Impotent Experts and the Idea of the University

I recently came across a third person blog piece (in Finnish) about the failure of a university to meet the writer's expectations as an employer. Even though most of the post was devoted to arguing against bringing practices of corporate management into Finnish universities, my mind immediately stuck to a rhetorical device at the beginning of the post (freely translated, formatting per original):

When going to work for a university Julia thought that a place in which people do creative work, building new knowledge, is surely different from companies which still apply principles of the industrial age. Julia also though that out of all places universities have a lot of research on how to best support creative thinking, problem-solving, team work [and] workplace well being. Surely the structure and practices of the university itself reflect this knowledge that the organization holds?

As a fellow second-year doctoral researcher and the employee of a university I fullheartedly agree with the sentiment of the post, but I believe that by expanding on where problems arise we can elevate the discussion surrounding them. From the point of view of organization research - a social science - the fact that universities continue to lag behind best practice in terms of supporting knowledge work makes perfect sense

1. Explicit knowledge is not practice knowledge

A plethora of knowledge management literature, including the often-cited SECI model by Nonaka and Takeuchi, differentiate between explicit knowledge (knowledge what) and practice knowledge (knowledge how). This is especially pronounced in the field of practice studies in which knowing is inseparable from acting. However, the ability to act is always constrained by practice: practice of being a doctor, practice of management, and the practice of being a researcher. According to practice theory, information about how to best manage creative organizations exists as the object of inquiry within the practice of being an organization researcher and separate from the practices of developing organizations. Merely having access to explicit scientific knowledge about managing creative organizations does not imply anything about the ability to change the surrounding world.

2. Converting explicit knowledge into practice is hard work

The utility of scientific knowledge means that it can be applied in real life but doing so literally means developing a new skill. Even getting to the point where a theory explains one's surroundings takes effort, but then coming up with a change proposal and negotiating with coworkers on how to implement it requires the creation of organizational development capabilities. 

3. Universities are old, rigid and have a lot of moving parts

All organizations have a history and universities have long histories as public institutions which makes them prone to formal hierarchies and bureaucracy. What's more, universities rarely act as single entities, but are instead divided into dozens of semi-autonomous units such as faculties or schools, which in term house semi-independent departments which are home to research groups headed by academic staff - who, according to academic tradition, hold significant autonomy on how to run their groups. While as a rule each level reports to the level above it and grants funding to the level below it, academic employees have free reign to judge whether they want to follow some particular best practice.

4. Researchers don't really care

The first rule of every researcher, at least in my field, is that every researcher tries to maximize the time they are able to spend on their research. Joint papers, shared projects and all teaching are all commitments that eat up the time the researcher is able to freely follow their particular passion, the mastery of which is the defining feature of their career. Add to this that 1) they have no sense how precisely to change their surroundings, 2) figuring it out would require a lot of effort, and 3) changing practices requires voluntary participation from everyone else, you have a prisoner's dilemma where no one makes the choice to keep investing their energy into creating a supportive organizational culture. Curiosity requires autonomy and the freedom to delve deep into subjects and explore a lot of dead ends.


The prevalence of IT in all areas of life often blinds us to the fact that social systems don't scale well if at all. Organizations change through slow evolution and a complete overhaul by frustrated managers will evoke even more hostility from people whose autonomy is both prized and always under threat. I think management practices from the private sector may hold the key for renewing universities, but they have more to do with servant leadership and autonomous teams than centralizing power to a chain of command. True change always starts at a community level, and research groups would do well to make clear for themselves if they expect to act as a creative team or a loose assembly of autonomous researchers. A mismatch of expectation will always end up with doctoral students who wonder why they ended up in academia.