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The Fox and the Hedgehog

There are times when I just do not "get" what many others understand in a natural way. For instance, I submit that neither roller coasters nor gambling are attractive ways to spend time. Roller coasters don't frighten me, and they are uncomfortable. The drive on I-94 to Cedar Point is a whole lot more fun (and scary) than the rides are. As for gambling, why not just spend your money on something tangible, rather than what is obviously a losing proposition, or make a contribution to Kiva and help someone who really needs it, with a micro-loan.

Another thing I don't really "get" is the business management "hedgehog concept." The whole thing apparently comes from a Greek poet, Archilochus, who wrote: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Okay, so right away I think, "I want to be a fox!"

But, no. Apparently, in the business world, the thing to be is a hedgehog. The argument is made, and seems to have been made first by Jim Collins in Harvard Business Review's December 2000-January 2001 issue that: "The fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing very well. The fox is complex; the hedgehog simple. And the hedgehog wins."

So why is this something I have been thinking about? In the run up to the beginning of this school year, a lot of people I know have been thinking and talking about the recent offers by Google and Microsoft to run colleges' and universities' students' e-mail systems for them. The hedgehog concept is often voiced by those who want to "outsource" functionalities, like e-mail, within an organization. It was one of the driving philosophical forces behind the spate of articles early in this century about IT being "just" another piece of the infrastructure.

Why not, the argument goes, stop fussing around running your own e-mail servers when "running e-mail" is not something you can be really, really good at and isn't something that relates directly to your core business of learning? Companies like Google, with its Gmail, already provide state of the art competencies in e-mail, and your students are familiar with that interface. In fact, most of them probably forward messages from whatever account you give to them to their Gmail accounts anyway.

What does the university get? It's attractive to think about getting rid of the chore of providing e-mail services. And we're not just talking about the technology here. With the appropriate legal agreements, the service provider, not the university, is responsible for things like data security and confidentiality, as well as legal requirements. Google and Microsoft, of course, have lots to gain from your students being captive users of their services, as students and then through the rest of their lives.

Is Google being a hedgehog and doing what it does best, and is the university also being a hedgehog and shrugging off something it shouldn't be doing anyway? I'm not so sure. I conceive of e-mail as part of an integrated package of learning communications that is pretty integral to however we're going to be delivering learning in the future. And I see colleges and universities as being in the business of information and knowledge.

Maybe the fact is that budget concerns will cause a lot of institutions to go with the outsourced e-mail packages. I'm not in favor of that. I think that institutions should be doing even more with e-mail and other electronic communications, and not just with students. We're missing the boat by not using these technologies to keep our graduates connected. And it's not just e-mail. I've been spending more time in FaceBook and similar places, and the unrealized potential for our institutions is tremendous.

I think colleges and universities (and professional associations) are by nature foxes, not hedgehogs. Maybe our academically most talented core of professionals, our top faculty, are hedgehogs because they curl up around a discrete core of knowledge and do it better than anyone else. But as organizations, we know a lot about a lot of things and wither if we don't.

Besides, think back to that Collins' quote: "The fox is complex; the hedgehog simple. And the hedgehog wins."

The hedgehog wins? C'mon! When you're talking about predator/prey behavior, like the fox and the hedgehog, the fox can afford to lose once in a while, as long as he gets lucky or skilled often enough to eat. On the other hand, if the hedgehog loses just once, he's dead meat. It's a terrible analogy, I don't get it, and it makes me a lot happier to think we're the fox, not the hedgehog.

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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