Monday, December 14, 2015


Innovation and Scale

Alright, Gladwell, you win this round.

Last year I tried to capture the tension between the culture of artisanal production and the need for scale by reference to an anecdote from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants.  This week Malcolm Gladwell did it better with a reference to curing cancer.

(Exhale)  Fine.  

I’ll admit to liking Gladwell, even though some folks would consider that a form of heresy.  He’s remarkably adept at using anecdotes to illustrate complicated points, and he writes clearly.  I also liked his speech at the AACC last year, extolling the virtues of community colleges, but I was already in his camp before that.  He isn’t quite at Michael Lewis levels of amazing, but respect must be paid.  

(Everyone knows Moneyball and The Blind Side, and rightly so.  But to get a sense of why Michael Lewis makes me feel like the authorial equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer, check out this podcast that he did on This American Life.  It’s so good that writerly jealousy is just beside the point.  People could teach classes on it.)

Anyway, Gladwell’s piece translates nicely into higher ed.  It’s about the tension between the freewheeling borderline-anarchy that makes breakthroughs likely, and the rules and clear lines of authority that can bring those breakthroughs to scale.  Too much deference to rules, and the moon-shot risks that sometimes pay off can’t happen.  Too little deference to rules, and the moon shots that pay off don’t get taken up, because everyone is doing her own thing.  

Gladwell’s story is of rogue oncologists (!) who developed drug protocols that helped patients with cancer, but who couldn’t get heard in their own profession.  A relative lack of respect for evidence meant that people continued to adhere to rules that had long failed to work.  Patients died because there was no effective way to bring the innovations into wide use quickly.  Everybody wanted to be rogue.  It’s more fun.

I’m seeing a similar tension -- if at somewhat lower stakes -- between institutional academic freedom and individual academic freedom.  When an experiment shows signs of working, and a college tries to scale it up, the pushback is often quick and severe.  The very same people who champion ‘shared governance’ will reject it if it requires them to change what they’re doing.  I had a discussion just a few weeks ago with someone who believed that “shared governance” means never telling anyone what to do.  I had to wonder what he thought “governance” meant.  

At nearly every conference I attend, I hear someone refer to the “not invented here” syndrome.  It’s a shorthand way of capturing the resistance to any idea imported from somewhere else, no matter how good it is.  Sometimes the resistance is warranted and sometimes not, but I’m struck by the ubiquity of that flavor of response.  As academics, we may be good at examining the ways that other organizations function, but we’re weirdly uncritical of our own.

Gladwell does his usual excellent job of delineating the dilemma, but to his credit, he doesn’t land on a pat answer.  I don’t have one, either.  Too much standardization, and no innovations are born; too little, and each innovation dies alone in a corner.  We’re very good at spotting the first danger.  I hope we get better at understanding the second.

I spent enough time reading Gladwell's article that I didn't have time left to comment on yours, and how both you and he missed the point.

That article was about bad science, terrifyingly bad science that would not be tolerated in other life-and-death professions like aircraft and car design. It is called "lying" when someone says that their test of the new MOPP protocol showed that new protocol did not work when they did not follow the MOPP protocol. Period, end of story. That group showed that their own innovative protocol, derived from a successful one, failed. Sayting otherwise was bad science then, while today it would likely be called fraud.

That medical doctors, who are not real doctors, would be ignorant of good scientific practice is not at all surprising to me. They are not scientists. Gladwell should have pointed that out. Innovation is useful when the results are reported honestly. That is what science is about.

Putting science into practice is technology. Ideally, technologists stay within established safety factors, but even there you continue to learn when it turns out those safe boundaries are not where you thought they were. Freeway design today is different from what freeway design 60 years ago. What that article exposes is a system where there are no building codes and no process to improve them.

Learning from innovation is what teaching is about, but it only works if you assess -- as honestly as possible -- whether something is working or not. That does not happen when each prof is on an island with no point of comparison such as group assessment via a common rubric of student performance on an assignment. I think that is what you are talking about. But of equal relevance is when someone makes a half-hearted try at applying an innovative, research-backed teaching approach and finds it does not work. You and I have to watch for that sort of confirmation bias. But it could be that the innovation is only good at doing one thing, and that is improving student performance on one, narrow, assessment tool. We all have to watch for that as well.

And, finally, it could be that the new technique does not scale. I know of one instance where a new approach worked great, but failed as soon as a different prof took over, despite doing the exact same things. On paper, at least. There are artisans out there who do more than lay the bricks according to plan.
I was going to make the same point as CCPhysicist, but he made it better, already. That won't stop me though ;-)

Medicine started to become something like scientific in the 1950s, but medical doctors are still not trained as scientists, though they should be. As CCPhysicist points out, those doctors should have been found guilty of malpractice and disbarred. A double-blind trial of their protocol against MOPP would have shown immediately that their freewheeling gay experimenting with the lives of their patients, was unsupportable.

In education, just look at the CC (Common/Corporate Core) fiasco - wild experimenting on students, based on no evidence at all. There should be some culpability here, but instead David Coleman waltzes off to make millions as CEO at the College Board. Bill Gates goes on speculating on what might work in education, conducting his grand experiments on thousands of unfortunate subjects.

Also note that Gladwell is utterly unreliable - good at storytelling, not so good with facts and the scientific method.

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