Harvard Diary: Doing the Business of Change

While there are some things in life we should approach as though today were the last day of our lives, education deserves to be treated as though we might live forever. We are never done with learning, and a rapidly changing world demands continued growth and change in skills and ideas.

I practiced what I preached recently by going back to class at the Harvard Business School. The venue raised a few eyebrows among my associates, as did the mere fact of this academic going back to class – but this was a very relevant experience for someone like me trying to lead an educational institution.

The course was the fulsomely-named Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management, run by the Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS. About 150 participants came, from across the USA and around the globe – a third were international, and of those, Australians turned out to be the largest component (17). One of the happy if odd benefits of being in Boston was some excellent networking opportunities with people who happen to live a tram ride away from me…

SPNM brought together a group most of whom were chief executives of not-for-profit institutions: charities, schools, advocacy groups, welfare providers, foundations, arts organizations, churches and a synagogue. Each had in common a desire to serve a greater good through their particular mission.

The course used HBS’s characteristic Case Study method, where the curriculum emerges not from abstract concepts but from real situations and the dilemmas that faced decision-makers. Across the week we dealt with cases related to three hospitals, a college, a school, charities and foundations and more. We focussed on the need to make our distinctive missions the driving force of our work, and on how to develop strategies to achieve outcomes appropriate to those missions, including how to improve our own performance.

For many people – and I suspect for Australians more than some others – it is counter-intuitive to think of organizations working to transform lives, create social change and work with the neediest in society as “businesses”. Indeed some of the most important critiques of our economic system must and do come from advocates of the marginalized. Yet there is a dangerous and ironic tendency for those who consider themselves critical of wider economic and social realities to be lulled into conservatism about their own institutions and processes.

If the world is worth changing, it is worth doing the work of change well. An institution like my own is well served by staff who have committed themselves not only to doing well at our existing tasks, but to seeking improvements that may be necessary to serve our students and our wider stakeholders – Church, University, alumni – as well as they all deserve. I can’t and won’t exclude myself from any such need to grow and change. John Henry Newman said that “in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Indeed.

1 comment:

John Lewis said...

Andrew, it was great catching up with you at Harvard. Breakfast at Henrietta's Kitchen was fun. Hope you had a good trip back, and I will look forward to seeing you in Melbourne next October.

John Lewis