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Communications of the ACM


Can Research Universities Become Exponential?

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Avi Salmon and Orit Hazzan

It is well accepted that higher education is in need of a new model for its operation, with respect to both teaching and research.1,3 This common perspective is reflected in the enormous number of online talks, webinars, and discussions broadcasted over the last several months, that focused on the future of academia in light of the immediate influence of the global pandemic on higher education. The corona semester shows us that a change is possible in terms of on-line teaching.

The question we address in this blog is: How will research universities exploit this opportunity to increase their exposure and expand the population it teaches. For this purpose, we propose to consider the exponential organization model,2 in a way that exploits the unique characteristics of research universities, which have both research and teaching components. We base our proposal on the fact that many courses were taught remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, and so the infrastructure has been created and the resistance to the transition to on-line teaching has, at least, partially diminished.

Exponential Organizations

According to Ismail, Malone and van Geest,2 the impact (or output) of exponential organizations, such as TED, Amazon and Waze, "is disproportionally large — at least 10x larger — compared to their peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies." (p. 18). In their book, Ismail, Malone and van Geest characterized exponential organizations by a massive transformative purpose (MTP) and 10 attributes that are derived from the organization's MTP and foster its exponential growth.

The 10 attributes are divided into two groups:

  • Internal attributes (IDEAS – interfaces, dashboards, experimentation, autonomy, and social technologies), which are responsible for the exponential organization's order, control, and stability aspects. These aspects enable the organization to manage the huge flow of information among its employees and to direct the input received from its ecosystem to the appropriate place.
  • External attributes (SCALE – staff-on-demand, community and crowd, algorithms, leveraged assets, and engagement), which are responsible for the creativity, growth, and uncertainty aspects of exponential organizations. The application of these attributes opens the exponential organization to the infinite creativity that exists outside its boundaries, enables it to exploit its connections with the ecosystem in which it operates, and channels the ecosystem input so as to enhance the influence of the exponential organization.

Exponential Research-Teaching Voyage

In LinkedResearch - LR: A Suggested Platform to Make Research Exponential,4 we investigate, together with a group of our colleagues, how the research aspect of a research university can be transformed into an exponential mode of operation. We base our analysis on the above-mentioned characteristics of exponential for-profit organizations and suggest ways of implementing the exponential approach in order to carry out research in a more influential way, harnessing global research resources and increasing the research output. We suggest that such a model may increase the number of people involved in research projects as well as their quality and impact.

In this blog we further develop this idea by focusing on the teaching aspect of research universities, suggesting that if a research university wishes to become exponential, the research-teaching couple should be mutually and simultaneously fostered in this orientation. In other ways, we convey the message that this exponential voyage should be based on the mutual connections that exist in every research university between research and teaching.

These mutual connections between research and teaching distinguish research universities from three other kinds of organizations operating in similar scenes: (a) MOOC platforms that address the teaching aspect of academic institutions, but have not yet developed the infrastructure of the research facet of research universities, (b) research institutions that do not provide the teaching component of research universities, and (c) colleges whose main focus is teaching.

Together with the physical campuses of research universities, which provide the social interaction that does not exist in either MOOC environments or in research institutions, the mutual connections between research and teaching that exist in research universities, if exploited more intensively, may reinforce each other in an exponential way and usher in a new era for research universities.

These mutual connections should be especially exploited in undergraduate studies, which are currently heavily centralized around the teaching aspect of the research university, but can be naturally expanded to graduate studies, which are research-based.

We emphasize that exponential research universities should also provide the on-campus learning option on their physical campuses, even if part of their teaching activity goes on-line. As noted above, student participation in on-campus research, in parallel to their studies either on campus or on-line, will foster their feeling of belonging and may increase their achievements.

Academic Teaching in the VUCA Era

We justify the application of the exponential approach to the teaching facet of research universities also by the fact that, like many other organizations, they experience the VUCA phenomenon.

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and describes the constant and unpredictable change that has become the norm for organizations in the business world. We assert that the VUCA phenomenon is expressed also in the teaching facet of the academic world, in general, and of research universities, as discussed in this blog, in particular, as follows:

  • Volatility: It suffices to look at the influence of the coronavirus on the teaching at research universities. In no time at all, millions of students and instructors transitioned to on-line learning and teaching. But even before this dramatic event, the seeds of this volatility, expressed by disruptive technologies, such as MOOCs and the industry's job trainings, had been planted.
  • Uncertainty: The future of academic teaching has been discussed widely over the last decade, addressing its relevance, format, and content. The film Ivory Tower and the un-college movement are just two examples that challenge the future of academic teaching.
  • Complexity: Research universities are not the only player in the field of post high-school education. Other players are MOOCs, the industry, and other organizations – both public and NGOs. In addition, the new generations of students are asking for more than just lectures and tests. This playground complicates the scene in which research universities operate.
  • Ambiguity: Even the short-term influence on research universities of the above phenomenon, in general, and of the coronavirus, in particular, is neither clear nor predictable.

Yehezkel and Kozlovsky5 suggest that "The VUCA world demands a two-sided managerial infrastructure comprising diametrically opposed elements: on the one hand, traditional managerial tools that enable planning, prediction, efficiency, quality and order, and, on the other hand, a managerial array that enables chaos (innovation, flexibility, and a shattering of the traditional paradigm of structures and processes)."

Since the teaching at research universities exhibits the VUCA phenomenon (as described above), it may also require a dual, order-chaos, managerial perspective. The framework of exponential organizations provides this dual perspective through the IDEAS-SCALE attributes mentioned above: the traditional management in the VUCA era is analogous to the application of the internal characteristics of exponential organizations (IDEAS); the managerial array that enables chaos in the VUCA era is analogous to the application of the external characteristics of the exponential organizations (SCALE).


In this blog we link the exponential phenomenon with the future of the teaching aspect of research universities. We argue that exponential research and exponential teaching may exert mutual influence and foster each other, creating together the exponential research university. Although this discussion is relevant for all disciplines, it may be especially and specifically relevant for computer science research and teaching since many of the technologies that exponential organizations operate with are based on computer science developments, ideas, and theory.


1 Berman, E. P. (2015). Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, Princeton University Press.

2 Ismail, S., Malone, M. S. and van Geest, Y. 2014. Exponential Organizations: Why New Organizations Are Ten Times Better, Faster, and Cheaper Than Yours (And What to Do about It), Diversion Books.

3 Remenyi, D., Grant, K. A., and Singh, S. (2019, Editors). The University of the Future, Acpil.

4 Salmon, A., Binah-Pollak, A., Dubinsky, Y., Harari, T., Hazan, T., Hazzan, O., Livnat, A., Lis-Hacohen, R., and Mike, K. (2019). LinkedResearch - LR: A suggested platform to make research exponential, Tomorrow's Professor eNewsletter 1733.

5 Yehezkel, O. and Kozlovsky, B. (in press). “And the earth was void and empty…” – Traditional Organizations in a World of Complexity, Innovation and Disruption (VUCA World), Innovations in Management, No. 6, Coller School of Management, Tel-Aviv University.


Orit Hazzan is a professor in the Technion’s Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see  Avi Salmon is an engineer and manager at Intel Israel, driving exponential thinking within his organization and in the Israeli eco-system, and leading innovation at the Intel Israeli site. For additional details, see


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