October 19, 2018

What will the next 150 years bring for Krannert School of Management?

David Hummels David Hummels, dean of Krannert School of Management. (Purdue University photo) Download image

The sesquicentennial celebration marks a time for Purdue to renew its commitment to growth, discovery and innovation. What giant leaps will the next 150 years bring as Purdue continues its drive to meet the world's future challenges? In this new monthly Purdue Today series, Purdue's deans will share their thoughts on the future of their college over the next 150 years. The series begins with David Hummels, dean of Krannert School of Management.

What will the next 150 years bring for Krannert School of Management?

This is a dynamic time in universities, which makes it hard to think about what we will look like in 15 years, let alone 150. But it is worth reflecting on a few structural factors -- the economy of higher education -- that almost certainly will shape the broad contours of the University and the School of Management.

We are in the business of generating and disseminating new ideas – new technologies, new discoveries about natural phenomenon, new understandings of human interactions. But in that business we face increasing competition because ideas have some peculiar features.

First, as human knowledge advances, the things you have to know to be proficient in a particular subject continue to grow. While research sometimes invalidates and replaces old ideas, more often new knowledge builds on earlier foundations and is difficult to understand without them.

Second, most anyone can value objects based on the evidence of their senses. A shirt fits, food tastes good, a car runs, or they do not. But it is difficult for a layperson to value an idea, to assess whether it is accurate or ultimately useful.

Third, information supply has been democratized -- hundreds of television channels and dozens of social media channels provide access to a wide audience, financially reward compelling narratives, and offer few editorial filters that might screen out charlatans.

This puts universities like Purdue in a tough spot. We offer real expertise that is increasingly difficult to produce, and we compete with ersatz expertise that is increasingly easy to disseminate, selling to an audience often ill-equipped to know the difference.

The fundamental question of what we will look like in 150 years, or in 50, is how we respond to this competitive challenge. I believe the remedy to this dilemma lies in focusing on relevance and reputation.

Relevance means generating and disseminating ideas that are discernibly workable and valuable even to the layperson. That starts by organizing more of our research and teaching to directly engage those outside the academy. Here the Krannert School will play a critical role.

We live in a world in which the richest societies enjoy labor productivity 100 times greater than the poorest. Within the same country, the best firms are an order of magnitude more efficient than the worst. Finding ways to help lagging firms and lagging countries close those gaps brings tremendous improvements in human well-being. It is a problem for disciplines, like those in Krannert, that focus on the structure of incentives, the allocation of resources, and the organization of human systems.

Unfortunately, or fortunately for those of us who provide that expertise, these are problems whose relevance is omnipresent and evergreen. And because these problems differ subtly in each particular instance, they require a constant flow of new thinking and new talent to solve them. They require high degrees of interactivity and context specific analysis that do not yield easily to textbook approaches, to automation, or to expert software systems. As a result, the returns to research expertise and to college degrees that enable students to solve those problems will only continue to grow.

But who, in an era of democratized information supply, will idea consumers and policymakers turn to for those relevant ideas? This is where a reputation for generating, and not just disseminating ideas, plays such an important role. The more we look, as an institution, like a commodity purveyor of someone else’s ideas, the less likely we will be listened to when critical matters of real relevance are at stake.

We want firms to come to us, and policymakers to come to us, and discerning idea consumers of every stripe to come to Purdue for new ideas, and for fresh thinking on emerging problems. It's why at Krannert we have reorganized our programs around experiential learnings, and our research centers around engagements with external parties. But at the core of that thinking is building a lasting reputation as a source of real and relevant expertise.

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