IN-Volved Series: Emilio Costales

Universities and Type III Errors: Isomorphism and Systems Change

My PhD research looks at how Social Entrepreneurs influence the emergence of Smart Cities. Smart Cities are pretty much the future – more and more people are moving into cities, which means they have to deal with problems like gentrification, climate change, and inequality.

All of these problems are ridiculously intricate – you think you’ve found a solution and it turns out you didn’t-you may have even gone backwards. It’s like doing a phd – you think you’re doing a good job, but you probably aren’t, but maybe you are?

So how do you address this? Regarding the Phd- I still haven’t figured it out- but I hope this post (and the paper) provides some insights for sustainability initiatives from universities, businesses, or governments (it’s always easier to deal with problems that aren’t yours).

Universities and Type III Errors: Isomorphism and Systems Change looks at how we need to take a step back and make sure we’re addressing the right question. Type III errors refers to adopting the right solutions to the wrong problems. Think about Kenya’s ‘Laptops for School’ hope; the idea was to prepare students for an ICT intensive economy by providing them with laptops and tablets. Promoting digital literacy is certainly a great idea to thrive in a knowledge economy, but the initiative failed. Why?? because the educators themselves did not have the necessary digital literacy. So the underlying problem wasn’t addressed.

In a similar vein, this paper looks at how organizations find themselves in the midst of type III errors by following a community initiative and the challenges to making it successful. (So far) I’ve found that discrepancies in institutional logics and operational goals between stakeholders leads organizations to understand the same problem in different ways, which causes them to adopt conflicting solutions and contributes to type III errors. Power structures in the environments where organizations emerge play a pretty significant role in the directions new initiatives take. This can happen in multiple ways, but the overarching concept is known as Isomorphism: similarities in processes or organisation (originally written about by Paul DiMaggio and Robert Powell in the 80s).

Interestingly enough, type III errors really are accidents – (generally) people don’t want to make things worse, so why do they do it?? Well the biggest factor might be a coordination issue: how do you understand a problem and how do you react to that understanding?? Enter institutional logics: broadly speaking, this refers to how belief systems shape the behaviour of individuals. A might warrant response B from one person and response C from another person.

A university is like a microcosm of society. There are a bunch of different demographics and they are often conflicting. For example, Undergraduates and Postgraduates usually require different things; even among these groups they are not the same– biology undergraduates and humanities undergraduates probably don’t need the same thing; conversely, humanities undergraduates may have more in common with humanities postgraduates than undergraduates from different schools; international students and home students often require different things- all international students are not the same and all home students are not the same. Administration, students, professors, and support staff don’t all require (or want) the same things. All of these groups are so different, but they are also part of a community that expresses itself externally as the university. To people who aren’t members of a university, those within the confines (not necessarily physical confines) of a university may seem more similar than they really are. With all of these different groups, what can be done to avoid type 3 errors??

As part of my literature review, I have found 7 very useful conceptions of system change from the Saïd Business School’s Systems Change Observatory that I think are very helpful to anyone trying to affect positive system change, venturing into entrepreneurship, or just wants to understand deep-rooted change:

  1. Disrupt the Status Quo
  2. Explore Cause and Effect
  3. Empower People
  4. Improve Coordination
  5. Scale Up
  6. Scale Deep
  7. Go beyond your organization

In the paper, I want to focus on number 4. Improve Coordination. Universities are beacons of progress and forward thinking, but anyone existing within a university setting will tell you that sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. The same goes for business; recently, an Amazon executive quit because of the way the company handled the concerns of its employees. I think we can all agree that Universities and companies like Amazon represent progress and growth, but they are not exempt from internal discord and challenges.

I want to show that it is (unfortunately) more layered than it appears. I say unfortunately because, admittedly, when things don’t work the way that is most convenient for me, I really want to just say “this thing isn’t progressive”, judge it, and move on– but there’s more to it🙄. What is innovative and convenient for someone may not have the same effect on me.

Similarly, being in a place with educated people doesn’t make something progressive or forward thinking, the same way being in a place with traditionally uneducated people doesn’t make something regressive or backwards. Innovation in one aspect does not constitute innovation of the whole and my hope is to dive deep into the fundamentals of this phenomenon. Whether you’re a business, university, or government, I think any reader will be able to benefit from reading this paper.

Improving Coordination can really help to identify problems between and among groups as well as how each group can support themselves in a way that effectively addresses the correct problem. Coordination, however, goes beyond just being like “we should do this”, it also includes identifying what makes different groups tick. We all know that we can do better together, but I pose a different question: why?

Regardless of the problem you aim to address– whether it’s through organising a group of your peers, creating a traditional business, a social venture, a non-profit, or even solving personal problems: think deeply about the problem to avoid errors of the third kind. Think deeply about what it is you’re really trying to change and think deeply about why the thing you’re trying to change currently operates the way it does. I think understanding these things is the foundation of innovation.

— Written by Emilio Costales

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