Good to Great in Social Organizations

Written by  //  August 17, 2011  //  Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Students  //  2 Comments

As many of you know, I am using the tag line “Good to Great” to describe our efforts to transform the College of Technology over the next few years so we are recognized as the undisputed leader in technology education. Good to Great comes from the book titled Good to Great by Jim Collins written in 2001. That book studies companies that for years were good companies but suddenly become great companies. “Suddenly” is a poor choice of words in the previous sentence because the leaders involved in turning a company from Good to Great have lived through the days, months, and years of focused effort necessary to transform the companies. From the outside it appeared that these companies “suddenly” became great companies as their profits began to easily outpace their competitors’ profits, which led to the value of the company’s stock consistently outpacing their competitors stock value.

The real question I imagine most of us have with moving the College of Technology from Good to Great is whether the attributes of successful public companies apply to the social sector, such as higher education.  Glad you asked the question.

Jim Collins wrote a short monograph to answer this very question which Brent Bowen, the department head of aviation technology shared with me a few days ago. The title of that monograph is: Good to Great and the Social Sector. I would highly recommend reading this, especially if you prefer not to read the book Good to Great, which is nearly 300 pages in length. The monograph is only 35 pages long, but more importantly, it shows that the Good to Great concept can be applied to the social sector even more effectively than it can in public companies. Jim Collins writes that: “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”

A great organization is one that makes an impact over a long period of time. Purdue uses the word “impact” on a regular basis to describe our contributions to society. When you write a National Science Foundation proposal, you are required to include a section in the summary that addresses “broader impacts.” Our impact at Purdue and society will be based on a move to greatness.  As Jim Collins writes, good is the enemy of greatness and is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.

Being good has a certain amount of complacency inherent in it which is why greatness is a dynamic process and not an end point. The moment you think you are great, you begin the slide to mediocrity. The moment you accept good as good enough it becomes the enemy of becoming great.

The College of Technology is very good and already has islands of greatness, but to make the greatest impact on society requires a great organization, not a single or a few great programs. Greatness also is not a function of circumstances; it is a matter of conscious choice and discipline. Social organizations like our college can move from Good to Great, and in doing so, it will result in the impact that we all strive for as we work to lead the nation in defining and preparing the 21st century technologist.

2 Comments on "Good to Great in Social Organizations"

  1. Mihaela Vorvoreanu August 18, 2011 at 1:39 am · Reply

    I appreciate Collins’ statement that “We need to reject the naive imposition of the ‘language of business’ on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness.” Sometimes, the language of business -and its underlying values- may conflict with the values of an institution that serves society.

  2. Terry Burton August 31, 2011 at 2:28 pm · Reply

    I believe that until this University solves the issue of “risk” associated with innovation, we as a college will have a very difficult time emerging from ‘good to great’. There are universities that do an excellent job of creating infrastructure to support innovation and greatness. And, they often do it under the umbrella of research without crossing the vague line of ‘values’ that may be contrary to the stated values of the institution.

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