“What Kind of Hedgehog Do We Need to Be?”
Remarks to Global Business Networking Group
Leslie Boney, UNC General Administration
April 30, 2008
I want to take a few minutes today to challenge us to do something that is completely counter to our nature: to commit to being great. I know what we say in our state toast – that we are the place where “the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,” but if you’ve lived in North Carolina very long at all, you know that we are truly, madly deeply committed to being slightly above average. Truly “great”? No, we’re “the valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.” We are a “yeoman state.” We are a state that aspires, some day, to pay our public school teachers an average amount, and to keep our test scores and college achievement rates just ahead of Mississippi and South Carolina. I think we can do more than that. I think we have to do more than that. And I think the path we can follow to do that is summed up by one word: innovation.
But I want to start in a very different place: between the hedges, in the home of a spiny creature with the snout of a pig. Yes, the lowly hedgehog.
The world is a pretty scary place for hedgehogs now. I know. I looked it up. If you’re a hedgehog these days, the insects you eat are often infected with pesticides. You get cancer at alarming rates. You love the taste of milk, but you are lactose intolerant, and worse, the containers for the McFlurry milkshake from McDonald’s have a design that tends to trap your head so you starve to death while you suffer with lactose intolerance. Romance has always been, well, logistically complicated (spines and stuff). You are 0 for 25,000 (and counting) in your encounters with cars. And you’ve still got your historical rivals out there – ferrets, owls, badgers and foxes – just waiting for you to let down your guard for a split second. It is a tough time to be a hedgehog.
It’s not any easier to be a working person in North Carolina these days. You’ve watched over the past ten years as your job – or your best friend’s job or your spouse’s -- have gone away.
There’s no denying it. Our traditional production jobs – in textiles, tobacco, furniture, lumber – are either going away or dramatically changing their nature and we aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. And the change is moving up the economic food chain. The fiber optics industry rose and then nearly completely crashed in Hickory in less than a decade. Thousands of IT jobs could be outsourced over the next decade. Where does it end? My boss calls it an “economic tsunami.”
It makes us want to do what the hedgehog does when confronted by an enemy: curl up in a ball and wait out the threat. It’s a perfect defense.
But the problem is that withdrawing from the world just doesn’t work very well as a long-term strategy. Eventually, the hedgehog has to eat. Every day he needs 200 grams of bugs a day to keep up his weight.
In a global economy, we have to find a new way to eat.
Which brings us to another way of looking at the hedgehog. A few years ago, in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins looked at what separated truly great companies from merely good companies. What is it that enables some companies to take on their competition across the nation and across the world and become great?
Collins came up with the “hedgehog” theory. He based it on an old saying, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” It turns out it was written by a Greek guy named Archilochus more than 2000 years ago (what a name, right? Sounds like some sort of exotic insect).
So what does the hedgehog know? How to stop the fox from eating him. Collins’ point is that the companies that are really great in today’s economy are those that determine what they are best at. They focus themselves, get the right people working for them, and then they go out and do it. Erskine Bowles puts it a different way: “if you’re about everything, you’re about nothing.” Bottom line: in this world, you can’t do everything well. You have to pick a few things.
As we at UNC try to do our part to transform the North Carolina economy, we’re working to figure out what North Carolina’s “few things” might be. Part of that work is what I would describe as “sort-of-easy.”
What are we doing so far? We have a designated person on each campus who has been identified as the go-to person to help those who want to find out if the University can help them with their business challenges. We make sure people know about the services of our extension services, the small business consulting services of our SBTDC, our entrepreneurship centers and other specific kinds of help our various campuses can provide through incredibly-skilled faculty, innovative programs and services. The next step is to organize that work better, communicate it better and then figure out where the gaps still are. It may mean solving a problem companies are having getting good workers – a couple of weeks ago, we heard from a group of tech companies that together employ 58,000 North Carolinians. Their message: you aren’t giving us enough people with enough technical expertise, and you aren’t giving us people with enough ability to innovate.
Okay, none of those three things are “easy.” But they are doable, and we are starting to do them. That brings me to the one hard thing that our universities have to learn how to do: we have got to be ruthless in establishing ourselves as the state’s epicenters of innovation.
What would that look like? Here’s the vision that my late father-in-law, George Autry, who headed a southern think tank called MDC, had way back in 1998.
“Too many Southerners see their careers based on their ability to do specific things: make things, drive things, dig things, lift things or pick things. The economy, meanwhile, is rewarding those – regardless of race, gender or ethnicity – who have the ability to think things.”
That to me is what needs to be our core, “hedgehog” concept as a University, and, I believe, as a state. We need to believe that our competitive advantage is, and can continue to be, our ability to innovate -- believe that our state is a place where we help grow people who can think things.
Think about the world we are living in, and our students are graduating into. Here are a few quick phrases from an Internet presentation called “Shift Happens” that describe it: “The top 10 jobs that will be in demand for 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.” We are “preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist” where they will use “technologies that have not yet been invented,” so they can “solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet,” all trying to sort through a volume of technical information that, by 2010, is “estimated to double every 72 hours.”
This is not “your father’s Oldsmobile” economy. This is a hybrid. And if this year it runs on recycled restaurant cooking oil (the kind UNCP converts to fuel), next year it may run off of methane (the kind ASU is helping counties use from their landfills and hog waste). And the year after that? WE DON’T KNOW.
That means we can’t be our father’s education system either. If we are a university that cares about leading our state’s ability to innovate, we need to find a way to restructure ourselves to be centers of innovation. And that means some pretty serious change.
Students: Our UNC Tomorrow report says we need to be about creating “globally ready” students. They need to be what someone from IBM described in one of our listening forums as “T-shaped” – deep in one area, and broad across a lot of others. More importantly, they need to be the sort of students Lenovo’s lead recruiter for the America’s described – people who can take really complicated problems and develop real solutions. That means we need to find a way of graduating students who are lateral thinkers, with a lot of “inters” -- interdisciplinary skills, interpersonal skills, and international skills.
I got to spend a month at Duke four years ago on a fellowship, and during the month I met a brilliant Brit named Alex Jacobs. He came in one morning outraged, in a dither (or whatever it is Brits get into, maybe a “snit”): “You know, this whole idea of ‘give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life’? Well it’s absolute rubbish, isn’t it? What happens if he loses his taste for fish? What happens if he has to move away from the water? What happens when the fish go away? What we need to be doing is teaching people how to think about the problem when the fish go away!” This is a world where the fish are going away, and if we don’t equip our students to solve big problems like that, they won’t be ready for the world they are moving into.
Faculty: We need faculty who are freed up to teach in new ways, to reach students the way they learn, in the places they learn. That might mean something other than a traditional lecture format; it might be much more interactive or through hands-on internships. That may not be face-to-face; it might be through our newly-revitalized, steroid-laden, 150-degree program-offering, UNC Online -- or at night or on weekends. We need faculty who are freed up to innovate in the way they do research, working in a place that is innovative about how it gets innovation into the marketplace. We need faculty who are innovative in their ability to imagine and describe new solutions to tough social problems,who can create new drugs and gadgets to help us find our way out of the increasingly-complex boxes we find ourselves in; and who can collaborate across disciplinary, institutional and international lines. Think about it: two bike makers invented the airplane; four doctors invented Gatorade; our military invented the Internet. Think about the really big problems we are facing now: global warming, fuel shortages, communicable diseases, poverty, education disparities. Every one of those is ultimately a global problem. There is no reason UNC, and others in our state, can’t lead the way in solving them. But we can’t – and won’t – do it in ivory towers, and our campuses have just sent us about 1300 pages of ideas – their initial response to the UNC Tomorrow report -- about how they can change. I hope we have some great answers somewhere in there.
Public: If we are truly going to innovate in the future, we need to be in conversation with the people outside of our university – in our immediate communities, across the state and nation, and, increasingly, around the world – to co-innovate with K-12, with corporate partners, with entrepreneurs, with government and with nonprofits. To let folks know what sort of research we are doing and make it easier to transfer technology out of our labs and into the marketplace. We can’t be so arrogant as to think we are the only innovators, the only people with good ideas out there. But we also can’t shy away from our responsibility to be a critical part of the solution, to agree to be the people who really lead.
A lot of the innovations we need in the future involve our STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math. But if we going to be truly innovative, we need every one of our disciplines doing the work. We need new styles of teaching and learning. We need new ways of bringing together ideas like sociology and math, ethics and biology. We need people to bring their innovative minds to addressing governmental and public policy problems. Can counties live off of an economy built on service sector jobs? What are the most promising transition strategies for 40-year-old mill workers who have been laid off? How do we pay for health care going forward? How do we address our new painfully two-tiered economy? What are the new middle class jobs that will sustain our economy going forward? How do we think about globalization and immigration? The University has a responsibility to lead in that sort of innovation as well. And the University has an obligation to foster that kind of innovative thinking in the arts, in design, in synthesizing different ideas, in things as strange and wonderful as gaming. That sort of “right brain” thinking is going to be a gigantic part of our economy going forward. But not if we don’t get intentional about getting really good at it.
So let me try to sum up where I believe we are and where we need to go:
So what kind of “hedgehog” do we want to be here in North Carolina? We have two choices, really.
I believe the answer going forward is to make that commitment to innovation. Without that commitment, without that focus, we won’t believe there is any solution, and we will end up doing what any group does when it is scared – turn inward, put up barriers, live in fear. That’s one way to survive, but it’s no way to live.
You know, in North Carolina, we often aspire to slightly-above-averageness. To yeomanship. To humility.
But we are also a state that has a history of taking bold steps in the face of daunting challenges – the place that adopted the nation’s first declaration of independence – in Mecklenburg County in 1775; the place where the first Freedman’s Colony was established for former slaves after the Civil War; the state that stood alone in fully financing public schools in the middle of the Great Depression. We are the state that welcomed the Wright Brothers with open arms as they tried to determine where to try out their new machine. We are the place that formed a partnership among government, private developers, giant corporations and universities to create a research park that became the envy of the world. We are a state where people created innovative nonprofits like the NC Biotechnology Center and the NC Rural Center, innovative education-based entities like the School of Government and the Industrial Extension Service. We are the state that created the nation’s best affordable public university system and a community college system that is studied by imitators across the nation and across the world. We are the state that incubated and grew the world’s largest private software company and two of the nation’s top four banks.
So there’s plenty of evidence we can rise above our default aspiration, get beyond the idea that it is okay to be “slightly above average for southern states” in a global economy that doesn’t care where we live? This is it: Our chance to make a fundamental change in how we see ourselves, how we act in the world, what we do to help give our children a chance in this scary, exciting world we live in. I hope we choose greatness over fear.