The bankruptcy of Borders and the closing of 400 stores provides an opportunity to think through some lessons for for higher ed? Are we immune from the fate of Borders?
1. The Middle is a Bad Place to Be: Some of us will miss book browsing at Borders (I will), but none of us will miss it too much. The closing of a locally owned, independent bookstore is much more painful than the closing of a Borders. The local, independent bookstore is at the high end, as we go to these places to get recommendations or for specialization. The employees at Borders are good people, but only some of them are dedicated book fanatics. Nor was Borders catering to the low-end, low-price market. Books were cheaper online.
The lesson for higher ed is that the institutions most at risk are those in the middle. The schools that are neither high quality or a good bargain, ones that don't specialize and try to be all things to all people, will be the most vulnerable. We need to figure out what we are strong in, and relentlessly focus on those areas. Can we let some mid-quality courses or majors go? Can we take the steps necessary to lower costs?
2. Technology is Not Always the Solution: I've heard that the problem with Borders is that they were late to the e-reader game, outsourcing their e-reader and bringing out a poor product. True. But I think it would have been a mistake for Borders to try to go down the same road as Amazon or B&N. Getting e-books right is difficult, and e-readers was not a core competency of Borders. If I had run Borders a year or two ago, my strategy would have been to double-down on physical books. Stock the store floor to ceiling with books. Stop selling calendars and music and games. They should have made Borders the physical bookstore of the long-tail.
In higher ed we are all obsessed now with bringing on the latest technologies. Perhaps not all of us should try to integrate iPads into our curriculum, or spend lots of money on mobile apps. Can we differentiate in other ways, perhaps in offering a less expensive but longer tail of educational choices (around delivery times, methods, or courses?).
3. Disruption Can Be Rapid: The fall of Borders was fast. Just yesterday it seems like we were worried about the independent booksellers (we are still worried), claiming that the big box bookstores like Borders would wipe them out. Instead, Borders became the dinosaur.
The higher ed lesson is that tomorrow will not be like today. Competitors and disruptors can emerge quickly. Like Borders, we are largely a place-based and high fixed cost business, and we are vulnerable to the entrance of more agile players.
Can you find higher ed lessons in the demise of Borders?
On a program note, I'm going off-the-grid for a family vacation, with a return to our IHE community on 8/9/11. Any vacation reading recommendations?
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