesses would think of this sort of ‘strategic’ approach? One answer comes in Eric Schmidt’s commencement address to the graduates of Carnegie Mellon University. Schmidt, of course, is CEO of Google, and love or loathe that company, you can’t deny it is both culturally significant and economically successful.  Here’s one thing Schmidt said to the graduates:

“Don’t bother to have a plan at all. All that stuff about having a plan, throw that out. It seems to be it’s all about opportunity and making your own luck…. You cannot plan innovation. You cannot plan invention. All you can do is try very hard to be at the right place and be ready….”

Perhaps that’s a bit extreme as a business model, but it’s an interesting corrective. I wouldn’t endorse all that Schmidt says, but if our managers want to be ‘business-like’, I’d at least like them to engage with the likes of Eric Schmidt.

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