High Tech and Higher Education: A Wave of Creative Destruction Is Rolling Toward the Halls of Academe
David Pearce Snyder
Life-Styles Editor
The Futurist


History is happening to us. We are undergoing a major technological revolution on a scale similar to that of the Industrial Revolution and, before that, the Agricultural Revolution. After a quarter century of trial-and-error application of immature electronic technologies, the Information Revolution has finally begun to increase our productivity and alter the nature of work. The value added by computers is driving economic growth and helping enterprises become more profitable.
         At the same time, however, computerization is causing profound and difficult changes in our social and political environment. Computerized machines are replacing people who once performed the detailed, repetitive tasks created by the Industrial Revolution. Computerization is also eliminating the need for middle managers whose principal role has been to operate production systems that used large numbers of workers in a limited array of standardized jobs to mass-produce a limited array of standardized goods and services.
         Just as general levels of prosperity temporarily declined during the initial adoption of electromechanical technology at the end of the nineteenth century, economic conditions in the United States have worsened and productivity improvement rates have dipped during our changeover from labor-intensive to information-intensive production and management. And, just as in the 1890s, the current decline in national prosperity has not been equitably distributed throughout society. Since the early 1970s, the rich in America have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer.
         Average U.S. wages have fallen 22 percent during the past quarter century for men and 7 percent for women; meanwhile, executive compensation has soared. As a result, the ratio between the average CEO’s salary and the average rank-and-file worker’s wage, which was 41:1 in 1970, has risen to 225:1 today. And although the massive corporate layoffs of the past fifteen years have been more than offset by newly created jobs, the salaries and benefits offered by the new jobs average 15 percent to 20 percent less than those of the jobs that have been eliminated. Today, nearly 20 percent of all full-time U.S. workers earn less than a poverty-level income; among our eighteen- to twenty-four- year-old employees, almost half earn less than a poverty wage.
         The social degradation and potential political mischief implicit in these grim economic realities must never be far from our minds as we pass through this era of dramatic technologic innovation. The rise in economic inequality in the United States has been accompanied by a growing public perception of economic injustice. The anger of millions who have experienced midcareer termination, the frustrations of families whose decades of hard work have not been rewarded, and the despair of those for whom upward mobility is not a believable hope could all be mobilized to seek greater prosperity by restoring traditional institutions, policies, and values; literally trying to “go back to the future,” when things were better.

The Challenge of Revolutionary Change
We cannot afford to assume that because America has emerged from previous technologic revolutions with prosperity expanding and with freedom and equality intact that we are destined to succeed during the current transformation. As America hurtles toward the midpoint of its shift from labor-intensive to information-intensive operations, familiar solutions are failing, familiar patterns are fading, and familiar options are foreclosing for millions of Americans. At such transitional moments, even large, stable systems can become unstable and unpredictable; chaos becomes a possibility. This real risk of systemwide retrogression is the primary reason why responsible people at all levels of society must commit themselves to participate actively in the reinvention of America—in the workplace, in their neighborhoods, in the marketplace, and in community governance.
         If, for whatever reason, we fail to meet this challenge, twenty-first-century America will be less prosperous and less democratic than it has been. Absorbed with our internal problems, we will be crippled as a unifying force for peace and progress in the world. If, on the other hand, we are able to reinvent our principal institutions and mass-create high-value information work, and if we are able to up-skill our workforce so that they are able to perform the new high-value work, the history of technologic revolutions suggests that a broadly based prosperity will be restored within ten to fifteen years.
         Obviously, institutions of higher learning have a key role to play in upgrading human resources. Indeed, there are those who envision an emerging high-tech job market that will eventually require all workers to have a postsecondary degree. In such a scenario, colleges and universities would merely need to “keep on keeping on,” turning out ever-increasing numbers of traditionally skilled graduates while the private and public sectors create an ever-increasing number of degree-requiring jobs for the graduates to fill. But such a scenario fails entirely to comprehend the revolutionary nature of our moment in history, and the way employers are reinventing their organizations and the jobs in them to permit a growing number of employees at all levels to use the information made available by electronic technology to make better decisions.
         The conventional extrapolated scenario for higher education also fails to acknowledge the way a global information economy will allow graduates of Third World universities to compete freely with graduates from the mature industrial economies at 1 percent to 10 percent the cost. If America is to be competitive and prosperous in the twenty-first-century global marketplace, its workforce— including its college professors and administrators—will have to add much more value than they do today. For colleges and universities to add more value, they must redesign curricula to more accurately reflect the range of knowledge and mix of skills required by the new high-value-adding jobs of the information-intensive economy.
         A model for this transformation of higher education may be found in nineteenth-century Europe, when the power and prestige of the great medieval universities—Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris—were eclipsed by the new urban industrial universities—Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Rouen. The latter differed from their classical counterparts in two distinct ways. To begin with, the new curriculums reflected the newly emerging fields created by industrial entrepreneurship—chemistry, geology, botany, engineering—that represented practical applications of the principles of classical, theoretical science. Moreover, the new academic disciplines were taught by concrete example—laboratory demonstrations, field observations, and public debate—rather than by scholarly lectures, tutorial readings, and collegial dialogue.
         In short, it was necessary to reinvent both the content and the methods of higher education for the Industrial Revolution, and it will be necessary to do the same for the Information Revolution. While economic and political realities have only recently begun to coerce serious self-assessment and change from higher education, these same forces have been compelling transformational innovations from commercial and governmental institutions for more than a decade. Emerging patterns of successful organizational development and technologic application in business and management offer some useful guideposts for those who would seek to lead America’s colleges and universities into the twenty-first century.

How Organizations Are Changing
Organizations are moving away from hierarchical bureaucracies to more democratic structures that place emphasis on cooperative relationships, including partnering and teamwork. Large institutions are breaking into many separate, smaller organizations that then proceed to work in partnerships and consortia as if integrated into one larger whole. The advantage of this kind of structure is that it permits individual firms and public institutions to focus on what they do best and to offload other functions to organizations that do those functions best, creating economies of scale and intellect. Another advantage of these “virtual enterprises” is that each participating entity can reduce the need for large capital expenditures on training, plant, and equipment by sharing personnel and facilities.
         At the end of our current national transition, all large enterprises—public and private—will be made up largely of teams: rank-and-file teams, midlevel teams, executive teams; problem-solving teams, project teams, self-optimizing teams. Public agencies at all levels are partnering with private and independent sector organizations to form virtual, intermodal enterprises. For educational institutions, this will mean more partnerships with employers and more team teaching. There will also be more competition from all sorts of alternative entities—including employers—to provide education to recruits and employees.
         As it will do for other organizations, info-mation will lessen the need for educational institutions to invest in large capital plants, both because they will share resources with other entities, and because it will enable them to provide more long-distance education, permitting students to learn in place—at home, at work, on the commuter train—and enabling individual schools to extend their marketplace beyond geographic proximity or the physical limits of their campuses. At the same time, growing numbers of virtual schools will be created in cyberspace with no campuses to support, whose faculty will teach both new skills and old in new ways, necessitating the creation of new standards of accreditation.
         Another benchmark of successful info-mation has been customer relations. Using everything from 1–800 phone numbers and interorganizational teams to structured interviews and Web sites to solicit input directly from their customers, institutions as diverse as U.S. Steel, Citibank, Chrysler, and the Social Security Administration report dramatic improvements in performance and product design resulting from customer comments. By comparison, a chronic problem of higher education is that it has done very little follow-up on its products. Educators get little useful feedback from employers or from the graduates themselves. Info-mation will enable academics to track graduates’ careers, monitor employer assessments, and help schools provide students with more meaningful preparation for the workplace. Such rigorous product engineering will be essential to improve the quality of graduates and to sustain employer demand for the products of higher education.

How Work Is Changing
Although employers have spent over two decades and $1.5 trillion using computers to improve the productivity of professional, managerial, and technical work, demonstrable gains in efficiency have remained near zero. The recent introduction of expert systems to the workplace, however, has demonstrated a remarkable potential for improving quality and productivity. Expert systems are computer programs that incorporate the collective knowledge of human experts in a given field, plus the logical processes and best practices that those experts follow to solve a problem. When workers need to know how to solve a problem, they are quickly guided to answers and solutions. Expert systems reduce the need for in-depth, detailed understanding about specific processes. For instance, the procurement procedures at Texas Instruments were cumbersome and costly, so the company created an expert system to lead employees through its procurement system. The procurement process is now twenty times faster, procurement training has been eliminated, and the company saves $2 million a year.
         By 2010, expert systems will be commonplace in all types of work, particularly in education, and especially in adult education, including all postsecondary schooling, vocational and employment-based training, and professional certification. Expert systems will enable us to move people into higher- value jobs because they will permit individuals to perform functions originally requiring entire offices of employees using cookbook skills to resolve routine, repetitive problems. Such smartware will eventually help mass-create new, high-value jobs.
         According to the U.S. Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, the average worker in the postindustrial workplace will require a more sophisticated array of competencies than are currently expected of most college graduates. To begin with, this will include a broad contextual understanding of the employee’s operational environment (knowledge traditionally required only by managers), plus analytical skills that have typically been reserved for staff functions. The average worker will need to be a well-informed generalist who knows at least a little about a lot of things.

How Education Must Change
It is time to begin the reinvention of higher education. Labor statistics indicate that, in the future, employers will need less and less of what higher education is producing now. Jobs, those tidy sets of specific tasks and skills by which we have traditionally organized most employment, are being replaced today by evolving careers of lifelong development and adaptation. Young people will have to possess a much broader array of skills than were required in the past if they hope to participate successfully in this dynamically changing workplace. They will also need different expectations of work life than are commonly conveyed by popular culture.
         In 1995, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted the first major study of the hiring, training, and management practices of American businesses, and found that employers expressed a serious lack of confidence about the value of a college education in preparing young people for the workplace. A majority of the three thousand managers surveyed indicated that they consider job experience a more effective screening criterion for new hires than grades or years of education completed. (Field data suggest the employers are right: performance on a job trial or internship is more than twice as accurate a predictor of workplace performance as are grades in school! The director of employment for Apple Computers was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal, saying that “without work experience and other practicum, to be honest, a college degree is really like a high school diploma” [Rigdon, 1993, p. B1].)

Changing What We Teach
The typical twenty-first-century worker will need to be a general technician or “portmanteau professional” who knows a little engineering, some statistics and probability, and has a basic understanding of ecological systems, behavioral science, and world history. That worker will need to know much more about a wider variety of disciplines than liberal arts students are taught now, but less than what graduate students are typically taught about their own individual fields. Most important, as Grudin (1995) argues, to be constructive members of society from now on, every adult “will need to understand the rudiments of technology, commerce, and law that are the basis of the material enterprises upon which we all depend for our day-to-day well-being and survival” (p. 4B).
         This doesn’t mean that educators will need to produce only generalists. Clearly, we will still need deep knowledge and the workers who master pure physics, mathematics, anthropology, and so on to keep the system at the cutting edge of knowledge, especially since each improvement in our multiplying technical capabilities will create new frontiers of research for every industry, field, or profession. But for every deeply knowledgeable scholar and researcher we produce, we will need a thousand portmanteau professionals and general technicians in the mass market who are capable of assimilating this new knowledge and putting it to practical, productive use throughout every industry, trade, and profession.
         The forefront of education is now workplace preparation. Almost half the cost of successfully employing new technology is for training workers how to use the information made available by the new technology. American employers have dramatically increased their training budgets. In 1990, the U.S. business sector spent $30 billion on training; by 1994, it was spending $50 billion a year. The data indicate that the expenditure pays off—Motorola believes it earns $30 for every $1 it invests in employee training. Higher education must be able to demonstrate similar returns on investment if colleges and universities are to retain the support of parents, students, and employers.

Changing How We Teach
We need to change not only what we teach, but how we teach it. Pedagogic research confirms that we need to get education out of the classroom. Only 25 percent of the general population learn effectively in a passive classroom setting, listening to a lecture. Another 30 percent of us are visual learners who acquire knowledge best by reading or looking at graphic material or an actual demonstration. But roughly 45 percent of students are tactile-kinesthetic learners who learn most effectively through physical involvement. Studies show that active, applied learning in a real-world context is much more effective than traditional classroom instruction for most people, young and old. In the most productive training arrangements, employees are treated as experts and professors are brought into the workplace as consultants to recommend and demonstrate more productive ways to do practical things.
         In fact, data from the Educational Testing Service show that undergraduate programs that use more participatory instructional methods consistently produce superior graduates. The key factors in the success of graduates are “the intensity of the learning process, the meaningfulness of the curriculum, the amount of time spent and degree of involvement by students in learning-related activities, plus strong interactions after classes, rigorous debates, and peer review” (Donald Rock, personal communication, January 1994). Clearly, postsecondary faculty will need to spend less time teaching and more time designing learning experiences for their students.
         Over the next fifteen years, expert systems and computer simulations will become common learning tools, first in the workplace, then on the campus, increasingly providing both the curriculums and the certifying standards by which we will determine whether people are qualified to do a job. Higher education will begin to look at expert systems as benchmarks of academic certification, while the continuous updating and improvement of such expert systems will be an increasing focus of applied and clinical research in all disciplines both on campus and off. Only in this manner can curriculum keep up with the transformational change that will continue to expand and reconfigure the uses of formal knowledge throughout an information-rich decision-making environment.

From Managing Change to Mastering Change
The Austro-American economist Joseph Schumpeter characterized periods of fundamental technologic innovation as “waves of creative destruction.” During the past quarter century, we have been dismantling our old industrial production systems while we experimented with new technology and new organizational arrangements. We are now nearing the end of the destructive half of our transition from labor-intensive to information-intensive production. We have begun to create new organizations, and to invent new ways to design work.
         The most important of these new workplace arrangements will be those that enable large numbers of individuals with limited formal skills to be employed in high value-adding functions, much like the high-value manufacturing jobs designed by Frederick Taylor earlier this century during the final, integrative stages of the Industrial Revolution. The most successful workplace innovations of the next five to ten years will be identified, standardized, and widely adopted by the middle of the twenty-first century, by which time the world of work will once again have become orderly and anticipatable ... at least, until the next technoeconomic revolution.
         As we cross the threshold into the second half, the creative half, of the Info-mation Revolution, we must adopt a new attitude toward change. Change is no longer a problem for existing institutions to manage; it is now a challenge to be mastered. The technology is mature enough, and the prototypical patterns of successful arrangements are clear enough, that we can begin to create new and vastly superior ways of achieving the primary purposes of higher education.
         Of course, those mature technologies and successful prototypes are also readily available to employers, entrepreneurs, and progressive educators. This means that colleges and universities have only a brief window of opportunity to undertake the genuinely transformational innovations that will enable them to retain control of their own destinies. If a significant number of major mainstream institutions do not undertake publicly acknowledged initiatives to dramatically improve the relevance of their curriculums, the rigor of their standards, and the productivity of their operations within thirty-six to forty-eight months, the marketplace will have begun to make available so many effective alternatives for acquiring formal higher-order skills that traditional colleges and universities will quickly come to be regarded as the old-fashioned, outdated, expensive source of postsecondary schooling. If the existing institutions lose the presumptive role as the principal providers of higher education, it will be extremely difficult for them to regain that role in the public’s eyes.

Grudin, R. “We Ignore the Material World at Our Peril.” Register-Guard (Eugene, Oreg.), Feb. 26, 1995, pp. 1B, 4B.

Rigdon, J. “Glut of Graduates Lets Recruiters Pick Only the Best." Wall Street Journal, May 20, 1993, p.B1.

Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

Snyder, D. P. "High Tech and Higher Education: A Wave of Creative Destruction is Rolling Towards the Halls of Academe." On the Horizon, 4(5), 1996, 1, 3-7.