Higher Education Institutions as Viable Systems: A Cybernetic Framework for Innovativeness

Higher Education Institutions as Viable Systems: A Cybernetic Framework for Innovativeness

Dejana Zlatanović (University of Kragujevac, Serbia), Verica Babić (University of Kragujevac, Serbia) and Jelena Nikolić (University of Kragujevac, Serbia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2708-5.ch001


In a knowledge-based economy, higher education institutions (HEIs) are a key factor in fostering innovation and play a central role in sustainable economic growth and development. Growing complexity of HEIs and their environments requires systemic, i.e. cybernetic approach to innovation. The chapter highlights the importance of introducing a cybernetic framework for innovativeness of higher education institutions by their examination in conceptual framework of organizational cybernetics (OC). The purpose is to demonstrate how viable system model (VSM) as a key methodological tool of OC can help understanding the viability and innovativeness of HEIs. In addition, higher education institutions are investigated in a conceptual framework of VSM through the case of the public higher education institution (HEI) in Serbia. The main contribution of the chapter is related to practical implications of presented framework including the strengths and weaknesses of a VSM application.
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Education is becoming a major driver of wealth and economic development, and higher education institutions (HEIs) are expected not only to create knowledge and respond to the needs of students and other relevant stakeholders, but also to facilitate social equality (OECD, 2016). There is a general consensus that the potential for innovation and economic development of a national economy depends on the availability of highly educated staff and their level of knowledge, skills, and competences (Babić, 2018; Babić et al., 2019; McClure, 2016; Tierney and Lanford, 2016a). The assumption of sustainable development of the national economy in conditions of the knowledge economy is precisely linked to the possibilities of mobilizing creative talents through innovative ventures at the individual, organizational, and national level in a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem. The entrepreneurial ecosystem requires capacity and potential building through networking, partnerships, and the implementation of a strategic approach portfolio. Many higher education institutions (HEIs) are facing enrollment challenges and financial difficulties as a result of increased competition, the financial crisis, changes in student demographics, increased roles of technology and online learning, and decreases in high school graduates and traditional student enrollments (Cleverley-Thompson, 2016).

In this context, the new role of higher education institutions in the knowledge society is of particular importance, as well as the new management to respond to the demands of these roles. In doing so, higher education institution management differs from the business world (Lambert, 2003). It is a more complex process because it is necessary to align the general strategy with the requirements of numerous and very heterogeneous stakeholders, in terms of power, legitimacy, and urgency. Therefore, higher education institutions have less discretion in making strategic decisions. At the same time, they are expected to embrace new design models analogous to new business models, developed to strategically address the challenges of the knowledge economy. In fact, higher education institutions today are changing their position, becoming more diversified, embracing a growing population, involving new stakeholders, programs and modes of their implementation, a global perspective, competitive pressure, and new governance models (Babić and Slavković, 2017).

In addition to these challenges, there is increasing competition between higher education institutions, in line with the increasing mobility of students, teachers, and researchers. Therefore, in the field of higher education, increasing pressure for change and innovation can be observed worldwide. Universities, especially research universities, play a central role in the process of knowledge and innovation creation, and, therefore, in driving economic growth and development (OECD, 2016; Serdykov, 2017; Tierney and Lanford, 2016b; Potočan et al., 2019). The need for educational innovations has become acute. It is widely believed that countries’ social and economic well-being will depend to an ever greater extent on the quality of their citizens’ education: the emergence of the so-called ‘knowledge society’, the transformation of information and the media, and increasing specialization on the part of organizations all call for high skill profiles and levels of knowledge. The importance of the growing quality of higher education through curriculum modernization, more effective funding, and more efficient higher education management is particularly emphasized. At the same time, the importance of new ways of providing educational services, such as distance learning and the development of numerous on-line courses (for example, MOOCs) is highlighted) (e.g. Burd et al., 2015). In these processes, internal factors, such as strategy, organizational structure, and culture of higher education institutions are crucial. Also, the external factors that shape the behavior of higher education institutions need to be considered: social and cultural context; infrastructure; processes by which knowledge is created and transmitted, etc. To overcome the above- mentioned challenges and improve innovativeness, higher education institutions should reshape and transform academic agendas, ambitions and management. Therefore, every institution must find the balance between its aspiration and responsible management.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Innovativeness in Higher Education Institutions: Ability to produce and implement a new or enhanced process, product, or organizational method which has a considerable effect on the activities of a higher education institution and or its stakeholders such as students, communities, and firms.

Recursion: Hierarchical arrangement of the system which implies that the whole system repeats through its subsystems, i.e. the same principles can be used to organization subsystems, the organization itself, and the supra system, whose organization is a part.

Managing Complexity: The theoretical core of Organizational Cybernetics that is based on The Law of Requisite Variety, according to which the variety of organization and environment must be balanced.

Systems Thinking: A relevant scientific instrumentarium, based on principles of General Systems Theory, which uses the systems ideas in order to research and solve complex strategic problems/problem situations.

Variety: The cybernetic measure of complexity, i.e. the number of different systems states.

Viable System: A system which is able to solve the problem, i.e. to respond not only to some common events, but also to some atypical ones.

Viable System Model: The key methodological tool of Organizational Cybernetics, consisting of five main subsystems representing the following functions: implementation, coordination, control, intelligence and identity.

Viability: The ability to maintain independent existence.

Organizational Cybernetics: A functionalist systems approach that tends to manage the complexity of organizations and is focused on researching the problems in structure and operations of organizations.

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