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Society

Why it pays to keep your firm small

Uon exams
Students sit in a lecture hall at the Kenyatta University, Nairobi. Local universities have in the past been criticised for quickly opening up satellite campuses, compromising on quality of education. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Bigger is better. We grow up with such a mentality. We have an evolutionary bias to favour bigger objects. We prefer taller people, we want the biggest car and the grandest house, and we desire larger institutions.

From an evolutionary perspective whereby our brains developed to survive in the ancient rift valley with lions, buffaloes, and snakes as our prehistoric adversaries, bigger human development meant safety, security and peace of mind.

But in today’s world, does bigger still mean better? Many social scientists, organisational behaviourists, and industrial psychologists would argue no, not anymore.

Since social science research on non-profit organisations in the 1990s established three phases for NGO development, researchers and practitioners alike debate which phase yields optimal results. An NGO may start in the grassroots phase and eventually move on the professional phase followed later by the institutional phase. Even since the 1990s, researchers, such as Joann Carmin and others, noticed that grassroots non-profits yielded faster and unique results, but institutionalised NGOs yielded slower but expected, sustained and meaningful broader results.

A grassroots non-profit might be a small health clinic near Ole Polos run by volunteers, funded by the community, and provides emergency snake bite antidotes for those in the surrounding area. If that small clinic began to grow, hire professionally trained individuals to run it in different departments, such as CPAs in the finance department, licensed medical doctors in triage rooms, etc, then that clinic would be on its way to the professional phase of non-profit development. Finally, if that once small clinic grows to the size of Aga Khan University Hospital complete with processes, procedures and several locations, then it becomes institutional.

But what about our post-secondary education sector here in Kenya? A small catering school for community youth grows from grassroots to professional by broadening its offering from just catering to also include computer literacy classes, bookkeeping, and driving classes then enlarges to a large private multi-location organisation like Mount Kenya University, it becomes institutional. Whether a non-profit stays at the grassroots, professional, or institutional phase depends on its strategy: whether to have breadth of outreach or depth of mission.

Many organisational development practitioners argue that the professional phase yields the highest quality results with low bureaucracy whereby grassroots sacrifices quality and institutional heaps mounds of slowing uncreative administration, paperwork, silos, and internal chiefdoms.

A distinct movement within America that has proliferated for over 150 years and still continues strong to this day argues that smaller institutions prove better for collegiate learners. The liberal arts college movement focuses on small class sizes, personalised student attention, broad array of classes taken, full-time lecturers, and all leading to more well-rounded minds of graduates.

Some famous universities that consciously decided to stay small with high quality rigour and outcomes include Williams College, Amherst College, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, Middlebury College, and Wesleyan University, among many others. Employers snap up graduates from top liberal arts colleges quickly.

One could easily argue that doctoral level learners need the resources and diversity of mentors that comes with a large institution. But do we sacrifice quality for our younger university learners as we get larger? Are we well-served by medium to gigantic public and private post-secondary institutions?

Does Kenya have small private high-quality liberal arts universities that focus exclusively on excellent teaching and results for only undergraduate students? Is this an important niche that we lack? If an institution is not-for-profit, why obsess about growth, growth, growth?

Let us quiet the clamour for bigger is better with university extension campuses on top of restaurants in high rise buildings or huge main campuses that lose the human-to-human feel and let us start obsessing about quality, quality, quality in our higher education and the commensurate results.

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