Can a University Pivot Like a Start-Up?

As institutions of higher learning we have done the research and we have the data that seems to profoundly assert that the blended F2F/online model is a better learning model.   We have quantitative data that customer segments are changing (more non-traditional students) and therefore we may not be meeting customer needs.  We have qualitative data that customers think our product is too expensive. If we look at this from from an entrepreneurial perspective, it is clearly time for higher education to pivot — a term coined by author Eric Ries and start-up speak for a radical and quick change in strategy and focus. So what’s the hold up?

Clearly, it’s that institutions of higher learning are not start-ups and are not remotely structured to act like start-ups.

This week in the #CFHE12 MOOC, the discussion topics were as follows:

  1. Map what you are hearing to your institutional context. What parts are relevant to your institution?
  2. What might be your role in moving your school to a new model?
  3. Write a dialog/argument you would make to sell the administration on the idea of moving to a new model

I think there might be one more question we should discuss: How can we accelerate the process? Because I don’t think a slow turn is going to save the system from disruption.

The bottom line is that universities have risks (if not more) that start-ups do not share. I’ll outline two of the most obvious below:
1. The risk of alienating customers while you work out the bugs

Whether you see the customer as the student, the person footing the bill, the future employer or even–esoterically–society itself, the higher education system has a large customer base with specific expectations. Expectations like:

  • if I attend a small, private university I will get face time with professors.
  • if I go to class (most of the time), complete the assignments (some of the time) and cram a bunch of information in my head prior to the test which I then regurgitate appropriately I will get a good grade and will therefore be attractive to employers
  • if I take “x” number of credit hours I will graduate
  • if I spend some number of those hours in a specific area of study then we will agree I have a baseline level of expertise

If we change to a blended learning model, we will need to start by managing customer expectations regarding face time, assessment and credibility and this will be challenging. Unlike at a start-up, the stakes are high. Customer alienation– even if it is the best strategy in the long-term — may cause a short-term dip in revenues. Are universities and their stake-holders willing to take this risk?  Conversely, start-ups rarely have large, entrenched customer bases and their early-adopters are often such fans of the product that they remain flexible during pivots. Further, start-ups rarely have significant revenue and are financially backed by investors who have already signed on for a risky venture. Short-term revenue is not the goal, the home-run win is.

2. The risk of alienating employees when you fundamentally change their job descriptions
On the #CFHE12 discussion board, one woman who teaches an online class said she was exhausted. Essentially that it’s difficult being in R&D mode all the time especially with the other responsibilities heaped on faculty such as committee work and research. I totally get that and agree with her. For most faculty, changing how we teach is time consuming and possibly not what we signed up for when we took the job.
Start-up employees often don’t have job descriptions. They expect to work ridiculous hours doing whatever it takes to make the initiative succeed. The payback is a chance to share in a greater than proportional financial return. And as long as performance is high and milestones are being met, odds are you get to stay.
Contrast this with a system where:
  • half the employees have no job security, are in serious debt, are underpaid and have no chance of participating in the upside
  • Job security is either guaranteed (tenure, government rules etc.) or totally unrelated to performance — plenty of semester to semester faculty have fabulous student reviews but still no job security
  • there are huge administrative infrastructures many of which involve government employees and are subject to the same rules and regulations regarding hiring, promotion and firing.
  • the employees don’t necessarily want to work in an entrepreneurial environment
So back to the pivot. Which implies speed as well as change. How do we sell the administration on moving to a new model? I think we say look at the publishing industry; look at the music industry; look at the movie industry.  The bottom line is change now or prepare to get knocked on our butts by the start-ups.