For my dissertation I conducted multiple interviews with managers involved in innovation in 40 service organizations. Two types of organizations stood out as different from all the others in terms of innovation: hospitals and universities. I concluded that universities and hospitals had three key traits in common that hindered innovation:

  1. The organizations were not “user-centric” – they were instead “doctor-centric”,
  2. Both had distinct “silos” and difficulty with cross-departmental cooperation and innovation, and
  3. Government and third-party payers.

Despite the incredible growth as Higher Ed moved from an elite luxury to a middle class requirement, the dominant business model and primary delivery process hasn’t changed much in 400 years. Ironically, organizations that serve as centers for scientific research and innovation have not innovated despite incredible growth and skyrocketing costs.

Customer- and user-driven innovation

Readers of this blog know that I believe that innovation starts with a deep understanding of user needs and ideally draws users and customer into co-creation and collaborative innovation.

Customer-centricism drives innovation in many industries, but in education it is not simple to define the customer. Are customers current students? Employers? Alumni? Parents and government (who pay)? Each of these groups may have different views on needs and what would improve the service.

Most colleges now have students evaluate their professors. Some universities (especially teaching-oriented schools) weigh the ratings in pay reviews and tenure or promotion decisions.

Are current students the customer? Students have a wide range of reasons to be in college including: parental pressure; credentials for a job after school; a relatively safe and enjoyable place to continue their high school experimentation with sex, drugs and liquor; and (hopefully) studying something that they are interested in.

Scholars have argued that attempts to focus on current student feedback have resulted in dumbed-down courses and less focus on cheating. See:

For how student evaluations and course selection dumb-down courses:

For how student evaluations taught a professor not to enforce the honor code: via @rogerschank

Math is hard and writing papers are a drag. Through course selection and student evaluations rigor and demanding assignment decrease. As the saying goes “a college education is one of those very few goods for which the less the buyer gets, the more he likes it.” Once again: Are current students the sole or even primary customer for Higher Ed?

Who do you think universities should consider the customer? Who can they use as innovation partners?