Higher Ed: An Underutilized Ability Placement Network

Recently, I read Michael Horn’s Forbes article titled “Disruptive Innovation and Education” in which he writes that the current higher education system is patterned after the once prevailing factory employment model of the industrial age. It’s no surprise that higher education systems have and will continue to adapt to employment models.

Also recently, I listened to Brandon Busteed’s case for the “Educonomy”  in which he points out that the market clearly understands a college education as a pathway to get a “good job”. That should not come as a surprise either. After all, the learner’s (i.e. higher ed’s customer) greatest pain point is to find a best-fit opportunity to utilize what has been learned.

As a Global Career Development Facilitator and entrepreneur in the human services industry what is particularly interesting to me is that both authors can relate to the challenges facing higher ed today but each misses the deeper critical problem in the industry. Michael sheds light on innovation; that is online learning. Brandon sheds light on causation; that is the link between education and long-term success in life and work. However, each seems to miss the critical baked-in assumption in the higher ed business model; that learning quality should be the value proposition delivered to the mass market. In my view, it should not.

The following is my attempt at explaining why placement quality should replace learning quality as the value proposition in higher education.

First, using the job-to-be-done (JTBD) framework , the learner’s JTBD can be labeled as placement quality or as Busteed says “to get a good job”Education then is the learner’s related job-to-be-done (rJTBD) and can be labeled as learning quality in support of reducing/eliminating the learner’s greatest pain point; placement at best-fit.

Considering the long-tail of the market, if we design for learning quality as a key activity (rather than a value proposition) within a larger placement ecosystem THEN the seed for innovative disruption can be planted. I think that higher education disruption will come from an innovative business model utilizing #hrtech to better deliver a value proposition of placement quality and NOT #edtech to better deliver a value proposition of learning quality.

Today, higher education seems to be stuck in a legacy business model that stubbornly keeps learning quality as the JTBD. Therefore, leaders and academics continue to see it as the value proposition. However, the great recession dried up subsidies of an always nonviable value proposition and the error in the business model design is surfacing. As the idiom goes, “the chickens are coming home to roost”.

Let me be clear, learning quality in higher education IS NOT a viable value proposition to serve the masses, the long-tail, those “below-the-line” of elite. The time is now for placement quality to be the value proposition. It is highly monetizable and can subsidize learning quality better than any alternative.

In the coming “talent wars”, which will be fought in the long-tail of markets as well as in the short-head, we need business models that treat higher education institutions as aggregators with distribution-capable nodes in a much larger network; the placement ecosystem. Then and only then, in my opinion, will we be able to define learning quality that integrates purpose (vocational guidance and life-design) with competency (career education and mastery learning) for the masses. We can get back to the personalized academy experience before the industrial age and we can provide it for the masses but it’s going to take a distributed solution to solve what we are failing at–the distribution of dedicated personal assistance to develop and place ability at best-fit.

Again, learning quality unsurprisingly adapts to the prevailing employment model. In the future work will be performed by independent workers (freelancers, independent contractors, consultants and solopreneurs), highly distributed across communities and domains. In fact, independents represented 17.7 million workers in 2013 and are expected to reach 24 million in 2018, a 40% increase. Nearly 10 million households receive at least half of their income from independents today. Based on existing trends, there is expected to be 65 to 70 million independent workers (over 50% of the workforce) by 2022 in the U.S. alone.

As a result, you are starting to see the distribution of learning quality to the relevant edges of pedagogy. If higher ed leaders fail to adapt to a value proposition that is placement quality then, it is my view, they’ll go down as leaders of the most underutilized ability placement network ever created by man.

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The Higher Ed – HR Paradox

According to Gallup’s Brandon Busteed, “barely one in 10 (11%) business leaders strongly agree that college graduates have the skills and competencies that their workplaces need”. However, he continues, “A whopping 96% of chief academic officers at higher education institutions say their institution is ‘very or somewhat’ effective at preparing students for the world of work”. Clearly, there’s a disconnect.

Furthermore, according to Gallup’s findings the vast majority of Americans think that the purpose of going to college is to get a good job (i.e. one that is best-fit).  Accepting that the collective will of the market is accurate and honest then it is so. The business of developing ability (the higher education imperative) is to enable people to be happy while they are being productive. The business of hiring ability (the human resource imperative) is to provide an acceptable return on investment.

Unfortunately, according to Gallup, “The vast majority of U.S. workers, 70%, are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplace and are less likely to be productive. Actively disengaged employees alone cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity, and are more likely than engaged employees to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away”.

So, there’s a “chicken or egg” paradox which is this: Is learning quality being delivered to the population not valuable enough or are employer’s evaluation of ability developed disconnected with higher education’s learning quality? Whatever the answer it’s clear there’s a disconnect; a failure to communicate where both higher ed institutions and employers play the role of “boss man” at different times. 

Asking Better Questions

Modern society has been conditioned to measure things so that we can manage them. It seems to pervade everything in our lives. In turn, as we attempt to solve “big” problems the more important or valuable measurement becomes. As great a management principle as that is I do NOT think “What is my value?” is the right question to ask. The better question to ask is, “Why am I important?” because I believe that we are at the cusp of an improved understanding that we are here to help each other. Better questions improve that understanding.

I think that solution providers should consider designs that focus on us, as individuals, as benevolent rather than themselves as such. Jim Clifton writes in The Coming Jobs War, “The will of every person on earth is to have a good job”. Can new designs change how we develop and place ability that encourage a life well-lived

Winner Takes All

The development and placement of ability that serves us, as individuals, can be provided by higher education institutions or employers. Higher education is getting more efficient and effective at developing ability and employers are getting more efficient and effective at hiring ability. However, if they switched imperatives and higher education got very good at placing ability then they could subsidize development with placement revenue. On the flip side, if employers got very good at developing ability for themselves then they could be even more productive.

Okay, now you might be thinking that it’s unrealistic to expect higher education and employment leaders to create and scale solutions that push ability development and placement from 1.0 to 2.0 then towards 3.0. For each is too busy focused on eliminating their greatest pain point of today, that is viability. I agree. Neither will be the winner as a result.

The winner will most likely be a 3rd party solution that enables interactions that place ability at best-fit for us, as individuals.

Have you experienced a disconnect between higher education and employers in your own life?

The Sin of Higher Ed Business Models

Recently, I read Amit Mrig’s (President of Academic Impressions) white paper titled “The Other Higher-Ed Bubble” in which he describes a “denial bubble” in academic leadership. Specifically, he outlines and describes four assumptions that are “rooted in past practices and experiences, that no longer hold true and that often hold leaders back from taking a new and different approach” to meet current challenges facing the industry. He makes the point that these are “false-assumptions” now, in today’s environment, in addition to a popular understanding of a financial bubble for the middle tier of educational institutions. This is really a good white paper as a call to action for higher ed leadership but it doesn’t go far enough in opening up eyes to the industry’s most harmful embedded assumption relating to why the market (i.e. the consumer) is interested in paying money to attend higher ed institutions in the first place.

Also, I read an article at Forbes by John Tamny in which he writes that there is not a higher ed financial bubble because parents and students have always and will always pay up for the experience (e.g. career networking) that college provides. In fact, he writes that employers don’t really care about the knowledge learned by the student, at say Yale or Stanford, but rather use attendance at prestigious schools as a signal that the student “is smart, probably hard working for having been accepted, and in possession of [attributes], that the individual can likely learn the skills necessary to achieve on the job”. After reading this article the reader is left thinking about the motivations, quality of education, and price sensitivity of higher ed market participants affiliated with non-prestigious schools.

Is it not obvious that a student’s greatest pain point relates to placing his/her ability at best-fit and at best-price of process? Is it not obvious that education, career guidance, and life-design are merely key activities in support of placement at best-fit? And reducing friction* is critical to best-price of placement process?

As a Global Career Development Facilitator and startup entrepreneur in this space what is particularly interesting to me is that both authors can relate to the challenges facing higher ed today but each misses the deeper critical problem in the industry. Amit sheds light on baked-in assumptions that he feels need to be questioned and John sheds light on bottom-line motivation from the market’s perspective, albeit at the top-end of the market. However, each author seems to miss the critical baked-in assumption and bottom-line motivation that applies to the mass market, the long-tail of the market.

Any business model that is interested in viability and sustainability needs to get as close to the solution provider (or be the solution provider) who is reducing or eliminating the market’s greatest pain point more efficiently and effectively than competing alternatives. The sin of higher education business models is a failure to design for or very closely around placement of ability at best-fit and at best-price of process. I can not identify one business model in higher education that even attempts, none-the-less succeeds, to design for such.

As a result, the disruption we are witnessing today in higher ed is just the beginning. The disruption will destroy every higher ed business model including online education models that do not focus on placement at best-fit at best-price for the mass market. The reason the prestigious school’s business model will eventually be destroyed as well is because the solution provider successfully serving the mass market will eventually have access to cheaper capital to create solutions to satisfy the top-end of the market at a lower cost. I think that ALL (save for niche ability development) higher ed business models that do not reconstruct their value proposition to deliver placement at best-fit are going to fail because  that is the greatest pain point in the mass market.

Frustratingly, most leaders don’t care enough to reconstruct the higher ed business model today. I believe it is because they are towards the end of their careers and they know how slow change occurs in higher ed. So, the vast majority of leaders are less inclined to support risks associated with reconstructing the value proposition. However, the disruption being leveled from the “outside” will continue in the interim and the harm to younger higher ed stakeholders will be greater as a result of the lack of current leadership to reconstruct today.

Personally, I think that the higher ed industry will be viewed twenty years from now as the greatest mechanism ever to aggregate ability but failed at designing a viable and sustainable business model because it thought its core sustainable deliverable was academic credential rather than placement at best-fit.

For further reading on how leadership in higher ed may be screwing up a great business opportunity similar to how the music industry leadership screwed up in the face of innovation read Clay Shirky’s prior blog post titled, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy“.

What do you think?

* Friction is everything that slows down making better placement decisions quicker. Examples of “hard” friction include voice mail, phone tag, text tag and travel. And then there’s email which is the worst collaboration tool ever used on a wide scale! Examples of “soft” friction include the lack of transparency, relevant content, knowledge, and intelligence. All friction inhibits getting through a placement process efficiently (speed/cost) and effectively (accuracy).