Friday, September 26, 2008

The Aims of Education and the Aims of Industry

Every year, to begin the academic calendar, the University of Chicago invites new students to attend the Aims of Education address. A well-loved, accomplished faculty member is invited to give a talk, and is given no guidance on its content or themes. He or she is only told: We are inviting you to talk about the aims of education.

The talk takes its name from a speech (and later an essay) by Alfred North Whitehead. Why should we bring it up here? In fact, wiser heads - those with more practical opinions - might wave us off the topic. We are often told, mostly by the consultants who help manage our marketing and advise us on our "branding", that the University of Chicago is viewed as being too cerebral, overly theoretical. Dragging a British mathematician and philospher into our discussion of a reading about how Pixar manages talent can't possibly help change this belief.

But give us a few minutes. This is all about managing talent, and we will map out the connections.

One of Whitehead's more provocative claims in his address, originally given in 1916 to a roomful of fellow mathematicians, was this:

In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful.
To set this in a context, 1916 was in the middle of the First World War, a period in world history viewed by many as the moment when old ideas (about political life, social class, and the organization of the economy) where discarded and new approaches became accepted. One new realization that remains with us: after the War, and throughout the twentieth-century, we became more aware of the inevitability and persistence of change. We live in flux, and all of our activities, including business, need to be engineered so new ideas, new opportunities, and new technologies can take root.
It is clear, as we begin the twenty-first-century, that we can't afford to forget this lesson. Workplaces that are overly routinized or "inert", to use Whitehead's word, will in time become dreary, stagnant places. What is true about schools, is true about workplaces: to succeed they need to keep alive "the ferment of genius."
The brilliance - and success - of Pixar's management culture is that they recognize that genius is a product of organizational design. You need smart, talented people, but you also need to create processes - in Pixar's case, their incubation teams - where good ideas can be improved on, and benefit from the insights other talented people can provide. You also need an organizational culture that stresses trust and respect and mutual responsibility. Where employees can't trust one another, no one takes risks, and everyone falls back on routines and conventional practices. A workplace like that can't "ferment genius" and can't consistently promote creativity.

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