Management August 28, 2013 Last updated September 18th, 2018 1,852 Reads share

Consensus Decision Making’s Latest Victim

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Consensus decision making, where any participant has veto power, is loved by the status quo seekers, and despised by those trying to generate positive change and stay competitive.  Academia is emerging as a classic example of its damaging effects.

The Economist magazine recently noted that while dotcom mania was slow in coming to higher education, it now has the industry firmly in its grip.  Since the launch last year of Udacity and Coursera, two Silicon Valley startups offering free college level courses called MOOCs (massive open online courses), academia has been shaken to its foundations.  University brands built in some cases over centuries have been forced to contemplate the possibility that information technology will rapidly make their existing business model obsolete.  Meanwhile, the MOOCs have multiplied in number, resources, and student recruitment – without yet having figured out a business model of their own.

There are some very big and obvious changes that a college could and should make that would take full advantage of capabilities that today’s technologies offer and have a huge impact on its business model and long term success.  They are as follows:

Credit for MOOC’s

It won’t be long until some college is going to provide course credit for students who successfully complete a MOOC course.  The student gets the course for free and the university does not have to supply any physical facilities or faculty, thus incurring minimal operating cost.

Flipping the Classroom

This refers to lectures being replaced by online video for students to view ahead of class.  Classroom time then consists of meetings in small subgroups where students work on problems, ask questions, and participate in group projects.  This could save colleges big money longer term; fewer 400 seat auditoriums required!

A Dramatically Different Faculty Profile

We are starting to see talented faculty members with terrific reputations develop and make available globally world-class content on a particular subject via MOOC’s, etc.  This could enable the typical college to reduce the size of its faculty. Additionally, when you’ve flipped the classroom and the student has watched the lecture online, you likely don’t need a Ph.D.-trained faculty member to administer subgroup classroom sessions.  What you need is a high quality teacher and practitioner of that particular topic.

The Need for Technology-Savvy Faculty

Great online content is not just a film of the professor giving a lecture.  It also incorporates simulation games, quizzes, and a variety of technology-enabled tools to enhance student learning.  Older faculty members (older mentally, not necessarily physically) are typically not well suited for generating or administering such content and resulting courses.  Your prize faculty members are probably going to be under 35 years old (mentally!).

Most experts on this topic of the use of technology at the university level believe the above trends are inevitable and it will dramatically change the nature of college education.  On the other hand, what is amazing about this topic is the slow pace with which universities are pursuing it.  In fact, most aren’t really pursuing it; they are simply worrying about it at this time.  The key reason is consensus management.

Decisions are made by consensus

Specifically, at virtually all colleges and universities, decisions are made by consensus.

  • All of the constituent groups must agree before a significant change is implemented.
  • Besides needing the agreement of the alumni association, the board, the student body council, etc., most universities have a faculty handbook which gives that faculty enormous power in vetoing any kind of change.
  • Usually the faculty senate, representing the entire faculty, is heavily influenced by the older (mentally!) faculty members who fear change the most.
  • Clearly, one of the biggest headaches a college or university president faces is the consensus decision making.

Leadership and consensus decision making really are like oil and water; they simply don’t mix.  Leadership thrives when a person has clear responsibilities and the authority to fulfill them.  The strong leader knows to collect input and views, seek understanding, listen carefully, and then make the decision they believe is best. Concerning academia, it is clear that the colleges and universities that are in the typical consensus decision making straightjacket risk becoming academic road-kill!

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Images:  ”Many people agreeing to a proposition by saying the word Agree in speech bubbles to form an agreement, concensus or unanimous verdict / Shutterstock.com

Bob Herbold

Bob Herbold

Bob is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of Microsoft Corporation. Before joining Microsoft, he spent twenty six years at Procter & Gamble, the last five of those years as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, Bob has divided his time between working as a consultant for his own Herbold Group LLC and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Bob has written three books. His latest, "What's Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders" was released February 2011 by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.

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