When Less is More

By Charles Henry posted

Last month the Committee on Coherence at Scale for Higher Education held its first meeting, generously hosted by Vanderbilt University and its provost Richard McCarty and Dean of Libraries Connie Vinita Dowell. The meeting was a success, in that many excellent ideas were aired and next steps articulated. A more detailed timeline of committee activities and a sharper definition of scope and goals will be forthcoming, as will announcement of teams of researchers who will work on behalf of the committee’s interest. This blog, though, explores a more theoretical aspect of the committee’s deliberations and some of the implications that may obtain by virtue of its rethinking of higher education and its component parts.

In an elegant, brief primer, Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows and her colleagues lay out the complexities of systemic organization and the methods by which we can come to best understand the phenomenon of a system: “a set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors, often classified as its ‘function’ or ‘purpose’.” (188) The book elucidates issues such as bounded rationality—the kind of decisions that work well in one part of the system and not another; constraints; archetypes; and shifting dominance that can constrain or facilitate a system’s flow.

The large-scale, new digital ecology proposed for higher education that the Committee on Coherence intends to foster is at heart a system, and a most complex one. Like other multifaceted sets of elements it cannot be described or understood by looking at just one or a few of its components. It transcends its parts, and the new, emerging behavior that derives from its construction is not only the flow and gating of electrons but the behavior of its builders and users: our function and purpose as students, scholars, technicians, librarians, and administrators.

In this respect, one behavior that will undoubtedly need modification if the new environment is constructed is the set of methods we use for measuring success: our benchmarks and metrics of assessment. For decades, we have counted items, whether books, or journals, or subscriptions, or staff, or dollars. We have counted them, tabulated the results, and often refer to these compilations as a metric of performance. We assume that having more of one item or another year to year is an indicator of progress; jumping significantly in a hierarchical ranking by virtue of increased investments or acquisitions is similarly a sign of achievement.

But consider one scenario of higher education that functions at scale. If a digital library, or libraries, are built, if a national system is built for archiving those assets in a way that is audited and trusted, and if a select number of regional repositories are developed that allow for a few strategically placed redundant copies of analog books and journals, then a significant number of copies of those titles can be de-accessioned across hundreds of institutions. Swift, reliable access to those titles, with preservation guaranteed over time, would foster new scholarship and discovery, not inhibit it, at a considerable collective savings.

In this model, an array of competing, stand-alone institutions create an impedance for systemic flow and productivity. One institution measuring itself against others is illogical at the level of digital workflow. Collaboration at a very large scale, cooperation, and alignment of interests are key behaviors, as is collective funding (Internet 2 is a fine example of past coherence at scale). This is an intuitive conundrum where less is actually more. Our elaborate counts and calculations are of little avail in the new world, reminding us that the means by which we assay our success and progress is always deterministic, a tool in thrall to a particular system of thinking that can, and almost inevitably does, clash with and confound the arrival of the new.