I just read an article in the latest July 26. 2003 issue of the Economist, the title of which is "A Little Learning", about Larry Summers, president of Harvard University and former Treasury secretary, who suggests that the american research university might be a model for the company of the future. "If you look at the organizations in the economy where the greatest value is being added", says Summers, "they are increasingly the organizations that share the values and characters of universities".
The Economist argues in favor of this view but then emphasizes a big difference that Mr Summers does not mention. "Universities everywhere are largely state-financed". The magazine also underlines that applications of ideas, and not ideas themselves, make money, and that turning ideas into practice requires managerial experience and the exertion of authority.
I would argue that both are correct. Companies must adopt the values and characters of universities if they want to be innovative, and they must keep strong managerial leadership practices if they want to turn those ideas into profits. Yet, in our knowledge economy, I cannot think of any large company of an industrialized country, that does not put continuous innovation at the very center of its strategy, which was not the case ten years ago.
The question of funding is an interesting one as well. When it comes to learning, the simple client-supplier relationship that prevails in the market economy does not work well. Students pay for tuition, but most of the funding necessary to run a university comes from other types of stakeholders who have a vested interest in developing a high-quality learning experience. These are the government of course, but also large corporations, charities, associations, etc. This suggests that the revenue structure of large innovative corporations will become more complex and not limited to sales and financial income. It also suggests that the borders of the company will become more fuzzy. You will no longer have only clients on one side who pay and employees on the other who get paid, but you will also have "paying employees" (a.k.a. students), "researchers", "sponsors" from governments and other companies etc...
This is likely to put a lot of pressure on the CEO and its staff to clarify the corporate messages ("in what business ar we in?") and to build a unique corporate culture that will tie all this together.