Are Research Universities Knowledge-Intensive Learning Organizations?

Are Research Universities Knowledge-Intensive Learning Organizations?

Davydd J. Greenwood (Cornell University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-176-6.ch001
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This chapter questions the clarity of the concepts of “knowledge society” and “knowledge-intensive organization”. In particular, the author asserts that the notion that postindustrial society is more knowledge intensive than industrial society is a self-serving proposition made by academics and organizational consultants to emphasize the importance of their own industries. Since all organizations are knowledgeintensive in major ways, the specific meanings of a newly emergent kind of knowledge-intensive organization need to be clarified. The author undertakes this by means of an analysis of research universities.
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Research universities could seem to be among the best contemporary embodiments of knowledge-intensive organizations, given the vast quantities of people and knowledge resources at their disposal and their mission to expand and transmit knowledge. In addition, universities claim to be preparing students to work in the “knowledge society” of the future. Thus it would seem that universities are specially situated in a position of expertise about life in the knowledge society and in knowledge-intensive organizations. I do not believe this is the case.

Despite the many Ph.D.s awarded, students taught, research projects undertaken, and libraries/databases, universities generally do not embody the defining characteristics of knowledge-intensive organizations nor do they behave like learning organizations. Very little of the social science and humanistic knowledge universities have is deployed beyond the boundaries of the academic professional groups that generate it, few social scientists and humanists have the competence to act as thoughtful organizational participants in their own institutions or in the world beyond the university, and many of the students that universities train graduate lacking the competence to perform the jobs for which they are hired.

The situation of faculty and students in the sciences and engineering is somewhat better because they maintain multiple and continuing contacts with the world outside the university, often work in teams, and train students through participation in projects. However, in general, the effectiveness of research universities as contributors to the training of new participants in the knowledge society, beyond being successful businesses in their own right, is limited.

Against this backdrop, this paper provides a provisional analysis of what seems to be a key issue: If a high quantity of knowledge and a large staff of highly trained people automatically give rise to a knowledge-intensive organization, then research universities would be, by definition, knowledge-intensive organizations. However, since universities are not knowledge-intensive organizations by any reasonable definition, exploring why not reveals three things. First, it shows that knowledge-intensive organizations are a product of structures, relationships, and dynamics in the organization, not of the quanta of knowledge they contain, the level of education of their personnel, or their sectoral location. Second, a knowledge-intensive organization must have at least some of the key characteristics of learning organizations (Argyris and Schön, 1996). That is to say, unless organizations are capable of creatively modifying their structures, behavior, and alignment with the environment, then they simply cannot be knowledge- intensive organizations at all. Third, these characteristics of learning organizations are generally lacking in research universities which are Tayloristically- organized and yet loosely-coupled systems.

To make these points, I focus on research universities and compare some current models of knowledge-intensive organizations and learning organizations with the way knowledge and learning are organized in universities. To anticipate, my argument is that, though research universities are dedicated to the development and dissemination of knowledge, there are many ways that they do not function as knowledge-intensive organizations and they lack most of the characteristics of learning organizations.a Once this argument is made, I turn to asking if universities wished to become more predominantly knowledge-intensive organizationsb, how they would have to change and I close asking if these changes could be made while avoiding the further dilution of some of the key disciplinary knowledge development and management functions research universities perform.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Socio-Technical Perspective, Systems: An analytical and intervention approach pioneered in Europe linking technical systems and equipment with the social organizational characteristics and promoting a mutuality of design that alters the technology and the social organization to achieve a desired and more humane fit.

Discipline, Disciplines, Disciplinary: Knowledge and organizational structures that divide knowledge into putatively self-managing compartments; based on the erroneous assumption that a many individual non-interacting disciplines together add up to comprehensive understanding of complex systems.

Defensive, defensively, defensiveness, also non-defensive, defensively: Responding to organizational challenges by blaming external forces for problem rather than examining how individual and organizational behavior plays a role in creating the challenges.

Loosely-Coupled Organizations, Systems: Karl Weick’s term for organizations that are systems but systems in which the parts do not operate in tight functional coordination; universities are an example.

Taylorism, Tayloristic: From Frederick Winslow Taylor, the perspective on organizational design that treats organizations as an array of independent tasks, each to be designed for maximum efficiency according to a trained expert and then integrated into a production system by the system designer and the leader of the organization.

Knowing That: Gilbert Ryle’s notion of knowledge of discrete facts and the idea that knowledge is possible without actions other than thought; contrasts with knowing how.

Knowing How: Gilbert Ryle’s notion of knowledge embodied in the ability to accomplish a desired goal or outcome; contrasts with knowing that.

Learning Organizations: Organizations capable of responding to challenges by reorganizing internally and/or changing their parameters to bring their operations into a more adaptive and sustainable relationship with their environment.

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