Published on 2013/03/28
AUDIO | Preparing The Leaders of Today for the Technologies of Tomorrow
In order for disruptive technologies to be integrated to their fullest capacity into higher education institutions, postsecondary leaders will have to adjust their institutions and their management style to accommodate massive changes.

The following interview is with Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Innosight Institute, co-author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” and a disruptive higher education leader. In this interview, Horn discusses how technology will improve the management of higher education institutions in 50 years’ time, and how the leadership of colleges and universities must change to adapt to the disruptive innovations on the horizon.

1. You have spoken at length about ways postsecondary learning is in need of a disruption. What are some of the major issues with the management of postsecondary institutions that are in need of change?

Broadly speaking and stepping back, higher education is in need of disruption to make it more affordable for students right now as well as, quite frankly, to be focusing much more on the learning and the skills that they actually need. And we see huge opportunities occurring across the landscape.

As we think about the management, then, of today’s higher education institutions, that’s going to require some significant shifts in how leaders think about the institutions, frame their purposes, and so forth, in a number of respects — and it could be challenging because, traditionally, higher education has thought of itself as high quality, often, quite frankly, based on the research it did, not on the quality of the teaching and learning for students and so forth. In some cases, we often said that if it was a more expensive institution that spent more money on students, therefore, it surely must be higher quality. And a shift to things that are valuing and more affordability and actually prizing better teaching and learning, in some cases, will be quite a dramatic shift for managers who are not used to that paradigm. So that’s a first mind-shift that we see coming.

The second one is this: whenever there’s a disruptive innovation emerging, what we see is that the existing institutions have a very hard time catching it. And in order to do so, they generally need to set up an autonomous or independent entity they can actually prioritize this, which requires managers or leaders to basically adopt a dual mindset of both operating the current institution but then simultaneously operating a startup in their midst, according to very different metrics and strategic processes and so forth, which can be difficult — to be balancing both.

2. What must college and university leaders do to ensure that disruptive technologies are implemented effectively and efficiently at their institutions?

That last part where I ended up is a big part of it. If they want to be part of the disruption, then they are going to have to carve out independent zones outside of the influence of today’s current faculty, faculty committees, senates and so forth, where they can really make decisions that are right for the startup and right for the disruptive world, but may seem very counterintuitive to the existing organization. And that’s very difficult, to be able to carve out that zone. But we’ve seen leaders in higher education — places like Southern New Hampshire University, where Paul LeBlanc has done it, Arizona State [University], where Michael Crow has done it — being able to carve out those zones, but that’s a very critical first step.

3. Looking 50 years into the future, what kinds of tools do you think will be developed to disrupt the management of higher education institutions?

That’s a really interesting question, and one that’s really hard to say. I think what you’re going to start to see, honestly, is that the disruption of higher education is going to mean that there’s going to be many fewer institutions in the world, teaching many, many more students. And we’re going to see a combination of a lot of the online learning technologies combined with different ways of reaching students in small-group settings and connecting people to each other in very intimate settings in some cases, whether that’s co-location places, like a general assembly, or a [developer] boot camp or on the campuses of existing institutions, but that are operating very differently. And so, as a result, what you can imagine is the management of these things is going to require very different processes and … have very different responsiveness to student needs and maybe even employer needs.

And, I think a lot of the technologies that affect the management will be those sorts of things that actually close those feedback loops between the leaders in institutions and between the students and employers that they’re trying to serve. So, I think we’ll see a lot of breakthroughs in those sorts of collaboration-type techniques in the years ahead and would help to tighten those feedback loops.

4. What kinds of changes to the organizational structure of higher education institutions in 50 years’ time will occur in response to these disruptions?

I think we’re going to see some dramatic changes in new institutions where it’s not necessarily going to be run in the same way through these faculty decision bodies or the same sorts of processes right now by which decisions get made, where things go into committees, things are debated, it’s cross-functional in many ways and so forth. And while you’ll still have collaborations and so forth, the processes and response times are going to be so much quicker in the new world that … those sorts  of processes just won’t survive into the future, I think, in many respects at teaching institutions. So I can’t say for sure, obviously, what it will look like, but I think what I can say is that it will be a different set of processes and cultures that are prized and valued in that new world and it will probably be far less that certain people can just have veto power about the nature of their tenure and instead that it will have to be much more driven by what is actually happening on the ground for students. And you’ll have to have people that make far more [decisions].

One might argue that might look more like a traditional business; that could be the case, but the only thing I would note is that traditional businesses struggle with disruption as well and they have to develop new processes to prioritize them also. So I think the only thing you can confidently say is there will be a set of processes that are right for the new opportunity and my guess is, that will be one that’s helping students prepare for their life and often, quite frankly, over the lifelong spans. So the processes might be reaching students, not just when they’re graduating high school from 18-22, not just when they are coming back at age 30 for their next thing in the workforce, but, quite frankly, intervals every 5-10 years as students need to retool for the next phase of life and go through these transition points that we have within increasing frequency.

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Readers Comments

Ian Richardson 2013/03/28 at 9:28 am

Horn discusses an important “mind-shift” that needs to happen in the next several decades in order for these changes to take place. People need to stop measuring the value of higher education in terms of cost or seat time. Alternative providers, like MOOCs, have shown us other factors that are important to take into account when assessing education, such as students’ workplace readiness and skills mastery. Higher education rankings need to better reflect these performance indicators.

Ryan Loche 2013/03/28 at 1:27 pm

I agree with Horn that institutions need to shift their focus to a new set of learners — ones that are lifelong and may enter the system at any age. We’re living in a society of precarious employment, where individuals are expected to constantly retool or upgrade existing skills. This is a really important market for postsecondary institutions to tap into, for their benefit as well as for the student’s.

Ursula V.F. 2013/03/28 at 4:21 pm

I recently read an interview with Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University where he said something like, “Work out a business model to put our current model out of business,” which I felt was quite a unique perspective among higher education administrators. What he’s doing here is giving the online branch of the university flexibility to be innovative and to dare to be sustainable and even profitable.

Today, SNHU is one of the largest online presences in New England, and the online portion of the university is sustaining the traditional branch — which speaks to the success of LeBlanc’s approach. Rather than replace the traditional university, he has created two complementary systems where one follows a business model that allows it to support the both of them. More institutions need to start thinking in this manner.

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