Entovation International
MIT Alumni Knowledge: A New Source of University Wealth

By Debra M. Amidon, ENTOVATION International Ltd.

The Challenge

The 1980's provided an explosion of industrial education programs, including institutes, distance learning, center for leadership and learning and corporate universities. Most organizations have launched programs under the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) or Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) or reasonable facsimile. The 1990's represent evidence that the concept expanded with learning theories, cross-functional teamwork, electronic media and virtual organization structures.

Advancements in technology have revolutionized education delivery systems enabling Intranets and the Internet to provide 'real-time' links to both archived and newly created knowledge. With the dawn of the knowledge economy comes the realization that learning occurs - must occur - continuously with every interaction, both human and electronic. The challenge is two-fold: How best to elicit the tacit knowledge which often is dormant in individuals; and (2) how to catalyze the collective organizational knowledge across functions, business units and stakeholders outside the enterprise. And so, now the spotlight is on intellectual capital, learning and prosperous innovation.

What, then, is the evolving role for the University in the knowledge economy? It is only a node - albeit important node - in the learning network. Faculty members are becoming mentors, coaches in the learning process - not necessarily the content experts in a given field. Students are gaining increased exposure through industrial placements and research and are bringing insights back to the campus often before research findings can be published in the traditional academic press. Even the action research activities of major consulting firms, intelligence organizations and professional societies resemble the framework and methodology of academic research.

The knowledge movement has progressed significantly such that students - both matriculated and on-the-job learners - have access to a plethora of informative Web sites, electronic dialogue forums, topical seminars and conferences, on-line training courses, and more. The Knowledge Ecology Fair (www.co-i-l.com), the Open University (www.open.ac.uk) and the Knowledge Ecology University (www.co-i-l.com) were inevitable outgrowths of the critical mass of theorists and practitioners represented in the 'community of knowledge practice.'

Innovate the Academic Community

In response to the opportunity, MIT administration and faculty have developed a rigorous approach to bringing the experienced alumni back to the campus and bringing the campus to the learners. In the 1998 Executive Education Convocation, the Sloan School of Management reconvened graduates from around the world in a 3-day event entitled "The Networked Society: Implications for Management Practice." In the welcoming address, Richard L. Schmalensee, the new Dean, that this meeting was to produce 'your return on your investment - deepening a shared network and an endearing partnership.' It is intended to help executives keep pace with a volatile environment, to encourage connections across the time bonds and to solicit suggestions as possible changes in what is taught, how it is taught and how we might better use technology.

The Sloan population represents 16,000 graduates in 86 countries. Through a variety of traditional alumni programs (e.g., clubs, directory, career services, magazines et al), the Institute keeps alumni up-to-date. This year, things were different. Through the launch of their Web site (http://web.mit.edu/sloan/www/) producing free e-mail forwarding service for all MIT alumni, the Institute now seeks to learn from and link alumni and their organizations worldwide. The strength is in the exponential growth of the connections. It is not just a matter of doubling or even tripling the numbers.

The innovation does not stop there, however. This year's program included presentations from two CEO's and former Sloan Fellows who articulated the concepts of the knowledge worker, the knowledge enterprise and the knowledge economy.

Mr. Bruce Bond (SF '83), President and CEO of Boston-based PictureTel, Inc used a series of classic books to illustrate his core messages. For instance, he referenced 'A Wrinkle in Time' as he described the transition period between one era to another in which the old rules do not apply and the new ones have yet to be invented. He suggests that the change is three-fold: evolutionary (taking time, revolutionary (happening swiftly) and devolutionary (the compounding effect of people working together). Using another book - The King's Chessboard - he described the 'power of the double'- Moore's Law taken to 2015, we will have gigaburst computers. Indeed the technology is enabling the network, thus equal to the square of the n umber of people who are connected. Imagine the power of the Sloan alumni network if properly harnessed and leveraged.

Bond closed by celebrating the individual, as did Ayn Rand in 'Atlas Shrugged'. In previous economies, land, capital and people were valued as commodities. In the Knowledge Age, the 80/20 rule applies and must be factored into the new value proposition. The knowledge worker does not work for you, is an individual entrepreneurial entity, knows more than the boss, owns the means of mass production and is not motivated by money alone. How, then, does an organization value and reward in ways that create economic results? In the end, it is the ability of people to interact with others. "The future is not foreseeable. It is unknown - you forge it - putting in place paradigms and metrics to move the world forward."

Gerhard Schulmeyer (SF '74), President and CEO, Siemens Nixdorf AG, outlined the operational challenge in a session entitled "Organizing for the Knowledge Business." All participants received copies of The Roadmap to Success - the corporation's guidepost for the transformation. He scoped on the factors forcing a new balance between institutions: Liberalization, Velocity, Globalization leading to Rising Complexity.

He suggested a 6-Step Process:

  1. Starting with customers - working outside in.
  2. Changing the way we work together - through culture change.
  3. Laying the foundation - baselining the units.
  4. The matrix organization - the new structure.
  5. The SNI vision - sets the strategic framework.
  6. Paradigm shift in HR - individual initiative is what counts.

The knowledge Age is one of managing uncertainty - not managing certainty. He detailed the changing needs of a knowledge-based business transitioning from a focus on normative and routine to connectivity and competence. The economic value of knowledge is not based in ownership, but in transaction (i.e., how the knowledge is applied or put to use). He described the shift toward a more 'relational' organization structure as opposed to patriarchal, hierarchical, or even entrepreneurial. He did not underestimate the importance of - or the difficulty in - establishing a shared vision across the enterprise.

Dr. Rudi Dornbusch, MIT Professor of Economics and International Management, provided a timely economic analysis commenting on the Japanese recession, the backlash of economic reform in Russia, the budget deficits of Brazil and the current success in the US. He forecasts that Europe - in spite of their current problems and because of their rigorous programs to address the issues (e.g., the Euro currency) - will rise to world leadership in the next 10-15 years. They are asking the right questions and dealing with the right issues positioning themselves as a formidable region in the global economy. He also projects the rise in China's leadership thereafter in the next 20-30 years. Although he is an economist by trade, his projections are based largely upon what might be considered 'intangible value' by today's knowledge practitioners - such as the ability to integrate in a world economy, the changing political systems, revamped organization structures and more.

Several other academic professors and Sloan Fellow graduates provided seminars on various facets of the knowledge innovation community. Examples include: "Visualizing Opportunity in the Knowledge Economy (Debra M. Amidon, SF '89, "Adaptive Management" (Arnoldo Hax), "Innovation in an Increasingly Dynamic World (Rebecca M. Henderson), "Entrepreneurship at MIT" (Kenneth P. Morse), "Using Strategic Alliances and Corporate venture capital" (Edward B. Roberts, "So You Want to Change Your Corporate Culture?" (Edgar H. Schein), "Rethinking Leadership" (Peter Senge), "Strategies for a New economic Game in the 21st Century" (Lester C. Thurow), "Survival Strategies in Fast Changing Industries" (James M. Utterback), "Emotional labor and Identity" (John Van Maanen) and "Methods for Developing Breakthrough Products and Services" (Eric von Hippel). Audiotapes are available through Cambridge Technologies in the United States (617.547.5690).

In fact, Jay Forrester in his presentation - "System Dynamics: Present and Future" announced that there is Web site at MIT (http://sysdyn.mit.edu) where one can find a Road Map Series, including a self-study guide to systems dynamics, designed by the Creative Learning Exchange. They have discovered that although designed for K-12 age group, 2/3 of the 7,000 visitors each week is using it for corporate education!

Finally, the MIT Sloan Management Review provided copies of the recent issue featuring articles on transforming IT, product platforms, virtual office, IT outsourcing, a leveraged learning network and managing information as a product. Several classic reprints were available (e.g. Senge's "The Leaders New Work: Building Learning Organizations") in addition to articles from other publications and working papers - all in the interest of knowledge sharing. In fact, alumni were encouraged to make submissions to the Review for publication.

There are a variety of ways that alumni can be reconnected to the Institute - electronically, through multiple conversations, involvement in research projects and through the print media. Perhaps this is one way for academic leaders to learn real-time about learning innovations that will service their constituency.

The academic environment of tomorrow is certain not to look like today. In fact, it may not even resemble today. But where might collaborative learning take us all?


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Reprinted from I3 Update - 26.