I have been thinking and writing a lot about the need to introduce the discussion of value proposition into how we think strategically about our schools. The consideration of institutional value is quite different than the consideration of strategic goals as practiced by most schools. Importantly, value directs us outward to the view of our customers, and it is constant, not highly episodic. Knowledge-based industries cannot afford inwardly-focused strategic planning cycles that are vastly longer than the pace of innovation sweeping through our core market.
My friend Ian Symmonds is one of our leading minds when it comes to strategic and market-based thinking in K-12 and higher education. Last week he shared his thoughts on what will happen to schools and universities as rising tuitions conflict with customer perceptions of what they are willing to pay for. As Ian put it:
Many of the outstanding, high quality, high cost independent schools and colleges are fiercely working in this same battle. I think the mistake they are making is trying to change the consumer mindset. It is very difficult – nearly impossible – to move a consumer choice from “good” to “great” if “good” is all they really desire. “Good” will get them into a strong college or a solid job after graduation, without super-high debt loads. Good enough wins.
Maybe the real strategy challenge is to stop trying to change the mindsets of consumers that they must purchase “great” or “excellent” and focus only on those families and students who really desire those attributes. The question then remains whether we have over-built our capacity beyond the number of viable consumers for our “great” product.
I have two thoughts to share. The first is probably a depressing agreement with Ian that we may have overbuilt capacity of what have, in the past, been perceived as good schools. If customer perceptions are that “good” is good enough in light of rising cost of attendance, a shrinking middle class, a fragile economy, less expensive options, and a rapidly evolving model of what colleges will look like in the near future, then schools operating at the margin today may well be squeezed out of the market.
The second possibility is equally viable and should provide a pathway for schools to meet and overcome this obstacle of lagging customer perceptions. Ian argues that it is nearly impossible to get customers to pay for “great” if they perceive that “good” is sufficient; I agree. But I also think that a world filled with rapidly evolving knowledge-based niches provides enormous opportunities for our industry. Like high-tech companies that rapidly exploit evolving technologies, schools can and must develop customer-perceived value where it has not existed in the past.
How do we do this and what does it look like? The “how” is the science and practice of innovation, which others and I have been working to translate into the language of how educators operate. They are tested practices from a long history of successful innovation across a wide range of organizations.