Understanding the connections between education and business matters. Questions concerning those connections abound, including: the extent to which higher education should make use of business methods; the extent to which education should focus on preparing individuals for jobs and careers, and if so how; and whether businesses, like educational institutions, should have both financial and social goals. Are the answers merely matters of ideology? If not, how can one reach answers that are well-founded?
In this note, I will examine the most basic connections between education and business. I will show that, at a deep level, education and business are inextricably interrelated. Through the examination, I will develop tools for understanding and offering well-founded answers to both practical and policy questions.
In a subsequent note, I will examine fundamental differences between education and business. In still other notes, I will apply the tools and analyses to issues such as: the problem of value in higher education; the reasons for education’s resistance to business concepts and methodologies; and the respective roles of accountability in education and business.
Common sense says that there are and should be some connections between education and business. Education would seem to support business in certain ways and education would seem to draw on the methods of business in certain ways. This general outlook has long been with us. For example, in a 1903 essay, The Remote Relation Between Education and Business, the author argued for an important, albeit indirect relationship:
[E]xpert training for business or trades is hopeless in school. But some consolation remains in this, that the school is a good place for the harder and more disagreeable, but none the less necessary, training in manners, traits, and self-control. Business is system, organization, discipline, drudgery. A school rationally founded on these is better preparation for business than any other.
People continue to urge this type of indirect connection today, for example, with regard to the relevance of liberal arts education to career success.
To take another example, in a 1991 Harvard Business Review article, Does Business Have Any Business in Education?, the author challenged some prevailing assumptions, in particular “that school is school and work is work.” To the contrary, he argued that “in this new economy, school and work are necessarily intertwined. . . . Today more than ever before, school is about working and work is about learning.” People continue to urge this type of interconnection today, for example, as concerns apprenticeships and practical training in schools.
The common-sense view is rarely examined. But it immediately raises two sets of deeper questions. First, are the notions of education and business conceptually independent, like blue and square, so that any connections between them are merely contingent? Could there, for example, be no connections between education and business? Second, if the notions are not conceptually independent, can one identify connections more fundamental than those of common sense? If so, might those deeper connections explain or support the common-sense view?
People avoid the deeper questions or else struggle to provide satisfactory answers. One reason is the tendency to rely on paradigms: post-secondary education as the paradigm of education, and regular manufacture or sale of a good as the paradigm of business. But this is inadequate. Education and business are each considerably broader and reliance on the paradigms yields too narrow a focus. A second reason is that the notions of education and business are not fixed for all time. Each relates to and is influenced by a society’s current interests, beliefs, expectations, and needs. The scope and meaning of each is adaptable, like justice or common sense, rather than stable, like blue or round.
The task is to move beyond these limitations and develop a well-grounded approach to understanding education, business, and the connections between them.
To begin, just what are we talking about when we talk about education or business?
Each is a broad and complex domain of social phenomena. Each encompasses a variety of types of interaction, system, and structure. Education, for example, may variously apply to: the activity of teaching someone how to use a sewing machine; a method used for teaching persons how to use a sewing machine; a class or a program that includes instruction in the use of sewing machines; or a school in which one can learn how to use a sewing machine. A quick review of definitions and synonyms of business confirms that similar observations may be made about it, too. This underlying similarity—as complex social domains—suggests that there may be deeper connections which observation and analysis can identify.
Observation and analysis shows that there are two key commonalities between the domains. First, each essentially involves the same fundamental form of social activity, exchange. Second, each, in its own way, promotes or enables important types of social order.
These commonalities, in turn, illuminate and explain two basic connections. First, education and business can, without contradiction, overlap with each other, and often do. Second, each can provide support the other with respect to the other’s social function.
This much is largely an elaboration on common sense. What is important, however, is that analysis shows these commonalities and connections not to be accidental or superficial and not tied to paradigms. The analysis also provides tools and a framework for understanding, assessing, or urging other, less fundamental, connections.
Exchange is a pervasive form of social activity and a universal anthropological concept. It is “the chief means by which useful things move from one person to another.” (Fn. 1) Because law and business are so influential in our society, we tend to view exchange as necessarily economic or contractual. The paradigm might be the sale of potatoes for cash. But there are many types of exchange in any given society, each with its own characteristics and functions. In our society, kinds of exchange include selling consulting services; taking turns in a car pool; issuing a life insurance policy; extorting a victim; and giving money to public radio during a pledge drive.
Educational exchange involves the transfer from one person to another of particular kinds of intangible things: knowledge, skills, culture, and values. This description accords with common definitions or understandings of education but highlights the fact that the core activity is a form of exchange. An educational exchange can relate to an everyday activity, such as cleaning a floor, or to a highly complex one, such as designing gravitational wave detectors. It can also relate to a fundamental social domain, such as business, religion, politics, or law. Hence the existence of law schools and executive education programs in marketing.
There is an important qualification. Education applies to exchange activity only when it either has a measure of complexity or involves continuation or recurrence. Giving directions to a stranger on the street, while an exchange transmitting knowledge, would not be considered education. By contrast, offering workshops for tourists on how to navigate the city would.
Business also involves exchange. However, the scope of business exchange is broader and little constrained by subject matter. What is transferred may be virtually anything useful (or potentially useful), whether a rutabaga, a piece of information, or a euro futures option.
There are two important qualifications to this characterization of business exchange. Just as with education, the exchange activity must either have a measure of complexity or involve continuation or recurrence. A one-off exchange by two children of a frog for a turtle would not be considered business. But if one of the children regularly catches frogs and exchanges them for money or other items, the activity could be so considered.
In addition, business exchange is marked by the lack of a certain primary intention. A business exchange is generally one that is not carried out primarily for benevolent purposes or for purposes of advancing a societal, as opposed to an individual, end. There can, of course, be secondary intentions in a business exchange. For example, a secondary intention in the sale of wheat by a merchant to an NGO may be to alleviate hunger in a particular country. Indeed, there are both popular and technical efforts to import benevolence or social good into business exchange and business activity. Thus, there may not be a razor-sharp line between business and nonbusiness exchange.
As I will explain in a subsequent post, neither business nor educational exchange is a conceptually or empirically fundamental form of exchange. However, it is not necessary for purposes of this note to analyze these types of exchange further.
Social order is the ability of members of a society to “coordinate their actions and . . . cooperate to attain common goals.” (Fn. 2) It contrasts with disorder and is reflected in the “regularity, repetition, and predictability of everyday social lives.” (Fn. 3) Education and business are each means for achieving and maintaining social coordination and cooperation. Each does so through a suite of activities, methodologies, systems, and institutions.
Education promotes order over time, principally through exchange activity. The exchange of knowledge, skills, culture, and values concerning a subject enables cooperation and coordination both at a given time and as between past, present, and future. It ensures (to borrow from William Faulkner) that “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Fn. 4) Educational exchange activity may be informal (e.g., a parent teaching a child how to fish) or more formal (e.g., an expert teaching welding in a community college). It may relate to narrowly defined phenomena or systems (e.g., bowling) or to broader patterns or systems (e.g., not prying into another person’s private life). Education, in its more structured forms, may further contribute to social order by, for example, enabling enduring access to knowledge, skills, culture, and values (e.g., through books).
Business also enables coordination and cooperation, but in different ways. First, as noted above, business exchange is not a fundamental form of exchange. However, most often it consists of a fundamental form known as market-pricing exchange. This form of exchange is based on systematic use of a common, flexible, and divisible measure of value. (Fn. 5) The most important such measure (although not the only one) is money. The ability to exchange useful items based on a common and divisible measure of value enables markets, which are mechanisms for coordination. It also enables a wide range of other activities, structures, and institutions important to coordination and cooperation, such as laboring for a wage and owning and valuing real property.
A second difference is that the methods, systems, and structures of business are broadly applicable. They can be applied to support coordination and cooperation in connection with non-business exchange and other activity. For example, accounting and laboring for a wage can support philanthropic activity or activity primarily for the public good. Or, for another example, branding in its modern (highly developed) form can be used in connection with phenomena that do not involve (or primarily involve) business exchange. For example, it has been extended to practices of personal branding, including use in non-market contexts (such as politics or social influence). This broad applicability stands in contrast to education: education’s associated methods, systems, and structures have limited applicability to phenomena other than those in the educational domain.
These commonalities explain two basic connections that are easy to see and, at a general level, part of common sense: overlap and reciprocal support.
The criteria for educational and business exchange are not mutually exclusive. A given activity or suite of activities may have elements of both. Indeed, this is quite common. To take a simple example, a housepainter may employ an assistant (business exchange) while teaching her painting skills (educational exchange) as part of the relationship. To take another example, the conveying of knowledge and skills via a coding school involves both educational exchange (in the teaching activity) and business exchange (in the provision of services for a fee).
This much does not seem controversial. However, exchange overlap implies a broader overlap that often does generate controversy. Exchange is never an autonomous activity. It always involves some social relationship between the parties (even where there is anonymity):
Giving something to someone always means something. It indexes an intention to engage in a social relationship, creates a relationship, sustains it, marks its continued existence and its current status, or modifies it. (Fn. 6)
Hence, where there is concurrent educational and business exchange there are concurrent educational and business relationships. This alone does not seem controversial. It is easy to see in the coding school example that there are both hierarchical teacher-student relationships (educational) and market-based school- student relationships (business). What can give rise to disagreements is the respective scope of the two types of relationship, and which (if either) is dominant in the overall structure of relationships. For example, it is well accepted that educational exchange through a school must be accompanied by business exchange so that the school can be sustainable. But one often finds resistance to a wide scope for business relationships in the educational context, and pressure to limit or heavily regulate it.
Education and business can provide support for the other’s societal functions. The kinds of support differ, however. A business activity, system, or organization, if complex or ongoing, requires some educational activity or system. It is necessary in order to ensure the continuing availability of knowledge, skills, culture, and values relevant to the functioning and success of the business activity. This much accords with common sense. Disagreements, however, arise as to the nature of the educational activity or system that best supports a given form of business (or business in general). Liberal arts education and practical training are two possible answers. “[T]raining in manners, traits, and self-control,” according to the 1903 article, is another.
Conversely, educational activities, systems, and organizations may need support from the business domain, particularly from its broadly applicable methods, systems, and structures. For example, systematic educational exchange may need to draw on employment relationships and on organizational forms developed within the business domain. The greater the complexity or continuity of the educational activity, the greater the need for these methods, systems, or structures. The recurring issues here concern the scope and character of the business methods, systems, and structures appropriate to providing the support.
These, then, are the basic commonalities and connections between education and business. They result from what we understand education and business to be. With some further refinement, the understanding and tools developed can also be used to clarify fundamental differences between education and business. I will explore these differences and their roots in a subsequent post.
The understanding and tools developed here can also be put to use with regard to other connections and differences which, although less fundamental, are of great important for practice and policy. I will explore some of these further connections and differences in a later post.
1 John Davis, Exchange (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) 1.
2 Michael Hechter and Christine Horne, Theories of Social Order (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2009) 1.
3 Edward J. Lawler, et al., “Social Psychology of Social Order: An Introduction,” ed. Edward J. Lawler, et al., Order on the Edge of Chaos: Social Psychology and the Problem of Social (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 1.
4 William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, (New York: Random House, 1951) Act I, Scene III.
5 Alan Page Fiske, Structures of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations (New York: Free Press, 1991) 15.
6 Fiske 33.