3 Ways Higher Ed Can Avoid the Fate of Polaroid

Some initial thoughts from Adam Grant’s amazing new book.

February 23, 2016

I’m in the middle of reading Adam Grant’s new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World - a book that is too good to recommend only once.

One of the stories that Grant tells is the history of Polaroid. As I was learning about the rise and fall Polaroid (which declared bankruptcy in 2001), I kept thinking about the lessons for higher ed. Three facts about the history of Polaroid stand out:

Fact 1 - Success:  For 30 years, between 1948 and 1978, Polaroid was - by any measure - wildly successful. In these years sales grew annually by 23 percent and profits annually by 17 percent. The Polaroid brand become one of the world’s most valuable and iconic.

Fact 2 - Innovation:  The idea that Polaroid missed the digital camera revolution is wrong. Polaroid invested heavily in developing digital imaging technologies. By 1990, 28 percent of Polaroid’s patents were related to digital imaging. As early as 1989 Polaroid had developed a 1.9 megapixel sensor. The problem was that Polaroid never shifted its business strategy from physical film to digital, failing to redirect marketing, branding, and sales to this new market.

Fact 3 - Internal Dissenting Voices:  It is not that Polaroid was bereft of employees who saw that the future of photography was digital instead of paper. Polaroid had lots of people who tried to shift the company’s strategy. Smart engineers, product managers, and even high level Polaroid executives argued for a move to digital.  They were never able to move the top leadership at the company to change, nor were they able to shift Polaroid’s culture to be nimble and responsive in the face of this new technology and market opportunity.

In short, Polaroid in the 1970s and 1980s looked much like many of our most successful colleges and universities look like today.  We are successful, innovative, and we have many internal people trying to shift us to a different future.

Building on Grant’s analysis of Polaroid’s failure to shift in the digital age, here are 3 lessons that may be applicable to higher ed.

Lesson 1 - Be Clear About Our Business:

It is clear to us now that Polaroid should have affirmed that it was in the imaging business, not the paper business. Just as Blockbuster was in the watching movies at home business, and not the DVD rental from store business. The goal of not confusing what we do with how we do it is easy to say, and very hard to reach.

In higher ed, we are in the learning, credentialing and knowledge creation business.  We are not in the physical classroom or online classroom business.  Physical and online classrooms are tools - they are a means to an end.

Whether we are believers in the continued viability of the residential learning experience (I am), or the potential of online and low-residency learning (I am as well) - we need to be willing to shift and adapt with new information, methods, and tools.

We should learn from Polaroid and internalize the idea that what we will be doing in the future may be the same, but how we will be doing it will be different.

Lesson 2 - Develop a Meritocratic Culture of Accountability and Ideas:

From reading Originals, it sounds as if the employees at Polaroid who saw the digital revolution coming were never able to gain enough traction and influence to shift the company’s business strategy and culture.  Hierarchy and status stood in the way of open debate and the sharing of ideas. Those at Polaroid with the most direct knowledge of the potential of digital imaging, the engineers working on R&D, never saw their role as developing high-level and long-term strategy for the company.

One reason that I am bullish on the future legacy postsecondary institutions is that, for the most part, we do have cultures of oneness and debate. We value diversity of views, and dissent from mainstream thinking. Our history of shared governance and mission drive organizations puts us in a good position to adapt and evolve. Today’s colleges and universities will prove much more resilient than our critics - those who see a future of widespread closures - are willing to acknowledge.

The developing of a meritocratic culture of accountability and ideas is a strength that higher ed can build on.  We need to do a much better job of translating our rhetoric on the value of diversity, and diverse viewpoints in leadership, into action.  We need to find ways to support and listen to those people in our schools that are marginalized by our existing structures and policies.  It is those colleagues who benefit least from the existing status quo who will offer the best ideas for change.

Lesson 3 - Investing in Technology is Not a Substitute for Evolving the Culture:

The final lesson that I take from Polaroid is that investing in new technologies is not enough. We need to invest in culture.

All the money spent in the world on new technologies will be irrelevant if we don’t invest in our educators. Unless all of our educators are given the support, resources, and respect that they need to do their work we will never evolve our institutions.

In an age of abundant information, the failure to place the educator / learner relationship at the center of our teaching and learning efforts will doom our colleges and universities to irrelevancy.

Polaroid became irrelevant not because they did not invest in technology, but because they were unwilling to change their business strategy and culture.  We need to continue to invest in technology, but most of all higher ed needs to understand that education is fundamentally a relational process. We need to put that educator / learner relationship at the center of all of our efforts - and then figure out how technology can support this strategy.

What lessons for higher ed do you take from Polaroid?



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