Innovation and Higher Education

Over the past week, I read the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. I’d read several other books about what he calls disruptive innovation theory, but not yet this book, so I decided that it was time. I am one of those faculty members (I did this when I was a student affairs professional too) that enjoys reading a book from another field and considering what it means for the field of higher education. The book is worth reading, although the amount of discussion about the disk drive industry and innovations with in it made me feel quite old. For example, I can remember when disk drives served floppy disks that looked like this:
8-inch-floppy

And now disk drives serve disks that look like this:
SanDisk_Cruzer_Micro

One of the points, I’ve been spending some time with is that the cause of “every successful company’s ultimate demise” is,

“the two principles of good management taught in business schools: that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers, and that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” (p. xxxiv).

Although I am not a fan of likening higher education to a business in the manner that it is often done today (it seems such a narrow way of viewing a complex organization), I’m not one to fully throw out the entire idea. So, I’ve found it worthwhile to consider how these two principles of management are enacted in higher education…at least in relation to the experiences I’ve had.

The first principle, “that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers” I’ve most certainly heard within higher education. From time to time I also hear it from the students I teach.

“We must meet the students needs!”

The issue, for me, becomes do the students know what they need? For that matter, does anyone really know what they need? I know that I often think that I know what I need in the moment, but when looking back I more often see a much smaller list of necessary items than I originally put together. So, it seems that perhaps what we might be responding to are people’s wants disguised as needs. I also know that, from my experience, I can always need/want more. In fact, I’m not sure that I know too many people, myself included, that are quick to say, “no, no, that’s enough…I only needed that amount” of whatever it is that they are being given (hence my struggles with dieting).

Another issue I have with the principle, but again, one that I see being enacted in higher education has to do with responding “to the needs of your best customers”. I can certainly see how this can cause issues for any organization facing a disruptive innovation. After all, those that are not identified as your best customers, but that are still your customers, are not fully being considered. Thus, while they still might consume your product, they are being taken for granted. It doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to realize that when they find a place that will value their contributions more that they will go there. In a day and age when most institutions are facing retention issues this seems like a more high-risk way to keep students. In a day and age when higher education is being questioned about its purpose, this seems like a sure fire way to produce people who are dissatisfied and frustrated with their experience—especially if all that they have to do is glance around to see that the needs of others are being met.

The second principle, “that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” seems like a formula for stagnancy. After all, how do you know what the return rate of an innovation is if it hasn’t been put out to market? Furthermore, even if it has, and it is not showing a high return, perhaps that is simply because the right market has not been found (which means that it eventually will lead to a high return rate). So, while I can understand how it seems safe to focus on innovations one can anticipate will provide a high return, I can also understand why Christensen warns that,

“Experts’ forecasts will always be wrong” (p. 178).

Furthermore, what does this mean in terms of failure? Is it not okay for institutions of higher education to experience failure, which thus allows learning to occur? Is society okay with institutions of higher education failing? Imagine if such failures were approached primarily as learning opportunities instead of primarily as unacceptable. If it isn’t, I only see such practice teaching others that they must be perfect in all that they do, which seems incongruent with valuing the life-long learning, which is professed to be a purpose of higher education.

Perhaps enacting these principles, as I’ve experienced higher education do, means that a disruptive innovation is on the horizon for higher education.

Thoughts:

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