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Stop Competing Against Luck: Applying the Jobs to be Done Theory to Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Stop Competing Against Luck: Applying the Jobs to be Done Theory to Higher Education
Applied to higher education, the Jobs to be Done theory can help leaders understand the needs, expectations and circumstances of their target student demographics to compete for their enrollments more meaningfully.

As the non-traditional student demographic has continued to grow, many institutional leaders have come to realize that there’s no single definition of a postsecondary student. The higher education marketplace is being accessed by a wide variety of students of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, all bringing with them specific—but unique—goals and needs. For college and university leaders across the United States, there’s a broad recognition of the importance of defining a niche, but most stopped there. What it takes to compete in that niche, beyond the broad umbrella of “market research” remains a mystery. In this interview, Karen Dillon and Paul LeBlanc aim to shed more light on how leaders can better serve their students by applying the Jobs to be Done theory from Competing Against Luck—which was co-written by Clayton Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some key lessons higher education leaders should take away from the Jobs To Be Done theory?

Karen Dillon (KD): Understanding why people make the choices they make—and not assuming you already know—is key to getting at the true root of decisions, what we call the causal mechanism. If you don’t understand what actually causes a decision for someone to pursue higher education, you can’t possibly compete for those potential students. We call this the Job to Be Done—what progress is someone trying to make in a particular set of circumstances?

Those circumstances are a critical part of understanding the causal mechanism. A later in life learner, for example, has completely different circumstances than a high school senior looking for independence. Knowing the real job underneath a choice—and those circumstances—will help college and university leaders create better options for students seeking higher education, rather than relying on the way things have always been done.

Evo: How would this line of thinking change the way higher education is generally seen by its leaders and practitioners, especially when it comes to the idea of seeing students as customers?

KD: One of the key shifts, I think, would be seeing the competitive playing field in a fresh light.

Higher education institutions aren’t just competing against other higher education institutions for students’ Jobs to Be Done. They are competing against the decision to do nothing rather than pursue a degree. They’re competing against students choosing to pursue credentials in different ways. They’re competing against an individual’s decision to simply change jobs.

If you don’t see the full set of competitors, you won’t be able to craft a better solution to prospective students’ true Jobs to Be Done.

Evo: What would the Jobs to be Done theory look like when applied to the postsecondary space?

Paul LeBlanc (PL): We often talk about higher education as if it does one job for one type of student, but we know higher education does many jobs for many kinds of students. The job that West Point (the United States Military Academy) does is very different than the job of an evangelical college or that of a residential liberal arts campus catering to 18-year-olds or that of a large online university working with 30-year-olds juggling work and family with an education.

For the 18-year-olds living on campus, they want an education and the coming of age experience that such colleges offer. They will meet new people, study abroad, play on a team, lead a student organization, and more—all of it designed to help them become productive young adults who have come to learn themselves during those four years.

In contrast, the working adult who is now going back to pursue an online degree has had all the coming of age they can take. They too want an education, but the job for them is about convenience (given their very busy lives as workers and parents), cost, and time to complete.

Those very different jobs to be done require very different structures, delivery modes, policies and processes, and more.

Evo: What, if any, are the drawbacks of the Jobs to be Done theory’s application to the postsecondary space?

PL: It’s not a drawback per se, but a caveat in the postsecondary space is that while we can land on a primary Job to be Done, education is complex and has all the messiness of human beings. As such, the primary job often has a series of secondary jobs that at least have to be recognized and accounted for along the way.

For example, as a working adult going back to college, the Job to be Done is, “Get me a degree as quickly as possible and in as convenient and affordable a way as possible.” But we can’t sacrifice standards or rigor for that job to be done (and we all have had students that would happily do less work if possible).

There can be in the Jobs to be Done a subtext of “the customer is always right,” but in complex realms such as education or health care, the job the student or the patient most wants done might not fully align with the job we want to do. I’ll use health care as an example here. The patient needing care for pre-diabetic symptoms wants those symptoms to be addressed (the job to be done), while the doctor knows that the bigger job to be done is losing weight, eating a different diet, and getting exercise—a topic the doctor has brought up on prior visits, to no avail.

In postsecondary education, we can list any number of analogous situations. Students come to a traditional residential campus for an education and coming of age, as mentioned above, but if we also spend millions of dollars on river pools (as some campuses have), what job are we then addressing? To entertain? Students want that too, though we know their time and our money would be better spent on supporting them in their education and coming of age work.

We have to calibrate or balance good Jobs to be Done work with the other things we know need doing and the secondary jobs that produces. Those secondary jobs can also be surfaced by students, who want any number of things from us beyond their education and coming of age.

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