Knowledge One Click Away

As I continue to think about how IT is changing the game for both major research universities and smaller players, I am continually drawn to the fact that, first, most universities do a terrible job of branding, and, second, that more universities haven’t seized the advent of open access as one of the ways to build their recognition.

Let me begin with a situation that I faced when I was working in Indiana University’s Executive Education unit back in the mid-90s. We were a six million dollar operation looking to grow to eight, but we were stymied by the fact that IU’s brand just couldn’t get us there. Well, yes, you might respond, but if you’re an executive and the company is writing the check, and they offer you a chance to go to Harvard for a week or Indiana for two weeks, which one would you choose? Harvard wins every time, no?

No. Harvard wins when you try to play on their turf, which we’ll call “big ideas” for now. It’s where the VIPs, the Very Important Places, play. You know who they are because they are the same universities from which the political science and economic wonks are drawn when it comes time for one of the major news outlets to cover a story. (Curious that no one blames them for our current political and economic mess, but that’s for another time.) Those names are: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, *et cetera*. Some of the big publics get to play here, too: Michigan, the UCs, *et cetera redux*.

But not everything is about “big ideas,” especially right now when a whole host of folks are beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe it would be a good idea not to depend only on good idea but also to keep around some of those guys with dirt under their fingernails. (One version of this actually comes from a Harvard business faculty member who has come up with the idea of an “industrial commons” — see “Restoring American Competitiveness in the July-August 2009 edition of the _Harvard Business Review_.)

So associating yourself, your brand if you will, with a kind of practical approach to the world may not be a bad way to go at this particular moment in time. Here I’m thinking of a place like Indiana University, where you may just never get credit for all the amazing ideas you do create because you are in the Midwest. (Apparently only Michigan, Chicago, and Northwestern can regularly get credit for big ideas, from what I can tell.)

The same also goes for little Louisiana. While we are chasing the movie industry, like every other city in America, throwing gobs of tax breaks at it, we are surrounded, quite literally, by dozens and dozens of light manufacturing operations who are innovating on something like a daily basis. Not only that, but their children and their workers attend our university. Imagine what would happen if we were to pour our faculty in all those places and let the whole situation simmer for a little while.

Then what could we do? We could make sure that all that knowledge, all those ideas, were a mere click away from our university’s home page and not sequestered away on faculty home pages or entombed in the pages of journals that no one but our faculty can read. (I love you JSTOR, but you get what I’m saying here, yes?)

I like the way Wharton has done it:

But that is one ugly URL. (Which is to an article re-evaluating Chris Anderson’s *Long Tail* idea using Netflix data.)

I have already discussed what I perceive to be IU’s somewhat dispersed appearance on iTunesU. We really need to get more organized. No one is saying we have to organize the way scholars work or organize what they work on — despite my daydream above, I don’t see it happening — but we do need to organize their research results. We want to push them out in front of as many audiences as possible. But the university needs to take this on as a distinct task. The digital library unit is one place to start, but as Harvard’s open access initiative reveals, the word needs to come down from the very top, or as MIT’s Open Courseware suggests, it needs to be part of the culture.

Harvard and MIT, and Stanford, with things like SEE (Stanford Engineering Everywhere), have solidified their digital beachhead. I am sure others are working hard on this, because it has to be clear that those who succeed and survive whatever transformation higher education is going through, or is about to go through is you follow _Business Week_’s argument, universities need to get ahead of the curve if they aren’t going to go flying off the road.