Why Our Higher Ed Transformation Crowd Should Read 'The Upstarts’

Uber, Airbnb, and postsecondary disruption thinking.

February 13, 2017

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone

Published in January of 2017.

There is an idea running around some circles of higher ed that what we need is not incremental improvement - but transformation.  

The thinking is that our challenges of costs, access, and quality are too intractable to be met by the standard methods of academic organizational change.  

I’m not always clear as to where our academic transformation crowd, (and I’ll admit my own affiliations with this cabal), is coming from.  Are we worried about resiliency, status, and relative economic viability of our institutions? Is the concern about autonomy and security of those of us who work in higher education?  Or is the call for academic transformation driven by the needs of our students - as well as all the others who pay our higher education bills?

One way to advance our discussion of postsecondary transformation is to look for non-incremental change in other industries.  

It is for this reason that I think that Brad Stone’s terrific new book on the young history of Uber and Airbnb will find eager readers amongst postsecondary disruption set.

We all know that the fastest way to look foolish amongst higher ed people is to compare anything in higher ed to Uber.  (Airbnb, for whatever reason, does not seem to carry the emotional payload in the minds of academics). 

Uber is understood as both brilliant and exploitative - a service that provides unarguable benefits for riders while inflicting existential injury to the very idea of secure employment.  

The fate of Uber drivers feels uncomfortably close to that of contingent faculty.  The gig economy just another word for wealth concentration on the backs of a contingent labor force.

What is great about The Upstarts is that in learning the history of Uber and Airbnb, we learn that the founders of these companies had little idea about the eventual impact of their business models.

The founders of Airbnb did not set out to displace the hotel industry.  True to the name of the website (and the app), they thought that they were creating a market for travelers spend a night or two on a hosts air mattress.  Back in 2009, the idea that Airbnb would rewrite the fundamentals of the hospitality industry would have surprised the founders of Airbnb.  

Uber was originally founded as an up-market black car service.  The idea of car sharing (UberX) was not in the original business plan.  Nor was the idea that Uber would enable a whole generation of urban dwellers to reasonably forgo car ownership.  Only after Uber became a cultural and venture capital phenomenon did the idea that the business could re-write the fundamental rules of the transportation economy take hold within the company. 

Stone does a good job of elucidating the inner-workings and cultural vibe of Uber and Airbnb.  The relentless cultures and idealism of Uber and Airbnb in their early years enabled them to leapfrog over incumbents and local laws.  It is not clear, as Stone points out, if the culture and businesses practices that enabled these companies to grow so quickly (and raise so much money) will be appropriate as they transition from startups to mature businesses. 

One lesson from The Upstarts that we should perhaps learn in higher ed is that the path of industry-wide transformations are seldom predictable.  Today, we think we know what developments have a good chance of disrupting our postsecondary status quo (competency based learning definitely, possibly open online education), but transformation might come from unexpected places.  

Higher ed people who are interested in innovation might dislike any efforts to situate this work within the language of disruption.  

We may argue that incumbent colleges and universities are nothing like incumbent taxi companies and hotel chains.  We may choose to rider in Uber’s cars and stay in Airbnb properties, but we will be vocal in our worries about the costs of the gig economy.  

These hesitations, however, should not stop us from attempting to draw lessons from the stories of Uber and Airbnb as we think about how we can drive non-incremental postsecondary change.  

What are you reading?


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