U's future depends on management of complex change
By Mary Jo Frank
Only through building a strategic alliance with its stakeholdersstudents, faculty, staff, taxpayers, government, business and labor---will the U-M continue its tradition of greatness, predicts Dow Chemical Co. Chairman Frank Popoff.
Speaking last Monday as part of the lecture series "Changing in a World of Change: The University and Its Publics," Popoff said, "The survival of the University of Michigan is not in question. However, what the University will be is yet to be determined."
Of approximately "200 alleged research universities" in the country, he said, "you tell me how many will be real research universities in a decade, or two or three."
The University's future success depends on its ability to manage complex change through a process involving vision, skills, incentives, resources and, ultimately, an action plan, according to Popoff, who has been with Dow for more than 35 years. After serving in a variety of sales, marketing and business management positions in Midland and Europe, he was named president of Dow Europe in 1981. He served as president and CEO of Dow from 1987 until October.
Enamored with the status quo, people don't mind change as much as being changed, Popoff observed. "Total quality management taught us we haven't done as well as we could have in managing change."
Citing such innovative and successful firms as Saturn, McDonald's and Nike, Popoff said even they are vulnerable to competition.
"To be relevant today you must keep reinventing yourself."
The process of reinventing a company or institution begins with a commitment to the need to change, followed by development of change measures and an invitation to the entire organization to be part of the process. The key is to offer the opportunity to be a participant or bystander, Popoff said. "People choose participation almost every time."
Change in industry often is accomplished most successfully when the firm's existence is threatened, "when the wolf is at the door," Popoff said. "The wolf is always out there. If you don't have an enemy, you had better create one because there is always the need to improve. No one is excused from continuous improvement," he added.
Because of the enormous importance of education and the need to develop the talents of people, competition and market forces are beginning to influence
K-12 and higher education.
Employers are focusing on outcomes and skills rather than credentials. Graduation is not the sole desired outcome for students. They also want jobs.
"Technology is reshaping what is taught and how we learn," noted Popoff, who said firms might decide it is more effective to train employees in accounting by using a CD-ROM than to send them to the School of Business Administration for a degree.
During a question-answer period following Popoff's talk, Bunyan I. Bryant Jr., associate professor of natural resources, said he is concerned that workers' pensions are being invested in technology that is then putting them out of work.
What will happen to the masses when we have jobs for only a small set of highly trained, well-paid workers? Bryant asked.
Popoff said he believes that some jobsthose with high labor contentwill have to leave the United States because the work is unacceptable to American citizens. Consumers are more concerned about getting value for their money than about buying American, he said.
Not so much worried about the quantity of jobs available, Popoff said he is concerned about the quality and wages of jobs and the widening spending disparity among American workers. The United States needs to concentrate on the kinds of work that technology can generate and the future needs of consumers. A few areas Popoff cited: information, entertainment and leisure, and good quality health care.
In response to a question from Ruth M. Barnard, associate professor of nursing, about the glass ceiling's effect on women and minorities, Popoff said the biggest need at Dow is for diversity of thought.
"The workforce of the future has to employ everybody. Then we'll achieve the results we need."
Popoff predicted the next decade will be pivotal for achieving diversity in the workplace. "Those who don't progress will be castigated for underachieving, and we'll see the results on the bottom line."