The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world

Dear Academia: Are we thought followers or thought leaders?

Academics exist in a little bubble.

This is good. More than that, I’d say our bubble-ness is a vital property of what makes the Academy[1] valuable to society at large. It gives us a better vantage point: from our bubble we are better placed to view the rest of the world a bit more objectively. It is our lack of ties to the world outside the academy that shelters us from fads and fashions, and distances us from vested interests and agendas. It is this very bubble-ness that is our strength.

The bubble becomes a problem, though, when we spend all our time only looking in the bubble; speaking with other bubble residents; writing and reading texts that are written by, or read by, other bubbletonians, and inaccessible (practically or intellectually) to anyone outside the bubble.

In the past this wasn’t such a big problem. Universities were unique institutions of scholarship and creative thought that had few, if any, competitors in society. But today, its different. We are no longer the only show in town.

Let me give you an example. This past year or so, I have been involved in spinning out a forest mapping company, Carbomap, from the University of Edinburgh. I’ve had two meetings with PR consultants, one on each side of the Atlantic. Both of them independently identified “Thought Leadership” as a primary strategy for 21st century businesses.

When I first heard that term I thought, “Isn’t that what universities do, not businesses? ” Thinking is our area of expertise, isn’t it? What on Earth are business people doing “leading thought”. I can imagine that most of my colleagues would agree that we are meant to be society’s primary thinkers. Aren’t we? And more than that – thanks to the growing emphasis on the “knowledge economy”, surely the time has now come for the value of university thinking to be properly recognised by society, so that we regain our rightful place as scholars and thought-makers and all-round clever folk.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work like that. I believe the Academy has become so bubble-wrapped that we’ve missed the fact that the old model doesn’t apply any longer. We have competition. Perhaps our position as society’s foremost Thought Leaders is now under threat.

You are probably thinking by now that “Thought Leadership” in Business means something different to the “Thought Leadership” of academia. So let us define it. Forbes magazine defines a thought leader as “…an individual or firm that [everyone] recognises as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise.” Hmm…I want the universities to be society’s “got-to” organisation, not businesses.

Here is another: this is a description of what a thought leader should be doing (with my paraphrasing to remove the business-speak): (from

  • Challenge and raise questions in your field of expertise around new thinking and new ways of doing things
  • Stretch [people] to think “What if?”
  • Frame the debate and create conversations
  • Provide new insights to a particular topic area/sector/area of expertise, and most importantly;
  • Hone in on the challenges and issues [our society] face now and into the future.

Imagine a world where people look to businesses as the place to frame debate or provide insight to a topic. Well, it’s coming.

So how is this Thought Leadership approach manifesting itself? In an environmental context we might look at Unilever. Unilever is the world’s third-largest consumer goods company, owning brands such as Dove, Flora, Hellmann’s, Knorr, Lipton, Lux/Radox, Toni & Guy, TRESemmé, and VO5, to name a few. Contrary to what one might expect from such a multinational company, their current CEO, Paul Polman, is on record as saying things like, (Guardian 2012)We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest“, and, “We need to fight very hard to create an environment out there that is more long term focussed and move away from short-termism.” He is a great example of Thought Leadership in action. They are leading the way in changing how big business works and making a lot of noise about it on the way, including pitching up at the launch of the Natural Capital Declaration at the Rio+20 convention centre last June. Two years ago they launched their “Unilever sustainable living plan,” that will result in “three significant outcomes:

  • help more than a billion people to improve their health and well-being
  • halve the environmental footprint of our products
  • allow us to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably.”

But hey, that’s OK, isn’t it? From our bubble we simply dismiss such fads as cynical marketing ploys. Unilever knows what it is doing. “It’s all just a marketing ploy,” we cry. “They’re just trying to make a better world for their own profit.” Hmm… Whereas the world of Academia, on the other hand, being excellently placed to make a highly visible and influential commitment to environmental stewardship, is … oh, we’re doing the basic stuff that pretty much everyone else, everywhere is currently doing. I don’t really see Academia (in the UK at least) leading the charge to make less impact on the environment, nor making any ambitious commitment to changing working habits, at least not any more than we have to (as dictated by central management as an attempt to catch up with everyone else). We aren’t laggards, but neither are we innovators leading the way[2].

And what about education? Surely the Academy still leads in this regard? Let’s think… what have been the innovative, game changing ideas that have demonstrated real Thought Leadership in education? iTunesU, perhaps? TED? The Khan Academy? None of these came from Academia.

But maybe there is hope yet in the form of Coursera (through which even Edinburgh offers some courses). Coursera is gaining popularity as an online place to learn, and it was a spin out from a university: Stanford. Coursera is “a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.” Yes, that’s right “for free“. Their vision is to “give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

That’ll be Thought Leadership then.

I truly believe that universities in general, and UK universities in particular, are at risk of being left behind – that perhaps we are being slowly displaced in our traditional role as society’s Thought Leaders, and as long as we only focus inside the bubble, and ignore the trends outside it, we will continue to give ourselves an uphill struggle in justifying our bubble to those that pay for it.

The challenge we face is a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand most of us probably feel that we would want our activities, our scholarship, to have a positive influence on the world outside the bubble. Yet any attempt to compel us to make that influence, or to make a collective commitment to having a positive influence, we react against – we see any tinkering with our bubble as a challenge to what makes it valuable. But while we come to terms with trying to solve that dissonance, we may find that the truly valuable things about academia are not so much being eroded, as being displaced – that the new kids on the block will simply beat us into second place. It might take 10-15 years for that to happen… but it will likely take us 10-15 years to change and adapt, so perhaps we need to start now, and not wait until its too late to catch up.


Joel Pett cartoon from USA Today. We might make a similar cartoon for Unilever’s attempts to improve their sustainability.

[1] That is, the entirety of the higher education community.

[2] The caveat to this is, of course, that there are some individuals who are making a difference or changing their habits, but we are not leading overall. It is also the case that this is not a management issue; it’s up to all of us to make this a priority and agree what we might do about it.


2 comments on “Dear Academia: Are we thought followers or thought leaders?

  1. Pingback: Do academics need Followship Training? | Acadenema

  2. Pingback: Why being a professor is NOT like running a small business | Acadenema

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This entry was posted on January 31, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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