The “Skolkovo Method”

June 02 | 2024

How a little-known organization from Tolyatti became the “system-thinking-activity” forge for personnel at Russian universities.

Ekaterina Trubnikova

 

Photo: Virtually no critical analysis of Skolkovo’s activities is to be found in the media or scientific publications. Photo: WM wm WM, CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Western Samples Based on Soviet Templates

It has been some time since Russian officials were given the task of constructing world-class universities, and this position has already been officially voiced more than once. The constant restructuring of education and the sciences included many elements of the Western academic world:

  • a push toward academic integration and international competition
  • the declaration of meritocratic mechanisms and principles of academic ethics
  • the introduction of excellence programs

In reality, these “Western-style” universities were built—and continue to be built—using approaches inherited from the Soviet era.

 

The Forge for Rectors and Officials

Diplomas from the Skolkovo School of Management are a substantial boon for administrative careers in the Russian academic market. Higher qualifications from this organization are listed on the CVs of rectors and pro-rectors of many Russian higher educational institutions, as well as those of members of various ministries and departments of the Russian Federation.

According to the website of the School of Rectors—one of the programs offered by the Moscow School of Management—“every 11th civil university” in Russia is headed by one of its graduates. More than 1,100 people have gone through the program. Among them are more than 100 acting and officially appointed rectors. More than 400 administrators received promotions after completing the program.

What’s more, employees of the School of Management are actively involved in appointing applicants to top positions at Russian universities, notes the director of the Skolkovo Center for Educational Transformation. They participate in assessing the results of top projects in the field of science and education (Project 5-100, Priority 2030, etc.)

Thus, the Skolkovo methods and approaches, which underlie personnel training, actually determine both the careers of top managers and the direction of the transformations taking place at universities.

 

The Mysterious Organization from Tolyatti

Due to Skolkovo’s substantial influence on the Russian academic market, it is worth paying attention to the composition of the school’s staff.

Three team members are listed as key figures at the School of Rectors. Along with their work at Skolkovo, their biographies are united by a mysterious organization located on the territory of the Scarlet Sails Health Complex in the city of Tolyatti. This is a private higher educational institution known as the “Tolyatti Academy of Management.”

Looking at the gallery of Tolyatti Academy graduates, it would appear that despite its obscurity and insignificance on the Russian academic market, the institution can compete with the best Russian universities when it comes to leadership positions. Indeed, the list of organizations where graduates of the institution occupy leadership positions is impressive:

  • ANO National Priorities
  • ANO Agency for Strategic Initiatives to Promote New Projects
  • PJSC United Aircraft Corporation
  • Russian Technology Agency
  • RANEPA
  • WorldSkills Russia
  • Moscow Aviation Institute
  • VTB Bank
  • PJSC AvtoVAZbank, etc.

Among the specialists who have graduated from the academy are top managers, regional heads, directors of centers and institutes, and heads of departments of universities and educational organizations.

According to his biography and CV, the founder of the Tolyatti Academy is Andrei Volkov, who served as the head of the Skolkovo business school in 2006-2013. Academy graduates are prominently represented at the Skolkovo School of Management, not only as key figures in the School of Rectors, but also in other leadership positions.

 

A Special Circumstance

The career success of graduates of such a small organization can probably be attributed to one remarkable circumstance. Namely, the academy was the last workplace of Georgy Shchedrovitsky, the creator of the Methodologists Movement and the organizer of numerous organizational activity games (OAGs), which were very popular during the Soviet era.

The official Skolkovo website states that “all programs of the Skolkovo School of Management are based on a unique project method based on the work of Georgy Shchedrovitsky and the Moscow Methodological Circle.”

The authors explicitly call it the “Skolkovo Method”*.

 

  • * After this article was written and the related research presented at a conference, the page describing the “Skolkovo Method” disappeared from the organization’s website. Currently, the link provided in the article leads to a description of other approaches, which are now indicated as the main ones. However, the previous version of the page, where the SMD methodology was described “as the basis of all programs of the SKOLKOVO School of Management,” is available from Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20231129225748/https://www.skolkovo.ru/b2g-programmes/metod-skolkovo/

 

The Russian elite decided to build the best universities in the country on the basis of this method, even while claiming officially that they were building Western-style universities.

This raises a few questions:

  • Why did world-class universities begin to be built according to the “system-thinking-activity” (STA) methodology?
  • Could universities built according to this scheme be expected to compete with global leaders?
  • Could it be that the negative features of the Soviet bureaucracy and economy were actually incorporated into those universities purported to be the best?

 

Forge of Methodologists

In the USSR, mass trainings in the form of organizational activity games (OAGs) were conducted for district committees, regional committees, city party committees, research institutes, ministries, departments, industries, and other enterprises.

From 1979 to 1991, the methodologists conducted 93 games, including 10 games for employees of Soviet universities. Several hundred people participated in these games.

It is worth noting that the ideology, while popular in the USSR, did not garner much attention from Western academia. Indeed, the surname “Shchedrovitsky” is encountered extremely rarely in leading international scientific citation databases.

After the collapse of the USSR, there was no change in the Russian academic elites—and the STA methodology received a new impetus for development. The Tolyatti Academy is an example of this. Tolyatti became part of a network of methodological laboratories for “designing a modern education system.” The ideological heritage of the Shchedrovitsky school and its “system-thought-activity” approach were laid down as the “core of the research and development system” of the organization.

The network of adherents to the Methodologists movement has mushroomed in organizations across the country. Organizational and activity games have turned into an endless stream of strategic sessions in universities: “Don’t know what to do? Do a strategizing session.”

The methodologists legitimized promoting “loyalty and necessity” in the academic environment.

In Soviet times, privilege holders signed the documents required by the authorities.

Today, appointed managers regularly fulfill the role assigned to them as holders of the feudal domain. As a result, universities have become “organic representatives of the interests of the state.”

In 1979, at a methodologist game in the village of Novaya Utka, Sverdlovsk Oblast, the issue of ineffective supply of consumer goods to the region was replaced with another task: “creating a new program of comprehensive research and projects.”

And so it is now: the task of constructing world-class universities has been replaced by endless strategizing sessions, simulated development and the implementation of countless new programs, career tourism, and publications in predatory journals.

Moreover, the methodologists are credited with shaping the worldview of influential representatives of Russian domestic policy, as well as with the authorship of the concept of the “Russian World,” used today by the Russian government as a foreign policy doctrine.

 

Adepts and Others

Unsurprisingly, there is no critical analysis of Skolkovo’s activities to be found in the media or scientific publications.

Colleagues from organizations where management is carried out by people from Skolkovo note an identical situation, as one commenter concisely expressed: “In our country, if you criticize Skolkovo, they may simply fire you from the university.”

It is difficult to expect a critical analysis of a system from its designers or beneficiaries. It is impossible to obtain funding for criticism. The rare critical voices are much less visible than the voices supported by the system.

The dominance of this one approach—a scientifically dubious one—has posed a threat to academic freedom from the beginning. Perhaps this dominance became the basis for the stratification of the academic environment into adherents of this sect and the rest.

It is loyalty to the regime/“circle”/sect that provides jobs and rent money. If a representative of the academic environment does not enjoy this patronage, then the dominant group has a wide range of tools at its disposal to marginalize opponents. Loyalty to the regime is an obvious payment for positions, rent, and privileges.

 

* * *

There is an old joke worth mentioning: no matter what innovations they made at the Tolyatti Automobile Plant, the output from the assembly line was always a Zhiguli car. The character in the joke suggests that perhaps the place is cursed.

In the twenty-first century, history repeated itself. The transformation of universities, which was supposed to raise them to the same competitive level as Harvard and MIT, was carried out using methods inherited from the Soviet era.

If Russia has any chance of building a decent academic system, then it must begin by completely dismantling the sectarian principles that currently underpin that system’s organization. Otherwise, location will always be to blame.

 

Ekaterina Trubnikova is a Doctor of Economics and an independent researcher.

 

The author expresses deep gratitude to the participants of the Academic Bridges conference “New Reality. New Normal. Two Years after 02/24/22″ for their valuable advice and discussion.

Conference

School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Almaty Management University

Almaty, 31 October 2 November 2024

 

Academic freedom is a cornerstone of scholarly and research activities worldwide. The globalization of higher education and science necessitates a shared understanding of academic freedom principles globally, particularly in Eurasian countries. Despite the universality of academic freedom, the commitment to its protection and promotion varies and is shaped by the intricate interplay of legal, socio-political, and cultural contexts. A country’s legal regulations and policy frameworks significantly impact how the protection and promotion of academic freedom are understood and implemented.

The quality of democracy and freedom protection in a country also affects the level of academic freedom there. This effect is evident in the rapid challenges all political systems face, such as managerialism and consumerism in higher education. It is even more pronounced in undemocratic regimes with breaches of institutional autonomy and ideologization of higher education.

Equally striking is how the global academy interprets academic freedom when it encounters local traditions that are not universally democratic. In this regard, the operation of campuses of leading universities in authoritarian countries and the debates about the principles and conditions of their operation deserve additional interest.

These observable diversities raise the question of whether global academic freedom can be discussed as a universal concept and how to distinguish the diversity of academic freedom manifestations from aberrations. It also raises the question of how to protect and promote academic freedom as a principle while considering the legal, socio-economic, and cultural contexts in which it is practiced.

For a conference exploring the complexities of academic freedom in a global context, with a particular focus on Eurasian countries, here are some potential topics that could be addressed:

  • The cultural and social context of academic freedom in practice, the contextualization of academic freedom, its cultural and political interpretations, and the universality of academic freedom.
  • Academic freedom in democratic vs. authoritarian regimes, the balance between the social-economic dimension of academic freedom and political rights’ dimension,
  • Legal framework of academic freedom, comparative analyses of legislation, the impact of legal tradition on the application of academic freedom in different countries,
  • Globalization and academic freedom, including academic freedom on international campuses, academic exchange, and academic freedom strategies for maintaining academic standards and freedom in diverse political landscapes.
  • Managerialism and academic freedom, balance between financial sustainability and scholarly independence. Academic integrity and academic freedom
  • Effect of the social and political crises for the academic freedom, academic freedom for persecuted scholars: issues and supports of the scholars in exile
  • Ethnic and moral considerations in upholding academic freedom, including ethical dilemmas scholars faced due to the conflict between national and international academic standards.

The conference is organized by CISRus (Center for Independent Social Research) with generous support of Almaty Management University (AlmaU) and in information partnership with Ghent University.

The conference will be conducted in English. We welcome applications for individual contributions, which should include the title, a brief description (up to 200 words), and a short academic biography of the presenter (approximately 100 words). Presentations will be organized in either thematic panels or roundtable discussions. The organizing committee reserves the right to determine the presentation format (panel or round table) for each selected participant.

Please send your applications to the email: freeacademia.conference@gmail.com

 

Application Deadline: July 25, 2024

The Conference Committee is ready to provide accommodation for all participants for the days of the conference and has some capacity to contribute to the ticket costs as well. Please indicate your need for accommodation and travel expenses with your application.

 

The conference committee:

Dmitry Dubrovsky (Research Scholar, Department of Social Science, Charles University; Professor, Free University)

 Aleksandr Vileikis (Professor, School of entrepreneurship and innovation, AlmaU)

Elizaveta Potapova (Senior Researcher, Public Policy and Management Institute, Lithuania)

Irina Olimpieva (Director CISRus, Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University)

 

About AlmaU:

Almaty Management University – is a world-class, entrepreneurial, socially responsible university. More than 35 years in the education market, the oldest private university in the country, the 1st business school of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a pioneer of business education in the CIS.

The School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (SEI) is a leading and internationally accredited (BGA&AMBA) entrepreneurship school with a commitment to excellence, innovation, and global perspective. SEI AlmaU offers a range of cutting-edge entrepreneurship programs designed to prepare students for successful careers in diverse fields.

 

Information for traveling:

Kazakhstan has adopted a policy allowing dozens of countries to enter without a visa. Please contact your local Kazakhstani embassy for further details. For guests who may require a visa, AlmaU will issue a letter of invitation confirming their participation in the conference. Participants will also receive information about housing and traveling to Almaty.

 

Біз сіздермен Алматыда кездесуді асыға күтеміз !

We are looking forward to meeting you in Almaty!

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