Businesses face challenges in becoming collaborative partly because traditional education systems often discourage collaboration. These systems condition workforces and organizations to operate in command-and-control mode. Now there are promising signs of an educational upheaval that mirrors shifts in business and government. Many universities are seeking to reinvent themselves to preserve their relevance.
In The Culture of Collaboration book, I write about the shift in the role of the professor from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” Driving the shift is the decline in credibility of professors. In an era of rapidly changing information, students can search online for ideas more quickly than teachers and professors lecture about them. “Students don’t really believe their professors,” is the way David Edwards put it during our conversation last week.
David Edwards, who’s the Gordon McKay professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Harvard, has collaborated with colleagues to update his university’s role in educating students. David shares my view that both universities and businesses must provide physical and cultural space to spark and collaboratively develop ideas.
David is the author of The Lab (Harvard University Press, 2010). This compelling book chronicles the growth of Artscience Labs, an international network of idea labs David and his colleagues have developed. The labs spark “idea translation,” a process of repeated experimentation, exhibition, prototype critique and team evolution. The book delves deep into emerging approaches to innovation growing out of these interconnected labs which include Le Laboratoire in Paris, The Lab at Harvard, and similar labs at other universities and high schools. Many ideas incumbated and nourished in the labs have become commercial products. These include everything from edible bottles to inhalable chocolate.
The growing Artscience movement draws inspiration from the Bauhaus school that flourished in Germany during the Weimar period after World War One. The Bauhaus concept was a “total work of art” bringing together all arts including design and architecture. Bauhaus emphasized “rationality, functionality” and the need to free art from Bourgeois influences. The labs break down boundaries between arts and sciences to accelerate learning. This mirrors silo busting and curing Silo Syndrome in business and government that I write about frequently here and in The Culture of Collaboration book. Results of Artscience efforts range from new designs and art to new companies and humanitarian organizations.
Edwards believes institutional boundaries have hampered education at Harvard and elsewhere, and he agrees that similar boundaries plague businesses. Technology and culture shifts have curbed “our ability to curate information and give it any meaning,” David notes. He compares overly-curated art with overly-curated information. Why is it, Edwards wonders, that there are thousands of works in a museum like the Louvre, but that art “experts” and books focus on only a handful of “important” works? Not to mention, I was thinking, all of the art--some of it excellent-- that never makes it into the collections of the Louvre and other museums.
So, a new cultural model is necessary. And guess what this model involves? “Nothing gets done without intense collaboration. We can no longer ignore it,” David insists. Amen. Some design firms advocate a formal process for brainstorming and ideation. In contrast, the approach to collaboration, innovation and ideation practiced in Artscience Labs is decidedly less formal. “I’m very skeptical about rules for ideation or idea development,” David says. Freedom to take risks and make mistakes is key, and so is the ability to realize mistakes and quickly develop a new idea or approach.