“Compared to the corporate world, there are three unpleasant things about academic politics. One is that there is no clear common goal. In the corporate world at any moment of time usually there’s a well defined goal (profit, saving, market expansion, sales, loss reduction etc.), and if something doesn’t work, it least in theory, you can always stand up and ask the team to relate back to the goal. Look, we are not doing ourselves any good by getting involved in THIS, because it does not move us towards our main goal for this year. And then supposedly everybody readjust.
“In academia, large-scale goals are almost never articulated, so every person comes up with goals of their own, and there is no clear way to figure out what do we want as a team. Basically, except in situations of emergency, we never want anything collectively, as a team. Sometimes the majority of people happen to have their goals aligned, but it always happens spontaneously, not because we are explicitly required, or want to work together. I guess the whole mythology about tenure and academic freedom does not help here as well. People are so proud of the concept of academic freedom that they basically flip out every time somebody tells them what to do. It’s very much a “don’t tread on me” mentality. How dare you tell me how to teach! What speakers to invite! How to do research! People are very protective of their freedom, which is great, but it makes things harder in so many cases, as they may become protective of their freedom “just in case”, preemptively, before any actual conflict arises.
“Another, related complication, is that there is no culture of escalation and arbitrage. In the corporate world if you say “do it”, and another person or function says “don’t do it”, you can always escalate to the management, have a meeting, and agree on the priorities. There is typically a procedure for resolving conflicts, and there is a clear power, so when sales and IT have a conflict, they just calculate the costs, have a meeting, put these costs together, and delegate the decision up. In academia the structure is much flatter, the responsibilities are less clear, and there is no culture of escalation. If you would write to the dean about a conflict with another faculty, it would be perceived as an insult and open war, not as a working moment that happens literally every other week. Which means that pretty much conflicts of interest can sit there for years without ever being resolved.
“Finally, the last issue is that academics really like to think, analyze, and look into details, and really don’t like making decisions. Which is the exact opposite of the corporate world: there people usually work against a pressure of time, so they know (or are taught the hard way) that in many cases it’s more important to make a decision, any decision, than over-analyze and procrastinate. So, at least in my experience, in the corporate world when you call a meeting, present your analysis, and no obvious red flags are identified, typically people vote for a “go” decision, and immediately send a proposal to the management. In academia typically nobody would believe your analysis, because they will feel that they need to do it themselves (not that they have the time of course), and then several hypothetical reservations will be voiced, and “what if” scenarios will be described, and a few people in the room will have some strong reservations they’ll never voice (because, again, there is no culture of conflict resolution), and then everybody would agree to give it another thought, and maybe reconvene in half a year, or maybe form a committee, and give it another look, so forth and so on. There is no decision culture, and things can drag forever, even when people are generally sympathetic to the cause, just because they don’t have a habit of working small things out in order to push something big forward.”