What's the Difference Between Irish and Polish Sausage?

For some reason, my mind often turns to the question, "How is it, for professional staff, different in higher education than it is in the 'outside' world?" Recently, a couple of friends--one in higher education and one in the corporate world--have experienced changes in their work life that contrast in such a way as to push my thoughts in that direction once again.

One, we'll call her Ms. C, works for a huge pharmaceutical company. A short while ago it purchased another very large company. In the intervening time, her position has moved from one where she worked hands-on with people and had several direct reports. Now, she has very little hands-on interaction with people and is fast becoming a manager of outsourced contracts.

The other, we can call him Mr. C, works for a college in an IT-related role. Part of his job is one that would have been outsourced by Ms. C's company, but remains in-house at the college. In addition to not being outsourced, when Mr. C's department works with other departments he is able to insist that they work as equal partners in projects; his department never functions merely as an outsourced vendor for other departments but as a peer.

This relates to why so many of us are uncomfortable with the Oracle/PeopleSoft battle, not just those who already are in PeopleSoft relationships. PeopleSoft is seen as being well-focused on higher education as a unique market. Despite many issues over the years with implementation, we see that company as a vendor, but as one that really understands higher education and sees us as its primary market.

Oracle's a different story. I'm not familiar enough with its products and services to know how much it focuses in higher education but I do scan the environment and am aware of it as being seen as a large company, which only tangentially focuses on higher education. There are fears that if it is the major supplier of ERP to higher education, the software will be somewhat insensitive to the uniqueness of our industry. And we see our uniqueness as being significant and necessary.

The Sakai Project and related initiatives may or may not be sustainable over time (I hope they are), but they clearly reflect the academic culture and our institutional needs. I think of the products of the Sakai Project as "real higher education" sausage. This has nothing to do with the old saying about not wanting to have to watch the production of sausage, but just to enjoy the product. It has to do with the character and "fit" of the product to the culture that is produced for.

What do I mean by "real higher education sausage?"

I worked for several years during and after law school for a firm in downtown Detroit. The main waterfront public assembly there, Hart Plaza, was the venue for a summer-long series of cultural and ethnic fairs. There was the Italian Festival, the Spanish Festival, the Polish Festival, the German Festival, the African-American Festival, the Mexican Festival, and so forth. At each festival, booths sold "authentic" sausage sandwiches.

The sausage was always the same sausage, no doubt due to economies of scale and to contracts vendors had with the city. But after walking over to 3-4 festivals at lunch, for more than a month or more, it got to be kind of depressing to realize that Irish sausage, Polish Sausage, and Mexican sausage (definitely not chorizo) were all the same sausage. There was a clear sense of fraud and a loss of legitimacy. I was so disappointed.

In a sense, each of the ethnic groups involved in holding fairs had outsourced their production of sausage to companies that could do it cheaper. One of the reasons those sausage vendors could do it cheaper was economy of scale. It just costs more to produce a dozen different varieties of sausage than it d'es to just make one sausage and market it (with signs and banners) as a different sausage each week. But a whole lot is lost as a result.

Returning to Ms. C and Mr. C, the pharmaceutical company that has outsourced everything but the management of vendor contracts has lost most of its topically related institutional memory. When Ms. C leaves, someday, every bit of its institutional memory in that area will be gone and available only from vendors. If you have good vendors and a good relationship with them, that can be okay. But it will become more and more difficult to even know. And if the outsourcing were to be in the IT realm, and it were to go high enough, the company would lose even the option of having intelligent IT input to its strategic processes and planning.

The college still has Mr. C's institutional memory and also has his buy-in to its mission and vision. That will make every bit of difference if the IT products and services he produces and manages are critical to the institution--and, of course, they are. Mr. C is also there to participate in strategic processes and planning. His college has retained the ability to make genuine "higher education sausage."

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