The Oxford Praxis Forum
The Oxford Praxis Forum works with senior practitioners to explore how they might engage with a top research university in ways that are mutually beneficial. It bases this exploration on the following observations.
A Common Challenge
There has been a convergence of interest between the senior practitioners in the university and the non-university sectors as both sides grapple with the demands of running knowledge intensive organisations. Both have been wrestling with the impact that the new information and communication technologies have had on their activities.
The high levels of innovation these technologies will encourage are likely to cut Schumpeterian swathes through new and established ways of doing things.
Universities are finding they are not immune to these changes. Indeed, the universities have been a major - if unwitting - contributor to the changes. It is the migration of many of their best students over the last 40 years to the corporate and professional worlds that has facilitated the development of the wide range of knowledge organisations that now make up the knowledge economy.
Senior practitioners in all sectors of this economy face a common challenge. If their knowledge of intensive organisations is to survive in the new environment, they must set a premium on having an openness to and awareness of new developments - on being permeable to new ideas.
Equal but Different Perspectives
Although they share a common challenge, the university and non-university practitioners must recognise the different paths they have taken have led to them developing different intellectual agendas. These will inevitably affect the way they approach any challenge.
Practitioners in the corporate and professional worlds are engaged in tasks that are intellectually demanding but not academic. Their focus is on knowledge that is actionable, that takes into account the implementation issues of context, values and power. By contrast the practitioners in the University world are focussed on knowledge that is generalizable and meets the particular standards of analytical rigour this involves.
As long as all sides recognise and accept these differences then it is possible to explore joint approaches that make productive use of this tension.
A Collaborative Response
Senior practitioners in both today's Universities and today's corporate and professional world enjoy a privileged but partial view of developments in the new, rapidly changing knowledge based world. To compensate for this partial view they and their organisations must find ways of pooling their insights and understandings. A top research university can help in two ways.
Republic of the Intellect
The choice of who to collaborate with will be governed by the need to stay in touch with the organisations and individuals who are forcing the pace in terms of innovation. This talent is no longer conveniently concentrated in a few institutions - it is widely distributed. All knowledge organisations must access this brainpower where it is, rather than rely on places where it has been traditionally institutionalised.
Of particular interest to universities is the latent network (or more strictly social circle) comprising of all their good students who have moved into the new, knowledge intensive corporate and professional worlds. Alumni who have continued to embrace intellectual pursuits and causes are a natural constituency for the universities to cultivate when looking for alliances that will help them stay abreast of developments.
To the extent that a top university can use its undoubted convening power to establish such a network then, once established, such a 'republic of the intellect' would also be of direct interest and benefit to the non-university members and their organisations.
Distinctive Learning Environment
The question of how to collaborate will be governed by the fact that all the relevant partners will be in knowledge intensive organisations often using similar talents and skills. The challenge for any collaborative activity is to remain focused on the uncomfortable questions involved in learning about radical new ideas and not slip back into considering the more comfortable answers involved in sharing current practice.
By drawing on its strengths in education and innovation, a top university can make a valuable contribution by designing a distinctive learning environment that ensures this activity maintains the required focus.
A Simple Praxis Forum Model
The Praxis Forum rests on a simple proposition. Senior practitioners in both today's universities and today's corporate and professional world enjoy a privileged but partial view of developments in the new, rapidly-changing, knowledge-based world. To compensate for this partial view they and their organisations must remain permeable to new ideas and innovations.
A low-key network of such practitioners, pursuing an agreed agenda of collaborative activities, in the spirit of the Republic of the Intellect, in a bespoke learning environment, can be a valuable way of fostering this permeability. It can also provide a platform that will facilitate the emergence of new practice-led knowledge.
The Praxis Forum also adopts a simple organisation. A Praxis Symposium in Oxford each spring for invited executives serves as an anchor for a portfolio of activities pursued throughout the year. These activities involve working in collaboration with executives to explore which activities are the most fertile in terms of fostering and managing permeability.
Professor Sir Douglas Hague CBE, author of many papers and books on Higher Education, Leadership and Innovation has kindly agreed to be its Honorary Chair. We are also grateful for his generous financial support.