This weekend I spent some quality time at IKEA. We left the store with a new bed frame, desk and nightstand for my 16 year old, an outdoor dining table, 8 outdoor chairs for said dining table, 3 small side tables, 2 seat cushions, and a duvet.
Total cost for all these IKEA purchases - under $800.
Can we learn anything from IKEA about what a future for part of higher ed might look like?
1. Cheap Prices Require Labor Substitution.
One of the big reasons that IKEA must be so cheap is that hardly anyone seems to work at the stores. IKEA substitutes showroom design for salespeople. Signage and model rooms for employees. There is really no need to ask an IKEA employee to sell the furniture and home furnishings as the cheap prices and modern designs sell themselves. Warehouse workers are also eliminated, as all the furniture is packed in flat boxed and is available for self-pickup. You pick out your own furniture, load the boxes on carts yourself, and stick your purchases in the car without any help.
Later tonight I will work with my older daughter to assemble her desk and bed, and even later tonight we will tackle the table. Putting together my own furniture means that I pay less to buy this furniture. It is like IKEA has sourced the final assembly stages to the homes of all their customers.
The labor substitute here is the customer for the employee. IKEA is basically a self-serve operation, with just enough employees about to keep up the illusion that any employees are necessary.
We know that that the main reason that higher ed is so expensive is that postsecondary labor costs have followed a similar trajectory to all in-person service industries that rely on expensively educated employees. As we learned in Why Does College Cost So Much  the rising price of tuition is mirrored by rising prices in comparable industries. The cost of dental services, accounting, and legal services have also risen in-line with higher ed.
If anyone is ever going to do for higher ed what IKEA has done for home furnishings it will be necessary to get rid of most of us.
Right now, nobody (including me), thinks that it is possible to provide anything like what we would recognize and value in a postsecondary education without all of our faculty and librarians, and at least some of our staff.
But, prior to the mid-1980's when the first U.S. IKEA store opened, did anyone think that furniture that looked as good as what IKEA sells would ever be available at IKEA level prices?
2. The Power of Design.
Building a business around self-service shopping and customer assembly would be bound to fail if the furniture didn't look great. IKEA furniture may not be the most durable or long lasting, but it sure looks good.
It is the design language that IKEA has created with its products that constitutes the true value of brand. This design language is not limited to how the table, chair, bed, or sofa looks on the showroom floor. An integral part of the design is that almost all of the furniture can be packed in flat boxes, for easy and cheap transport from the factory to the showroom to the customer living room or bedroom. The furniture is designed to be shipped.
An additional part of the design language is the ease of putting together the IKEA furniture. All the pieces are standard, and once you have mastered the assembly of an IKEA bookshelf you can pretty much put anything from IKEA together.
IKEA combines high quality design with standardization. IKEA has figured out how to bring design to scale.
Bringing high quality education to scale is not something that higher ed has figured out. Lots of very smart people are working on this, and maybe this will be in our future.
Personally, I am having trouble getting my head around translating what I know about course design for 25 or 50 learners to course designed for learning at scale.
I'm sure that there are some lessons in IKEA's approach of combining design thinking with the discipline of standardization. I just can't quite see how we could pull it off.
What would higher ed look like if run by IKEA?