Kodak and Higher Ed

What if?

March 22, 2015
“What if? What if somebody else would have been a little more innovative? If the Board would have thought, ‘Let’s think a little bit further out.’”
This quote starts the video essay that accompanies the fantastic 3/20 NYTimes story: At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film.
What if? It is impossible to read this quote, and learn the Kodak story, without asking if we are making the same mistake in higher ed? 
Kodak is today a shell of its past self. Kodak thought it was in the film business, when in reality it was in the photo business. At its peak, Kodak had $19 billion in annual sales and employed 145,000 (well-paid) people.  Today, Kodak employs 8,000 people throughout the world and has sales of $2 billion. In the late 1980s Kodak was valued at about $30 billion. Today, Kodak is worth less than 1/30th of its peak.
Your college and mine is not Kodak. Where Kodak built and sold products, we build and sell a bundled set of services. Bundled services are more difficult to disrupt than products.  The analogy, that film is to a residential education as digital photography is to online learning, is flawed.  Higher education does not sell classes. Or at least classes are only a small part of what we sell.  
What does higher ed sell? How would answer that question? (I’m curious if that question rubs you the wrong way? If you don’t like thinking about our work in the language of services and selling?).
I’ll try to offer a partial list of what is in our higher ed bundle. In offering this list I know that I’m both going to offend many about the essential pieces of the bundle that I’m missing, and offend others at the pieces that have included. Please add (or subtract) other higher ed components as you see fit:
Bundled Services of Postsecondary Institutions:
- Knowledge creation / basic and applied research
- Cumulative credentialing (the diploma)
- Status signalling / cultural capital
- Progressive credentialing (credits)
- Curricular learning (courses)
- Skills and abilities
- Non-degree credentialing (certificates, executive education, etc.)
- Networks, contacts, and assortative mating
- Experiential learning (study abroad, internships, non-curricular learning opportunities etc.)
- Co-curricular activities (everything from sports to clubs)
- Residential living
- Pathways to employment
- Personal development (advising, counseling)
- Health and safety
- Entertainment (it is March Madness time after all)
- Local / regional employment - economic development
- A break for the parents of teenagers (I have a 12th grader living in my house)
The list of components in the higher ed bundle is basically limitless.  Colleges and universities fulfill so many different functions, and do so in such a large variety of ways, that it is very difficult to adequately describe what exactly higher education does.
Does every university president, provost, and trustee wake up each day and ask themselves: “How do we avoid succumbing to the same fate as Kodak?”
Will higher ed leadership avoid making the same mistakes as the leadership at Kodak? Are they, are we, spending enough time and energy asking “what if?”.
Do you share my concern that the higher ed bundle is in danger of fraying?  Not for every school in every place, but for many schools in many places.  
We are starting to see early indications that the power of one of the key pieces of the bundle, the system of awarding credentials, is beginning to erode.  
If I’m hiring a computer programmer or a web designer I may be fine, in fact I might actually prefer, indications of demonstrated and validated mastery rather than the general signal of a diploma. A series of badges or verified certificates may be better indications to an employer of future job success than the traditional sheepskin. The future of employee acceptance of alternative credentials for hiring and promotion will be one of those gradually, then all-at-once, stories. Or maybe one of those frog in the boiling water stories. We will not notice the shift until it is maybe too late to jump.
What other parts of the higher ed bundle, beyond credentialing, is also at risk of fraying?
Is it fair to say that we sometimes think that we are in the teaching and research business, when in reality we are in the learning and knowledge creation business?
Is it fair to say that it will be difficult for the most successful (and wealthy) of our institutions to change, precisely because of their past success?
Is it fair to worry that it will be difficult for the most resource deprived institutions to change, largely because change takes lots of resources?
Can we identify those schools that are both the most hungry to improve, grow, and innovate - while also enjoying the advantages of being already just successful enough to provide a solid foundation for change? 
What do you think the story of Kodak can teach us?
What if?


Back to Top