A few writers have applied the theory to higher education. (I’ve started a list of these authors, articles and books, below.)
One especially important aspect of the theory suggests that disruptive innovations tend not to come from established organizations. While large, well-run organizations may have the resources to generate innovations, their commitment to existing customers, focusing on improving existing systems, and unwillingness to pursue niche markets, stops them from investing sufficiently in new products and new markets. Robert Birnbaum applied this theory to the field of online higher education and came to the following conclusion:
“The logical conclusion of applying the theses of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution to higher education may be that virtual education can thrive in traditional colleges and universities only if it operates outside their normal management and value frameworks, with the consequent risk of losing institutional control.”
Robert Birnbaum, Academe, Jan/Feb2005, Vol. 91, Issue 1
If it is uncommon for traditional organizations to produce disruptive innovations, the implications for universities are considerable. As of 2010, fewer people in the field of higher education are clinging to the notion that the traditional post-secondary model needs merely minor changes; modifications of its established model (what Christensen might define as “sustaining innovations”). So what are the options?
Christensen suggests that it is possible for established organizations to create disruptive innovations by creating independent units within the larger organization. In order to be successful, however, these units need to be free of the larger organization’s control; they must be able to not only make their own decisions, but free to create an entirely new kind of organization. How feasible is this in the university sector? I’ve found remarkably little analysis of such efforts in universities. So it’s difficult to say just how successful this approach might be. The overall track record of innovation in higher education is, quite frankly, dismal. (For an excellent review of innovations in U.S. higher education, read William Tierney et al’s “New Players, Different Game” – see below).
Moreover, Christensen’s research suggests that the majority of new innovations come from new organizations. It may be possible for established organizations to create these independent units and to enjoy some success. But if you are placing a bet, you’re better off looking for new organizations that emerge from the periphery.
Tierney’s book points to the for-profit sector as an example of disruptive innovation. These organizations differ in important ways from traditional academia. They focus on under-served markets. They are designed to scale-up quickly, while traditional schools (particularly in the prestige category) equate limited enrollment with quality. Traditional universities have under-served adult students (the fastest growing segment of higher education) and approached online education as a “nice to have”, rather than a strategic opportunity. For-profits took full advantage of this.
I agree with Tierney’s assessment of the for-profit sector; the sector fits quite neatly into Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation. But I also think that the for-profit sector is still figuring out how to realize its’ full potential. To a surprising degree, many for-profit schools have incorporated aspects of traditional higher education that serve neither their students or owners. There are new and better ways to deliver higher education that even these “disruptive” organizations have not identified or chosen to take advantage of. No doubt the residue of traditional academia is a by-product of the fact that many of the academic managers within these corporations come from traditional higher ed. And the regulatory hoops that for-profits are asked to jump through were set up by and for traditional higher education. Nevertheless, in order to fully realize their role as innovators I believe that further exploration of new approaches will reveal even greater opportunities. In other words, they can do better. Much better. I’ll post a few notes on this particular issue in the coming weeks. As always, I welcome your input.