Is competency-based education disruptive?

By | May 4, 2015

Michelle Weise just published an interview in Management & Strategy Issues in Digital Higher Ed called “Competency-Based “Hire” Education”, which became the focus of a LinkedIn discussion on whether CBE ought to be considered a “disruptive innovation”. The idea of innovations as disruptive was popularized by Clayton Christenson of the Harvard Business School, and has received a lot of currency. However, I’ve always had some reservations about it, which I summarized there in these terms:

“The Christensen-Weise concept of “disruptive innovation”, while useful in a number of ways, is also critically misleading in one crucial way. That is, it suggests that there is a dichotomy of sorts between some innovations that are not disruptive and some that are, and that it’s possible to define any given innovation as one or the other. Leaving aside for the moment the critical fact that the defining what constitutes an “innovation” is itself a highly debatable topic (I wrote several articles on this back in the 1980s, as did several colleagues), this approach fundamentally underestimates the organizational context of the innovation implementation, which is usually made up of a whole lot of different organizational units who participate in the innovation to one degree or another. Each of these is made up of numerous groups and individuals each with their own political agendas and goals for the organization – some of which are known and many of which are not known, sometimes even to the individuals involved. Each of these participating units and individuals will be evaluating the innovation in terms of its effect on them and their functions and responsibilities. For some of these groups, the innovation may indeed be disruptive in terms of changing the inputs and outputs and/or processes of the unit. For others, the same innovation may be not only nondisruptive, but actually helpful in terms of allowing them to do better with their tasks. There is no such thing as a uniform organizational perspective on the disruptiveness of any particular organizational innovation, even in retrospect.

The point is that any given innovation – in fact, any organizational change at all – has both costs and benefits for the organization. Some of these are short-term; some of these are long-term. Some are likely to be quite visible; some are probably invisible even to those affected. Seen in these terms, the well-known phenomenon known as “resistance to change” can be reframed in simple economic terms, based on who pays the costs and who receives the benefits. Change situations associated with high resistance are typically those where lower-level employees are expected to pay most of the costs in the short term (particularly in terms of learning time, reduced production, and reduction in skills), while the benefits are largely appropriated by upper management and received over the longer-term (improved productivity, often reduced workforce costs, etc.). Under these circumstances, resistance becomes not merely predictable but actually rational. It may be nice to say, “Well, we’re all in this together”, but the fact is that we really aren’t.

What “disruption” usually means is that we simply have to start thinking more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Often, this is a very difficult process, since most organizations have relatively little experience in systematic thinking, even at upper management levels. In fact, such thinking at lower levels is usually actively discouraged. The degree of disruption is typically closely associated with the amount of thinking required. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to implement an innovation without doing a lot of thinking about it; these are the situations where disruption becomes most evident.

If the organization is seriously willing to think about innovation, using the intellectual resources available at all levels, and seriously address change as a sociotechnical phenomenon where both social and technical systems will be changed, any innovation can be incorporated without seriously disrupting things. The scarce resource in most organizations, however, is the will and/or ability to plan change systematically and involve all of those likely to be affected.

CBE is a classic example of such an innovation. In theory, there’s nothing that requires it to disrupt either a university planning to move in that direction, a company planning to change its hiring practices toward more emphasis on competencies, or a student trying to plan an academic program that will lead toward both personal fulfillment and professional possibilities. In practice, not all that many organizations are willing to invest the time and energy necessary to do change properly. There’s a great tendency toward assuming that innovations are more or less incremental and that change can be simple. This tendency is widely encouraged by both marketers of new technologies and those seeking to implement them in their organizations for reasons of their own. Both of these groups have a vested interest in getting an organization committed to the point where withdrawal becomes more difficult and costly than continuing to move forward – a situation much facilitated by a lack of systematic thought at all levels.

We’ll all be a lot better off if we start thinking systematically about how a change or innovation will affect the entire system, rather than assuming that the camel’s nose inside the tent will suffice to ensure implementation. Disruption is generally caused much more by organizational failures and shortsightedness than by any property of the innovation itself.”

More on this and other CBE issues to come shortly.