Sunday, April 25, 2010

Innovation by Committee

The historian and filmmaker Laurence Rees is setting up a subscription-based website providing coverage of World War Two, called In an article in today's paper No, children: Hitler came after 1066 (Sunday Times, 25 April 2010), he describes some of the financial and organizational challenges, and the risks of the subscription model.

If the subscription model of internet funding doesn’t work, I can’t see how truly authoritative educational material on the web has a future. Unless, of course, it’s assembled by a state-funded or charitable institution.

I was particularly interested in his comment about the failure of universities of pursue this kind of innovation.

From the first day I started making I was curious as to why no university had created something similar to this before me, especially since all the academics I asked to contribute to the site could see the value of the work instantly. Partly it’s because of money — universities can scarcely expand into new areas when they face cuts elsewhere. But, according to one distinguished academic I talked to, there’s also another reason. “We could never do this,” he said. “It isn’t just because we don’t have the media expertise or the cash, it’s because we would set up a committee to oversee production and no one would ever agree on anything.”

Does this mean that innovation by committee can never work, or merely that universities typically lack the capacity to operate the kind of collective intelligence that would make it work?


  1. Seems to be a bit of a generalization to say that universities lack the capacity ...

    Depending on the initiative and its focus, universities should be perfect hosts for collective intelligence. Perhaps the pressure on tenured faculty to publish results (that are attributed to themselves) is part of the problem.

    Do we encourage and reward research across the faculties/colleges of higher education (or even better inter-institutional research)? We have several thousand years of "institutional" behaviour in our university systems that (IMHO) do not encourage collaboration at a minimum.

    With the power of the internet and social software, perhaps we now have the tools (still need people's will power) to break down the silos.

    Leo de Sousa

  2. The unnamed academic quoted by Laurence Rees said "we could never do this", and indicated a pattern common to many universities. I therefore took this to imply not just "my university could never do this" but "our universities could never do this".

    There may be some universities that are honourable exceptions to this generalization, and I should be happy to learn about them. Or it may be that the generalization itself is unfair, in which case I'd like to see evidence of this. Universities are packed with very intelligent individuals, but this intelligence is not always manifested in the collective behaviour of the university as an institution.

    I agree with Leo that universities should be perfect hosts for collective intelligence. But are they?