How the Jobs-to-Be-Done Framework Can (and Should) Drive Institutional Strategy
Colleges and universities today operate in a complex, ever-changing environment, and chief among those changes is the role, place and behavior of learners. Today’s student doesn’t fit a homogenous mold—they are non-traditional, focused on personal outcome expectations and needs. This means postsecondary institutions need to evolve from trying to serve a non-existent homogenous student, and instead understand what Jobs to Be Done their students are pursuing and how to serve those expectations.
In this interview, Michael Horn discusses his new book, Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, and shares his thoughts on how the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework can help postsecondary leaders consciously design an institution focused around learner success.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you decide to write Choosing College?
Michael Horn (MH): For a long time at the Christensen Institute we have hypothesized that institutions were serving students with many different reasons, or what we call Jobs to Be Done, for attending them. Our hypothesis was, as a result, that institutions were sort of one-size-fits-all learning organizations without being clearly optimized for one type of student—and therefore were optimized for none. That was contributing to cost increases, poor outcomes and the like.
So, we got a grant from the Gates Foundation to conduct research with hundreds of students and indeed, we certainly found that was the case. Institutions serve students who have a range of reasons for enrolling, which I think helps explain the subpar outcomes generated by certain institutions. But the stories and reasons themselves were so compelling that we felt like we had to write a book to help parents and students make better decisions.
Evo: How did the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework help contextualize the anecdotes and the survey results that you collected while putting Choosing College together?
MH: The Jobs-to-Be-Done theory helps frame a student’s context and the trade-offs that they were willing to make in pursuing their education. This, we feel, is more valuable than a vacuum statement of “Well obviously every student needs X”.
We use the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework to flesh out these different reasons of why students make the decisions they do. Not from an institution’s perspective, but from the student’s perspective. We ask what was the student voice and actions really telling us? We then use that to say, “If those are the reasons you’re attending and those are the pushes and pulls in your life—the social, emotional and functional outcomes that you want out of it—what advice can we give you to help you make better choices?”
Looking at it the other way, these insights can help institutions figure out who are they serving and how they can serve them better.
Evo: You mentioned that, without understanding the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework, many institutions wound up not optimized for any learner type. Does that help explain why institutional rankings and other more prestige-based factors have, for so long, been a proxy for quality in the postsecondary space?
MH: I think the two issues are absolutely connected. There is a slice of students for whom their Job to Be Done is to get into the “best” school. The copycat trends—the rankings and isomorphism of higher ed—really fold back on that particular student’s goal to get into the best institution. It sort of becomes this circular game that many institutions have felt that they need to play.
If they understood a much more diverse set of Jobs for why students were choosing schools—the outcomes, the situations that those students were in and the nuance in each of those Jobs—you’d see institutions more ready to design better and more specific experiences. In some cases, they would likely realize they’re not the right institution for a particular Job. And let’s be honest about that, because they’re not going to be successful serving it.
Evo: How did the process of developing Choosing College impact your own understanding of modern learners and the higher education ecosystem?
MH: I was frankly shocked by the findings. I didn’t expect to find at all what we did. Clay Christensen and I have long written articles where we would say things like, “We can hypothesize that the Jobs to Be Done students have helped learners launch a career, switch jobs, or transition into adulthood.” We would use language like that.
But when we actually dug into it, that’s not the language students use at all, or even the Jobs that they have. And so, I would say the research was very revealing to me because I didn’t foresee any of the Jobs we unearthed at the beginning.
One thing I really want people to understand is that the Jobs to Be Done that we’ve outlined aren’t necessarily static. Individuals may have different Jobs that need doing over the course of their lifetime and, frankly, the Jobs themselves may also change over time as institutions, students and circumstances evolve. In other words, if we did the exact same research in a few years, I suspect we would find different things, as it’s not a static model. So, it’s a very important point because 20 years ago the results may have been very different. Context gives meaning, and that context by continually changing, learner’s expectations, progress and priorities are going to shift too. So, whatever that rate of change is in the context, you would expect that learner’s Jobs could shift as well.
Evo: How can institutions keep pace with the fact that not only should they adjust to the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework, but the Jobs themselves are constantly evolving?
MH: So there’s a couple of things that can help institutions keep pace. First, we provided a tool in the book that, for students, helps them diagnose what Job are they experiencing, that would be one thing. Second, we’re going to create a similar tool that institutions will be able to license and use as well. This will allow them to survey their students to figure out what percentage of their students are in what Jobs. So that’ll be a tangible thing that they’ll have at their disposal.
The second thing is this process of interviewing and understanding the documentary of how students came to choose your school can allow an institution to stay current. Something that institutions see as they’re building—either internally or externally through partners—is that through this constant understanding of the student’s pathway and journey comes together as the front end of a design process as they’re designing the right experience for their learners. I think Jobs to Be Done connects nicely to design thinking. It’s the first part of that method and then it allows institutions to start prototyping different types of experiences and constantly innovate ideas.
Evo: Once an institution goes through that process of identifying their ideal learners, how do they create an unbundled student-centric programming model that will allow for accomplishment of the variety of Jobs that are coming through the door?
MH: The key is to figure out what Jobs are so dissimilar from other ones, that the very experience has to be completely different. Then you understand what you have to pull apart as separate operations and entities and what Jobs are possible to coexist in the same program if they had to.
First, it’s an understanding of what the requirements and experience are that you need to provide and how those overlap with each other. And that’s not just something that’s unique to higher education, that true in all contexts. For example, IKEA is perfectly placed for an individual looking to furnishing their apartment relatively quickly and affordably, but it’s not set up to do the Job of building a lasting home with furniture that’ll be passed down to future generations.
When you start to see those different Jobs emerge with very different experiences required, then you really do need to build different programs. Southern New Hampshire University is a really good example of this. They have their on-ground, residential, traditional program, which serves students whose Job is enrolling in the best school. And then they have the online program which is really serving students whose Job is to step it up with career advancement and success. These are completely different audiences with different goals, needs and expectations, and so they are being served through completely different programs.
Evo: What are a few key lessons that you would hope a college or university administrator will take away from the book?
MH: I would share three key lessons that postsecondary leaders can take away from Choosing College:
- Differentiate Yourself
I hope institutions realize that they have to choose what they’re going to suck at. You can’t be great at everything, and that’s actually a good thing. They should intentionally decide which learners they aren’t going to serve, and which Jobs to Be Done they’re not going to address. Then they should make that explicit. That process of honing what your institution isn’t going to do is incredibly important—it’s the essence of strategy. It’s something that higher ed leaders tend to avoid, but strategy is all about differentiating yourself and figuring out how you’re going to allocate resources to do so. Instead, they tend to want to be like each other, which simply isn’t going to work.
- Encourage Learners to Find the Ideal Institution for Them
Encourage more students to find different options when they aren’t the right fit for you. In other words, be honest in your admissions policy about who you’re set up to serve. Tell students when it’s not going to be the right fit and counsel them into other pathways. That could be a gap year if you’re serving traditional students. When serving adult learners, make sure that there is a marriage of intent and what you’re set up to do.
- Raise Your Standards
That might sound counterintuitive, but I think institutions need to be very clear about “This is the expectations for learners in our program of what they’ll master.” And hold to them, because employers and students will come to trust your seal if you’re dogmatic about holding to your standards.
Those don’t just have to be academic standards. Those can be focused on developing a person. Standards around how you develop a person and help them in a self-discovery process, helping them with grit, perseverance, habits of success that will serve them well in the workforce. But be clear about those standards and then keep them high and hold to them, that’s incredibly important. Because the reality is, the demand for education is greater than it’s ever been. It’s not in the traditional four-year program that we’ve always seen.
By understanding the Jobs that people have and the progress that they’re trying to make, being clear about what you can serve and what it means to go to your institution, there’s a world of opportunity right now for schools to innovate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.