There’s a fine line that is walked before it finally happens, the moment when an organization looks up from its daily operations and realizes that sales are down or enrollments have dropped. A somber, organization-wide meeting is called to discuss the dismal results, and meanwhile, each person sitting in the conference room is left bewildered. How did it get to this point? Everyone looks back on past performance results and while there may not have been evidence of growth, the organization, overall, was holding its own. Not everyone can be Apple, right?
All organizations, whether business or educational, encounter growing pains. Regardless of its “icon-status”, institutions are ultimately faced with two choices, either hang on or let go. However, most organizations choose to hobble along before, ultimately, the marketplace makes the decision for them. Too often, big brands or giant industry leaders assume their relevance in the marketplace will continue. The last real change higher education encountered followed the Industrial Revolution when the marketplace needed people to be rapidly trained for specific jobs. Now in the Technology Age, knowledge of specific tasks are less valuable than the development of critical life skills such as flexibility, creativity, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills.
There are three types of organizations, those that refuse to learn, those that want to learn, and those that still have a lot to learn. Higher education cannot continue to assume its relevance. It either needs to learn from the mistakes of others or risk falling victim to the same demise.
- Make it a Blockbuster Night: We all remember those Friday night drives to the local Blockbuster just around the corner because once upon a time, they were everywhere. Debates surrounding what movie to rent was based on our mood, favorite actor/actress, or new releases before, finally, a winner was selected. Then it happened, not one, but two new players came into town and started treading on Blockbuster’s turf. Netflix started sending movies through the mail, because leaving the house is overrated, and Redbox started offering movie vending machines for those real go-getters. Blockbuster, like so many companies before them, failed to embrace the changes in technology along with the consumers’ desire for flexibility and convenience. Ultimately, they failed to maintain their place as leaders in the home entertainment industry and as a result, they held on as long as they could before they were forced to let go.
Higher education is in the middle of facing these same changes with technology, flexibility, and convenience. While many students enjoy their four years of college-life, it’s not a reality that most students can afford. Higher education can no longer simply rely on its tradition and “rite of passage” status. Students need institutions that leverage technology to deliver a quality education which meets their demanding schedules while providing affordability and access from anywhere in the world.
- The Apple Effect: Back in 1985, Apple fell on some hard times. Steve Jobs had been fired and news media publications were already talking of Apple in the past tense. By 1997, Steve Jobs had returned to Apple and brought with him a paradigm-shift that created a vision for innovation which changed the world. Jobs was able to use his vision to create the demand Apple needed to stay relevant. No one thought Steve Jobs could turn Apple around, but he knew that he would.
Higher education has the same opportunity right now. Weekly in the news, there are articles published of small liberal arts colleges, for-profit institutions, and community colleges struggling to maintain enrollments. Simultaneously, there are articles that convey the frustration of employers who are unable to hire college graduates because they lack the skills needed for 21st century employment. So why can’t these institutions create a demand for an education that is so clearly needed?
- Coke – Open Happiness: As with many fast food chains, sugary drinks are also realizing that their loyal customer-base from years gone by is diminishing. Coke is facing a consumer base that has become purposefully more health conscious. Immediate access to nutrition information has caused consumers to pursue healthier options. Coke is losing its marketplace relevancy. Coke has the opportunity to focus on a paradigm-shift from the happiness gained by a caramel-colored, carbonated beverage to a product that meets market needs and that consumers crave.
Higher education shares similar struggles with Coke. While it doesn’t appear that either industry is out of the game just yet, they are both losing touch with the changing consumer population. All the aggressive marketing strategies in the world will not overshadow the fact that consumers and students know what they want. Not too long ago, both Coke and higher education were setting the standards in their respective industries, but now there has been a role reversal and neither has been able to adequately adjust.
As a part of its overall effectiveness planning, institutions need to be constantly examining their value proposition in a rapidly changing world. Institutions need a focused vision, strong leadership, and the right people to implement the changes required to stay relevant. Only the institution knows whether it should continue to hang on or to let go, but it will never be able to make the choice if it cannot accurately (or realistically) determine its relevance.
What is your value proposition?