On Giving Headaches — and Getting Them

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In the early 1990s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found itself facing no small crisis. During the fifty years following the outbreak of World War II, the engineering school had grown into one of the world’s preeminent universities, thanks to unstinting government funding of its departments and laboratories, in the interest of keeping the US ahead of first the Germans and the Japanese, then the Russians and Chinese.

But when the Cold War ended favorably in 1989, there was little sentiment in Washington to continue unabated the expensive arrangements that had led to victory. Part of the “peace dividend” was to come from diminished support for education for engineering and even basic science. And perhaps more than any other of the elite old universities of the East, MIT was hooked on government funding.

So the newly-installed president Charles Vest undertook a series of dramatic steps, in consultation with the faculty. He pressed for continuing government support for research, to the point of hiring a Washington lobbyist. He searched for new sources of revenue, among wealthy alumni and research-oriented corporations.

And he purchased new financial accounting software and committed MIT to an expensive “Reengineering Project,” with the goal that $40 million of operating expenses should be saved — and as many as 400 staff positions, or around 4 percent of the total, be eliminated.

About the same time, a history of technology professor named Rosalind Williams surrendered to blandishments and agreed to become dean of students and undergraduate education. Now, seven years later, she has published a thoughtful account of her experiences at the center of MIT’s attempts to grapple with a rapidly-changing world.

Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change” proceeds from the observation that at the very moment that MIT faced vastly altered political circumstances, it also found itself coping with the same powerful technological forces as the rest us — Moore’s Law, the Internet, centralized financial controls and globalization.

“MIT is famous as a place from which technological change comes,” she writes. “It is less famous as a place that confronts change.” A fellow faculty member says: “We need to catch up with the impact we’ve had on the world.”

So in the ’90s, MIT set out to change itself.

No one who knows universities will imagine that it is yet possible to see the situation whole at MIT. Williams has written a complicated and very useful book, partly about the changing nature of engineering itself, partly about the university administration’s efforts to impose control on the many satrapies within is walls, partly about the diminution of community within the university, and partly about the differences (and in many cases the similarities) among men and women. My purpose here is to mention only a small portion of her account, and call attention to the rest.

For the saga of MIT’s attempt to “Reengineer” itself not only makes lively reading. It also points a moral of use to many other successful organizations confronted by the need to adapt to changing technologies.

Begin by recalling that one of the developers (with Michael Hammer) of the “re-engineering” fad that swept through certain sectors of US industry in the ’90s, is James Champy, an MIT alum and a member of its governing corporation. Recall too that President Vest came to MIT from the University of Michigan, where ties to industry were somewhat closer than at MIT.

That helps explain why Vest chose “Reengineering” dogma to inform his internal reorganization. Consultants were hired, flip charts were ordered by the dozen, days at a time blocked out for retreats and large numbers of staffers seconded to various task forces. Teams were built, lists compiled, endless Powerpoint presentations prepared. Before long, they threatened to replace the short discursive memorandum and the brief oral presentation through which the Institute had been governed for 125 years.

“It was a heady time,” writes Williams. The university’s most basic support systems were “mapped” and then “revisioned:” buildings and grounds, mail, purchasing, appointments and staff hiring, information technology, management reporting, student services. Consultants sought to “break the culture” and obtain quick results — “low-hanging fruit,” as they put it. Often they succeeded only in shifting work from one point to another.

Faculty rebelled first, then, gradually, staffers who, after all, had more to lose. One wag proposed renaming the program “Re-sciencing,” because it “gives engineering a bad name.” Another said, “It makes me feel as though I have been abducted by aliens.” A staffer quipped, “Five years ago I never heard of facilitation and now it’s all we do.” Relations were strained. Morale suffered. Five years after it started, the Reengineering Project was firmly shut down.

The moral? “That a ‘new world’ may not be a better one,” Williams writes. The ideology of “change management” disparages institutions as obstacles to the flow of innovation, she writes. “Yet, of all the inventions that MIT has produced over the years, none has been as influential as MIT itself.”

Consulting is a notoriously slapdash business. It is in universities that the serious work on the economics of organizations is done. MIT discovered that it is better to search for wisdom internally than to go outside for a bunch of half-baked ideas about “mastering change.” Home-cooking beats store-bought in the knowledge business.