In a previous post I gave an early conceptualisation of a cycle I was seeing in the history of educational technology I’ve been working on as part of the “Past Experience” section of the Ps Framework – chapter 2 of my thesis. In this post I try and give an overview of a similar cycle already well established: Birnbaum’s (2000) Life Cycle of the Fads Process.
As I near the end of this post, I recognise the overlap/connection with Gartner’s Hype Cycle, so I’ve added some discussion of that. Since it appears to pre-date Birnbaum’s work.
Fads and Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum is both an academic researcher and writer about management of higher education and someone who has taken on various senior management roles within universities. His 2000 book Management fads in higher education: Where they come from, what they do, why they fail seeks to demonstrate and understand why universities and their management appear to have an on-going interest in the slavish and unquestioned drive towards adoption of the latest fad to come along.
It does this be examining 7 recent management fads in higher education: Program planning budgeting system, management by objectives, zero-base budgeting, strategic planning, benchmarking, Total Quality Management and Business Process Reengineering. After describing the development of each of these, the book develops a conceptual model of a fad life-cycle. A life-cycle that is used, in conjunction with other material, to understand why fads arise, what they do and how to work with them.
Birnbaum’s fad life-cycle
A version of the life-cycle’s graphical representation is shown in the following image. Birnbaum also uses the graphical representation to suggest that some institutions approach tends to be the on-going adoption of one fad after the other. i.e. the devolution and resolution of the previous fad, leads directly into the creation of the next. He also shows how fads move between sectors. In particular, how fads generally develop in the business/non-academic sector and then move into the higher education sector. He suggests that this movement between sectors usually comes after the end of the narrative evolution stage. i.e. the next sector adopts the fad once the wrinkles in the fad really start to show in the original sector.
Stage 1 – Creation
Fads are created by the observation of some crisis for which the fad provides the solution. The fad is supported by advocates, generally folk whose livelihood depends on creating and disseminating the new fad. The fad is accompanied by unified stories of success by external champions and early organisational adopters. A new fad can be supported or driven by the availability of a new technology.
People or organisations who adopt the fad are demonstrated to be more successful than those who don’t. Resistance is described as reluctance and may lead to loss of status.
Stage 2 – Narrative Evolution
Stories about the fad continue to evolve, particularly those hailing the innovation and describing successful implementation. “Consultants, champions, purveyors of the technology and adopters” contribute these stories in various forums, internal and external to the organisation. These stories position the author and organisation as innovative and forward thinking and are often picked up by newspapers and other media and reported using a label, slogan or other simplistic descriptions.
The pressure increases on those who haven’t adopted. Lack of adoption is seen as recalcitrance, conservative, self-interested or resistant to change.
Stage 3 – Time lag
This is the period between the creation and dissemination of the fad and the wide availability of user reactions and independent analyses. Stories of success continue during this period and are usually written by organisational members with a vested interest in being associated with a success. This is the period when adoption of the innovation peaks.
Stage 4 – Narrative Devolution
The pendulum starts to swing back the other way. Initial optimistic stories are replaced by overly pessimiatic stories. Disenchantment sets in. Stories arise in various media about how this fad is just like all those that came before. Adoption by new institutions ceases, however, believers may continue or increase their commitment.
Stage 5 – Resolution of dissonance
Stages 4 and 5 overlap in time, but have different properties.
Adopters and uses of the fad attempt to account for the failure of the fad in ways that protect their status and credibility. Hence common forms of rationalisation occur:
- Poor quality of leadership;
- Intransigence of followers;
- poor implementation;
- insufficient resources;
- choosing to implement a “bad” version of the fad;
e.g. in terms of open source learning management systems – Implementing Moodle rather than Sakai (or vice versa).
Identifying failure as resulting from the weaknesses of specific individuals, unforeseeable external forces, or correctable flaws in implementation sets the stage for reinventing the innovation and recycling it with minor modifications and a major change of name (Rogers, 1995), or for proposing a better innovation (clearly labeled as “not a fad”).
This is where the cycle returns back to the creation stage and starts all over again, with a re-badged fad.
Gartner’s Hype Cycle
Gartner’s Hype Cycle is a graphic representation of the cycle that new technologies go through. It has five phases and is graphed as visibility over time.
The five phases are:
- Technology trigger – Something generates significant interest in the technology.
- Peak of inflated expectations – Over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations arise from a “frenzy of publicity”. Some successful stories arise, but there are typically more failures.
- Trough of disillusionment – Failure to meet expectations leads to technology losing its fashionable status and is abandoned by the press.
- Slope of enlightenment – Some businesses continue to use the technology and experiment to understand how it can be used effectively.
- Plateau of productivity – Benefits become widely demonstrated and accepted either broadly or within a niche.
Differences between Gartner and Birnbaum
Gartner’s view is inherently more positive than Birnbaum. As you might expect given that Gartner makes a living out of promoting technologies, while Birnbaum makes a living out of being cynical (to give the broadest and most simple characterisation). Gartner assumes that all technologies reach a plateau of productivity, they never die. Birnbaum’s assumes things die and get reinvented as something new and lessons aren’t learnt.
Aside: I wonder if this makes Birnbaum’s approach more a modern Battlestar Galatica approach? What does that make Gartner?
The following image is an attempt to connect the two in someway. There remains the question of whether or not this type of “joining” makes sense? Are they talking about the same thing? Hype and fads? I think there is a connection.
The next step?
I believe it is possible to see evidence of these cycles, or at least something close to it – especially Birnbaum’s – in the history of technology-mediated learning. My interest in this arises from the section of the PhD I’m working on – Past Experience. In a previous post I proposed a much simpler/simplistic cycle:
- Recognition of the revolution.
- Creation of the technologists alliance.
- Evidence of limited impact.
- Blame the teacher.
As you can probably see, the other cycles are more complete. I’ll have to think about incorporating them into the thesis. However, I wonder about the “technologists alliance”, this is a point Birnbaum makes, have to re-read what he has to say. I increasingly think that the technologists alliance around e-learning is problematic.
Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.