Archive for December, 2011

This is the time of year communicators are tempted to do the standard “year in review,” and sometimes follow it a bit later with resolutions for the coming year.  “I resolve to fix this, and to do better at that…” we promise the whole world! 

Following that custom, this is the time of year when my current “lessons learned” exercise first came to life.  My editing approach was to identify only the “best” and the “worst” happenings each year… but sometimes I must confess I ended up just putting my notes aside!  None of it seemed very important.

But this year the worst happenings clustered  under the general theme “our awful polarized politics.” And I must say I have been emotionally struck by the degree to which this horrible national condition has affected my thinking, and therefore my work!

Our totally dysfunctional congress has eliminated any possibility of finding resources to support important research and projects. But that almost seems irrelevant now. Even more, our legislators have embarrassed us terribly in the eyes of the rest of the world!  Our leadership role is fading fast.

Polarization totally eliminated any hope of influencing narrow thinking on important national issues. Extreme ideologies drove otherwise honorable representatives and senators to the most unattractive behavior and name-calling  imaginable. Real experts were never truly engaged. Jobs were cut in the name of creating jobs, without revealing detailed analysis. Budgets were cut to generate revenue, all without any details on how this kind of plan will actually work. 

And, of course. there never was a respectful reference to days when genuine statesman could put differences on hold and achieve reasonable compromise. We have forgotten that this actually worked for the good of the country. Our  society has been sadly soured by all this, and the world disappointed. And now we are even losing confidence in our own economic future.

But the best of the year was my delightful discovery of the high potential of my own industry, higher education.  Indeed, the internationalization of higher education is establishing a solid framework for world problem-solving, and therefore has the potential to transcend petty national politics.

I had the privilege of sitting in on all the sessions of the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement.  Twenty university CEO’s from around the world were invited to meet in Washington over an entire year to consider the issues related to internationalization.  And several of us “expert presenters” and observers were invited to join them.  That experience, combined with two trips to Australia and one to India, convinced me that higher education is now a truly global enterprise, and we should now all see our individual institutional missions in a global problem-solving context.

My past resolutions tended to be more building on the best of the year, rather than on trying to fix the worst.  Focusing on the worst tends to reinforce the negative and result in a kind of plateau-type feeling in institutions.  But building on the best, making it even better and more visionary, tends to reinforce the positive and an overall institutional  feeling of moving ahead.

So this year I say: “I resolve to achieve a better understanding of the potential of my industry of higher education to be a world problem-solver, and to do what I can to advance the cause.” 

I know from experience that when educators meet our tendency is to get more interested in each other’s culture,  religion, food, and ideas.  I, of course, realize that political ideologies exist in these forums as well. But the ” we agree to disagree” academic standard still persists.  And, in the final analysis, I know that if we are ever to produce truly internationally savvy world leaders, and make headway on solving our looming life-threatening problems, it will be the world’s great academic institutions, large and small, that lead the way!

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Every year I seem to run into this same issue somewhere:

Is it better just to say “Happy Holidays”  than to run the risk of saying “Merry Christmas” to someone who does not observe the Christian holiday?  This year I had a colleague raise the question rather seriously. His position was simply: “It’s Christmas time damn it!”

I must confess that most of the time I have made what seems to be the safer “Happy Holidays” choice, especially with professional colleagues where there might be some mystery as to their preference.  But I must also say I am very much aware that “Christmas” for many people is mostly “a season,” a season of celebrations and parties, of giving gifts to friends and family, of going to see Santa, of taking countless trips to the mall, and of feasting on wonderful traditional family recipes.  And so saying “Have a wonderful Christmas” these days might very well be an acceptable greeting for most everyone.  Yes, Christmas day is indeed a Christian holiday, but those who say “Merry Christmas” can  mean to deliver a positive message of best wishes to everyone.

From a professional communicator’s perspective, I submit that making sure your intent and sincerity comes through what you say is what matters most at this wonderful time of the year.  It is a season to celebrate our common humanity, and not our differences.  It’s a season for us all to call for Peace among all men and women, in all parts of the world.  

So I say, go the extra mile to communicate all of what you really mean. If  you do that, it shouldn’t matter whether you also add Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, give another religious holiday greeting, or mean all of the above!  Come to think of it, my friends, all of them is what I really wish for you!  And a better 2012, as well.

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No doubt about it, someone inside organizations is always complaining. In fact, at times it can seem like everyone has problems they want to complain about.  And once in a while it can even feel like the whole place is coming apart.

Our tendency as managers is often to try our best to address each problem directly. One-by-one we analyze the substance of the complaint, and then contact the concerned person. We review a range of possible solutions, and  propose a plan to resolve the matter. But many times problems seem to keep coming. It’s almost as if the more focused we become on solving problems the more negative the overall work climate feels. We expect that by solving problems we will make people happy, and instead it merely appears to reinforce an overall perception of an organization or office in trouble.

After years of working in and with organizations, I have come to see that when a perceived sense of forward movement slows down, complainers tend to come out of the woodwork.  It’s almost like when people are no longer excited about their future, they begin looking around inside and easily find new things to be upset about.

But, when a vision is clearly articulated, and executives and opinion leaders are “walking-the-talk” about new directions and achievements, morale generally becomes more positive, and many problems just tend to fade away. Certainly some don’t go away completely, and the more serious ones will need to be addressed. But the perception that “we are making great things happen again” will almost always render many internal problems insignificant, and sometimes even irrelevant.

So when complaints appear to be overwhelming, and the organization gets bogged down in gripes, you should consider re-energizing  your vision, ramping up bold communication initiatives, and getting your leadership out there again telling your story with renewed passion. By doing this you just might find that many of your internal complainers will magically fade right back into the woodwork!

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India is eager for partnerships with US universities. I attended a meeting in Pune (three hours northwest of Mumbai) where politicians and educators came together from the US and India to explore the feasibility of  institutional collaboration. Pune was chosen because it is considered to be India’s “education city,” and the Indian educators atending were quite eager about approaching the US delegation with their needs. What seemed to be  productive conversations at first quickly became almost overwhelming.

India is facing a major challenge.  In the next 10 to 15 years it will need at least 1000 new universities to meet its needs. Its educators obviously believe that partnerships with US institutions can help. But while the benefit to India is clear, finding an obvious win-win proposition for many US institutions could be a bit more challenging.

I was a presenter at the meeting, and outlined the problems I was seeing:

The globalization of our industry, coupled with the world’s economic realties and the changing roles of governments, will mean that global partnerships will be more carefully considered.  Most of us see globalization compelling more international involvement, but the form of that involvement will have to be based on current realities and past experiences.

We learn from our mistakes.  In the past many universities signed agreements with institutions in other countries that resulted in very little activity.  Getting faculty and student exchanges to work, and projects established, depends on each academic area, and the interest  its faculty and staff may or may not have in doing it. In addition, government regulations often became insurmountable obstacles, costs were higher than predicted, revenues were disappointing, language and culture barriers were more serious than anticipated, major academic freedom and internet issues emerged, relocating faculty families became complicated, and travel costs were much higher than realized.

And so I explained in my talk that while internationalization is inevitable, each institution will have to assess how it will respond in light of its mission and objectives. That will no doubt mean that more care will be taken about where and how to engage in partnerships. I suggested that for most of us partnerships in the future will be more at the academic program level, than between insitutions. I argued that mutual benefit will have to be clearly understood, and not based on the obvious serious needs of one of the partners. Cost certainly matters, and too much government regulation will be a deal breaker for many. I explained that academic freedom issues are critical to US institutions and they should be discussed and clarified up front. And then I also added that I think many institutions will be thinking much more about curriculum and cross-cultural experience enhancements as primary concerns. 

The potential of international higher education to play a role in world and social problem-solving is immense, or so I believe.  I therefore added that I think many of us will be looking for global partnerships that also address these larger problems, and aim to improve overall quality of life.

While I presented the problems I saw, I must quickly add that the Indian people we met were wonderful hosts and perfectly sincere about wanting to have honest collaborations. Indeed, there are many opportunites in India for US institutions to find good partners. For example, with the current growth in the Indian economy, there are clearly business school collaborations that could be exciting.  Likewise, I saw real possibilities in global health, nursing, teacher education, engineering, and more.  The challenge will be to get the right academic people together with the right institutions. And most of all, it will be critical to make sure that the specific needs of both partners are clearly met and carefully articulated in any agreement signed.

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