Getting Things Done vs. Doing Things Right


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Last month, a study at Kaplan reported that Americans believe an internship at Google to be more helpful to a high school graduate’s future career than a Harvard degree. In some ways, this isn’t surprising, given recent doubt over the career readiness of fresh-out-of-college young adults.


Why is there such a discrepancy between what colleges teach and what employers look for?


Having worked for a couple years in private industry, and now returning to academia, I have a guess. It’s not that colleges aren’t teaching the right things, or are outdated in their technology, or students don’t have enough internship opportunities.


There’s a fundamental difference in the approach employers and colleges take to training: Employers focus on getting things done, colleges focus on doing things right. These things aren’t mutually exclusive and often overlap, but they can conflict.


Let me explain.


I studied human resources (HR) in college, then worked in HR at a rapidly growing start-up. In college classes, we talked about the ideal incentives to motivate employees and the right selection methods to hire the right person without discriminating against others.


In real life, it wasn’t that easy. As a lowly HR associate with many business factors out of my control, I couldn’t implement a department-wide variable-ratio reinforcement program for sales incentives. When I only had a few days to find and hire a new employee, I didn’t have time to implement a Solomon Four-Group research design to test the accuracy of the selection method.


Colleges teach us what the ideal looks like. Unfortunately, the real world is far from ideal, and the ideal world is far from realistic.


There’s an open secret that academia often moves at a snail’s pace. Especially in publishing, we tend to be a year or two behind. Part of the reason for this is a commitment, rightfully so, to getting it right. Papers go through numerous rounds of peer review to ensure accuracy and quality. As important as this process is, in the real world, things just move too fast.


On the flip side, the focus on getting things done contributes to an overwhelming pressure to produce results — even if it means taking some shortcuts. Consider the big-name scandals such as Enron or Theranos, where the same drive to produce positive and impactful results fueled a breakdown of ethics and eventual catastrophic collapse. These ethical scandals often come out of a culture of performance pressure and a short-sighted fixation on the financials.


Doing it right usually takes a long time, but getting it done doesn’t always allow for time.


Kaplan president Brandon Busteed, in his assessment of the finding that Americans think a Google internship is more important than a Harvard degree, argues that higher education must embrace an “innovative fusion between education and work,” and explore “the possibility of new partnership models.” Yes, such new partnerships would be vital to bridge the apparent gap. But I’m concerned that simply adding more internship requirements, increasing career center funding or offering more online degrees and certificates won’t solve the problem.


Bridging this gap would require a fundamental shift in the way both colleges and employers think about what it means to train the next generation. Students need to learn both how to do things right and to get things done.


Until colleges and employers embrace both philosophies and integrate them into both college curricula and work expectations, the gap is only going to get larger and larger.