Friday, November 8, 2013
Clayton Christensen is the Harvard Business School professor who wrote The Innovator's Dilemma, the seminal book on why successful businesses so rarely stay on top over the long term. Although focused on the tech industry -- where product cycles are very short -- Christensen's framework has a much wider application, including legacy industrial enterprises and countries. In 2011, Christensen published a book called The Innovative University, which applied the Innovator's Dilemma framework to higher education.
Below is a YouTube video of Christensen explaining his thesis to a conference in Dallas organized around the future of public universities. His talk is very long by online video standards (80 minutes) but worth the time of anyone who wants to understand the Christensen framework and its application to higher ed. At approximately minute 45, Christensen specifically mentions law schools. Below the video is some additional context on Christensen.
Remember that near presidential coup at University of Virginia, which was reported in the New York Times Magazine last fall (link)? Well, Christensen's ideas had begun to propagate within the university trustee community, thanks in part to a letter than Christensen and Henry Eyring had recently written to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).
As discussed in the New York Times article, the coalition that was animated by Christensen's ideas was ultimately defeated by the palace guards. But that was the first attempted coup at a major research university, not the last. As Christensen points out in the video, universities are feeling pressure from innovative models that "compete against nonconsumption." In other words, lots of people would like the knowledge taught in the great universities, but that demand goes unsatisfied because of selective admissions requirements, tuition, and geography.
MOACs are the first volley in figuring out this untapped market. Those that dismiss MOACs as irrelevant are missing the bigger picture of what early stage disruption looks like.
Specifically, according to Christensen, here is the recurring dynamic: the new entrants siphon off work from the bottom-end -- work that the high-end says it does not want anyway. The cycle repeats itself a few times until, much to the incumbents' surprise, the bottom-end becomes more economically relevant and powerful. Why does top-end let this happen? Because the incumbents have come to view success as elite status and high margins, which is an unrealistically high long-term bar unless you are continuously innovating. Eventually, the so-called high-margin niche becomes insufficient to sustain the enterprise, and giants fall -- see the automotive industry, steel, computer hardware, televisions, consumer electronics, etc.
That said, does the university model of education have a life cycle, or is it above these coarse market considerations? I think it probably does.
In the year 2013, lots of knowledge is free or incredibly cheap. Next year, even more, and so on for the foreseeable future. As a result, many people are able to become astonishingly knowledgable and skilled because of the sheer joy of learning and becoming more competent. It turns out that university credentials are a pretty noisy signal for knowledge and competence -- a small positive correlation, yes, but not much more. This is an information gap problem.
In terms of sheer productitivity, most employers would prefer the folks who are driven to learn and continuously improve. Google has already figured this out, as a substantial portion of their high-end workforce has never completed college. Google employs them for their abilities, not their degrees.
When opportunity is unbundled from university credentials -- i.e., the information gap problem described above becomes cost-effective to solve -- the demand for university education as it currently exists (expensive and in limited supply) will go down. From a social perspective, this is a good thing. But it means that universities will have to innovate in the years to come in order to justify our tuition and fees.