As I reported in Independent School Magazine in 2014 (“Zero-Based Strategic Thinking”), we are living through a rapid global shift in producer-consumer relationships across most industrial sectors. Companies that deliver generic, higher cost products and services are being replaced by lower cost competitors that can tailor products and services to individual consumer demands. According to people like Shoshana Zuboff, retired from the Harvard Business School, organizations that live through these periods of mutation successfully evolve by focusing on core values and services that meet differentiated consumer demands, a significant mutation from the “one-size-fits-all” mantra of the industrial age.
In a 15-minute activity in many of my workshops, I ask educator teams to fill in a very simple two-sided list: “Think about everything your school does. On one side list all the things that could be outsourced to, or replaced by, a lower cost competitor, whether you like it or not. On the other side list those things your school does that are so powerfully at the core of the school experience that they cannot be replicated at a lower price point.” If the audience is largely faculty, I ask them to drill down into the various elements of their teaching day: lecture, grading papers, preparing for class, small group work, going to meetings, etc. If the audience is business officers, I suggest they mentally check off all the major headings in the budget: food service, maintenance, transportation, human resources, and the like. If the audience is heads of school I suggest they think about major multi-year commitments, like capital campaigns, campus development plans, and faculty evaluations.
For some this is an uncomfortable exercise. At one school I correctly pegged a group of faculty at one table as long-tenured Upper School teachers. A few minutes into the activity, one gentleman loudly proclaimed, “You can’t outsource my teaching!” His neighbor just as loudly responded, “The hell we can’t!”
The results are so repetitive as to require little synthesis. At every event the list on the left side of the chart—what could be subsumed by a lower cost competitor in a dynamic market—was long and included just about everything that actually takes place at our schools, from office operations to many elements of the classroom learning experience. Most groups clearly understood that knowledge transfer and objective assessment of student performance, the foundations of historic education, are already being taken over by lower cost competitors using rapidly evolving technologies.
The right side of the ledger in every workshop was much shorter, and focused on a very few items that every group found in common:
- The relationships that schools build and nurture between adults and children, as well as adult-adult and student-student peer relationships.
- Development of character, largely based on relationships that build over time and the respect generated through that process.
- A sense of belonging to a community
- Recognition of school standing by top colleges and universities
Not surprisingly the discussion around this activity was usually brief; everyone in the room “gets it”. Enormous resources—time, money, physical space, people, communication, thinking—are spent on elements of our schools that do not provide differentiated value to our customers. Our educators, given a few minutes to parse the problem, understand that value, as seen through the eyes of our customer, is what will drive success at schools in the future.