Clayton Christensen’s New Book on the Disruption of Higher Education

Higher education is heading for disruption. In the new book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring explore why this is inevitable and what traditional universities and colleges can do about it. Professor Bill Fischer, himself an avid believer in disruption, reviews this book covering an extremely timely subject.

Disruption inevitably comes to all industries: some sooner and some later, but, in the end, there is no escaping the Grim Reaper of creative destruction. In just the last few years, no matter whether is was: photography, recorded music, book publishing, mobile phones, personal digital assistants, or postal services, what we have witnessed over and over again is that the venerated industry incumbents have proven to be dead men walking when it comes to their [in]ability to rise to the challenges of disruption.

 It was with considerable foreboding that I opened Christensen’s latest book and contemplated his thoughts on the state of my own industry: university education.

To be sure, I believe in disruption! How could you not when the pain of being disrupted is so ubiquitous — Nokia, RIM, Borders, Kodak, Sony, etc. etc.? And, more to the point, I believe it in theory as well! In fact, my complete acceptance of the dogma of disruption is rooted firmly in the thoughts of seers such as Joseph Schumpeter and Clay Christensen. So, it was with considerable foreboding that I opened Christensen’s latest book and contemplated his thoughts on the state of my own industry: university education.

This is an extremely timely subject! The contemporary university is well-recognized as a mainstay of modern society, but, at the same time, is criticized for its expensiveness, its lack of productivity, its risk-aversion, and for the slowness of its reactions to societal needs. A casual reflection on this list suggests an obvious “potential disruption victim” in the making. Christensen, and his co-author Henry J. Eyring, attribute the vulnerability of contemporary universities to what they refer to as its “DNA”, which they suggest is shared not only by the leading institutions in a society [although, to be fair, their analysis is devoted exclusively to U.S. institutions], but becomes aspirational for smaller, less-distinguished institutions who benchmark against the “market-leaders” and emulate them in every way possible.

What Christensen and Eyring say about the aspirational and conforming behaviors of academics is both true, and ultimately debilitating, in terms of “industry” vitality.

Such conforming behaviors are further reinforced by accreditation committees, media rankings, journal editorships, and the “trickling-down” of academic actors, from leading schools to trailing schools, in positions of prominence as scholars and administrators. I, myself, have personally experienced this from many different perspectives — novice academic, member of accreditation host-committees, member of accrediting visitations, administrator, employer, and editorial board member — what Christensen and Eyring say about the aspirational and conforming behaviors of academics is both true, and ultimately debilitating, in terms of “industry” vitality. We are all a bit poorer for it, and the incumbents within the industry are more vulnerable to surprise, as a result.

We also live at time when many of our heroes — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, just to mention a few — are university drop-outs. There is even considerable attention being paid to schemes to finance aspirant entrepreneurs who choose to leave prestigious universities in order to “learn by doing.”[1] Clearly, these might be seen as incipient signs of a revolution beginning within the established order — new ways of societal advancement that no longer rely upon the traditional university-based route. It is not much of a stretch to fit such entrepreneurial behaviors to Christensen’s disruption model to see where the principal logic of the book might lie.

Along the pathway to upheaval within the education business, Christensen and Eyring provide a useful summary of the disruption model and an intriguing historical overview of Harvard University’s evolution as the leading incumbent in “the university industry.” What is striking about all of this is that the story of Harvard, and indeed the university industry as a whole, turns out to be faster-moving than is commonly perceived, marked by numerous spasms of innovation, each of which, in fact, has profoundly altered the accepted models of the university, without “disrupting” the industry, or the “caste system” of institutional players. In many ways, if this industry is about to be disrupted, it won’t entirely be because of a lack of tradition in trying to do so by the industry leaders, themselves.

We should not look to early adopters to anticipate industry disruption.

All of this raises the inevitable question of where to look, in looking for disruption? There is, perhaps, no more useful insight about this than that offered by the science fiction author William Gibson, who has famously opined that: “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.” If only we could see further, faster, we would be able to take advantage of those lead-users [to borrow Eric von Hippel’s appellation] and use their experiences to predict just how our own future is likely to play-out.

This opportunity was not seized by Christensen and Eyring, and so instead of considering “lead-users” we find ourselves looking at an early adopter, and an unusual comparison at that. “Early adopters” are those customers who already “belong” to an industry, and so, while in love with change, and infatuated with gadgets, they eagerly line-up for each new “cutting-edge” that the industry, and not true disrupters, are offering. Here’s the rub: early adopters are already “institutionalized” into the incumbent industry leaders’ worlds. They respect brands, look for advantages within the prevailing paradigm, and “know how the game is played.”

Here’s the rub: early adopters are already “institutionalized” into the incumbent industry leaders’ worlds.

They are useful at identifying emerging trends, but emerging trends within the existing game. We should not look to early adopters to anticipate industry disruption. Lead users, on the other hand, are not even interested in our industry — they just want to fix their problems, and in that fixing often lies the seeds of complete revolution.

The early adopter relied upon in this book is Ricks College, in Rexburg, Idaho, a small school originally founded in 1888 for the primary and secondary education of the Prairie children, and which has evolved into Brigham Young University – Idaho.  Since a significant portion of the book is devoted to tracing the growth of Ricks College as it developed into BYU-Idaho, and, then, employing Ricks/BYU-I as a disruptive challenger to the incumbent world that Harvard represents, it is useful to understand the innovations that BYU-I has adopted since the announcement in 2000 that it would become a full-fledged four year institution, among which are:

  • blended learning with both face-to-face instruction and on-line learning,
  • a focus on a few key disciplines, with highly customized yet integrated majors,
  • abolition of summer recess, and utilization of campus assets, year-round,
  • full-fledged affirmation of undergraduate orientation and rejection of graduate study programs, as well as a rejection of externally-funded research,
  • abolition of competitive athletics,
  • abolition of up-or-out faculty rank and tenure.

Whether or not these are really “disruptive” can be argued long and hard. Sufficient to say that the arrival of former Harvard Business School Dean and Operations Management faculty member, Kim Clark, as President of BYU-I, has led to an additional host of “procedural” innovations to move the execution of institutional aspirations along quicker and more effectively. In fact, the hallmarks of the Clark-era to date are very “operational” in the outcomes that have been realized:

  • Greater student volume and “enhanced learning experiences” — think efficiency.
  • Reduced costs-per-student [despite higher educational program-customization available] — think mass customization.
  • Increased faculty workloads — think asset utilization.
  • Increased student responsibility — think repositioning of value-adding activities along a value-chain.
  • Broad, common learning experiences — think economies of scale where possible.
  • Opportunities for faculty teaching groups — think quality circles.
  • Improvement of student living program — reduced costs of supervision.
  • Modular majors — think modularity and mass-customization.
  • Blended learning — adoption of labor-saving, scalable technologies.

There should be little doubt that all of this is impressive, and even a casual glance at the list indicates the sorts of “constrained-embellishments”, lower-priced, more-modest offerings that have characterized so much of Christensen’s  work on disruption in the past — offerings that are more “appropriate” to the desires of the mass-market consumer than are the “over-engineered” ever-more advanced offerings of industry incumbents. And, to be fair, the results that have been generated by the Ricks/BYU-I approach are also impressive, including such achievements as moving from:

  • 10,160 students to 18,355
  •  411 faculty members to 628
  • 153 sq ft of building per student to 126
  • 879 face-to-face courses to 1,293
  • 20 On-line courses to 104
  • 125 degree programs to 94
  • 38 academic departments to 33
  • yet, at only an increase in operating cost per student of from $5,771 to $6,155

Yet, no matter how interesting the story of Ricks College might be, a comparison between Ricks and Harvard simply is not convincing. Without a doubt, they are in different industries, at least in Porteresque terms! [They have different rivals, different customer characteristics, probably different suppliers, as well, at least if alumni giving, grant funding and corporate sponsorships are considered, and for sure they rely upon different barriers to entry].

Yet, no matter how interesting the story of Ricks College might be, a comparison between Ricks and Harvard simply is not convincing.

But, in fact, if we are candid, the differences between the “industries” that Harvard and Ricks/BYU-I are in are so large as to suggest parallel universes! Why, then, consider them suitable for comparison? Is this truly a case of “disruption” in the spirit of ever-smaller hard drives, or mini-mills replacing integrated steel facilities? It might be a useful example of how to squeeze higher productivity out of the existing conventional model of university work, but it’s hard to suggest that what we seeing at BYU-I is the start of a new “S-curve”.

Who then, if not BYU-I should we be looking to in the search for disruption? My sense is that, as William Gibson prophesied, the real lead-users are all around us already. They are living in the future, struggling with the issues that we will all struggle with eventually. In this spirit, what I would be thinking is not so much about innovation within the existing university model of to improve physical and faculty asset utilization, but considering, instead, those extra-university efforts at creating radically new content and means of access.

Who then, if not BYU-I should we be looking to in the search for disruption?

After all, does anyone still believe that classroom-centric instruction will continue to dominate the world of higher-education as it has in the past? My feeling is that the future will be more like a kaleidoscopic world of multiple learning touch-points, where traditional content will be fractionalized and then recombined in ways that suit a multitude of learning needs and styles. As a result, I would begin with efforts such as the TED lectures, or the amazing success already gained by Stanford’s fledgling not-yet-for-credit, but clearly prototype “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” video course[2], as well as the potential inherent in MIT’s recently announced M.I.T.x[3], each of which offers world-class educational content for free, to all takers.

It could well be that the “certificate” programs of such leading institutions could come to represent an entirely new category in educational offerings which might someday soon rival the power of the traditional diploma. Equally intriguing is the world of “augmented reality,”[4] which might never actually prove scalable for academic life, but which could offer insights into how you and I might learn more effectively in the future. Here is where I think that BYU-I is less of a guide to Harvard’s future than might be some other lead-user organizations from way outside of the academic world.

I believe in Gibson, when he says that the future is already here; and I believe in Eric von Hippel when he says “look for lead-users, not early-adopters, if you want to see the future, faster.” And, I certainly think that existing customers are not reliable indicators of the future in most industries on the brink of disruption. Furthermore, despite my misgivings about this book, I still believe in Christensen’s model of disruption.

However, in the spirit of new approaches to learning, I would not set-out to read this book linearly or even completely. There are fragments of it that are well-worth reading, especially for the university administrator who desires to avoid extinction, but at some level any book is just another package for ideas, and in such cases you should exercise discretion as to which of those ideas you commit attention to. This book contains valuable insights into the future of university education, they are just not evenly distributed.

By Bill Fischer



Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.





About the author

At IMD, Bill Fischer is professor of Innovation and Technology Management. He is program director for two of IMD’s flagship Innovation programs as well as teaching in several other senior executive programs. He has a career that spans many industries (including WHO) and geographies and has deep knowledge of China, where he has worked extensively. He holds a DBA from George Washington University.


[1] Bill Fischer, “The Birth of A Really Bad Idea: Peter Thiel and Knowing Less as a Life Strategy,” http://blogs.forbes.com/billfischer June 28, 2011

[2] Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, www.ai-class.com/

[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2011/12/21/m-i-t-game-changer-free-online-education-for-all/

[4] Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

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