Opening Doors

Apr 2014 Originally published on Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics website

While thinking about this post I enjoyed a conversation with my adult sons about the nature and use of organisational power. The conversation considered markets and their failures, the impact of dominant actors in those markets and the often distorting effects of regulation. Consideration of natural world eco-systems followed, contemplating how, in the main (and if not unduly distorted by the actions of mankind) they often reach a state of dynamic equilibrium over time. This brought to mind an earlier paper (Beckford 1995) on the tendency of capital (including intellectual capital) to centralise and inhibit innovation.

This gave rise to some speculation:

Is higher education distorted by its performance regime?

What is the responsibility of the academic in enabling innovation?

While a market failure may correct itself, a small number of dominant actors sustained in their position by regulation or intervention because they are ‘too big to fail’ are likely to consume all the resources. The market will fail!

This thinking was sharpened, partly by the pressing submission deadline, partly from a visit to Robben Island where both Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma were held as political prisoners. Prisoners of a system in which the ‘market had failed’ – political ‘regulation’ acted to sustain the societal status quo.

It was humbling to reflect on the strength of mind and spirit required of Mandela, in such deliberately dispiriting circumstances, to write and preserve ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’, (Mandela, 1995, Little Brown & Co.) The guide, an ex-political prisoner himself, explained that education for prisoners was a privilege not a right and how, circumventing the rules, the prisoners would quietly self-organise into study groups so that those who already had education and knowledge could share it with their fellows, where Mandela said ‘Let this be our university’.

I wonder if the emphasis was on ‘this’ or ‘our’ – or both? Try reading it aloud a couple of times – it makes a big difference!

In an eco-system, the big beasts eat until they are sated – and then stop. In human systems it seems that the big beasts sometimes don’t know when they are full and continue to pursue food (power and wealth) seemingly for its own sake and not for some higher purpose. Once in a dominant position they seek to optimise the market in their own favour, working to establish a regulatory environment which sustains them despite their failings. They become ‘too big to fail’.

This led me to consider use of power and for me, it must rest with the individual not the institution. Institutional behaviour is perhaps an aggregation of the behaviour of all the human actors within it.

What has that got to do with Information Science (I would probably ask if I was assessing this piece of work!). What’s the point?

The task of the academic, whether researcher, teacher or both is to discern new ways of understanding the world and have impact in that world. That is we are expected to share insights and new knowledge in a form that enables the insight and wisdom of others.

In the technology driven, big data, cloud computing, world, the Information Scientist has a particularly important role. We have an obligation to comprehend, design, interpret and translate this world, to open it to the examination and testing not of our peers (that we can take for granted) but of all the individuals whose lives are affected by and affect technology – as well as those who effect it.

The demands of the ‘system’ – the REF, acquisition of research grants and pursuit of promotion – are such that self interest is best served by the imprisoning of information while the responsibility of the Information Scientist (and perhaps all academics) is to liberate it. Thereby each individual can be encouraged and enabled to acquire information, knowledge, perhaps wisdom and empower her or himself. Ultimately each can determine rightness in their own terms and their own appreciation of the world they want to have. Then they can all argue about it! They can “be the change they want to see in the world” (Ghandi).

The obligation of the powerful is to discern, create or enable opportunities for those less powerful than themselves, to open the doors – with suitable force if necessary – to ‘give a break’ to others even if, or perhaps, especially when it disrupts the established hegemony.

We, the powerful, must allow others to develop and shape their own future – even if it is not the one we would choose for them (or impose on them!) We must stimulate opportunities for them to be the person they are able to be not a pale imitation of the established experts or indeed to be the ‘gaolers of their own future’ (The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, David Nobbs).

Is success then about how clever I enable you to be, rather than how clever I am? How many doors have YOU kicked open for others?