Friday, February 5, 2010

On Being an Entrepreneur in Higher Education

Not long ago, I was speaking with an administrator at my own university. During the conversation, this person referred to another administrator as being “very entrepreneurial,” and I was stunned. In my opinion, that administrator is far from being entrepreneurial and is missing out on outstanding opportunities to grow enrollment through new programs and strategies for delivery. To be sure, the area for which this person is responsible is growing, and there are some good things happening in the unit, but I don’t see what I’d call entrepreneurship.

Although I let the comment pass, later I started thinking about our different assessments of the same individual. I’m relatively certain that we have comparable knowledge about this person’s attitudes and behavior, and we can both see the same performance measures. So why would one of us see an entrepreneur and the other not?

I can't speak for the other person's point of view, but from my perspective, entrepreneurship is about innovation; it is not about linear improvements to an existing product. I would argue that an entrepreneur creates or takes advantage of a disruptive environment, taking calculated risks that change the competitive landscape. (See earlier posts on this blog.) One might say it is about having a future orientation, rather than a focus on the present, but that may not be entirely fair. Maybe it is more of an awareness of possibilities that are qualitatively different than what presently exists, at least within the institution.

An entrepreneurial effort in higher education implies new programs, new delivery systems, or new ways of engaging with students. Creative, strategic marketing is an important part of entrepreneurship, as well, such that prospective students begin to choose the new opportunity over previously existing options. There may also be meaningful innovations to the typical business model, perhaps affecting how the institution earns revenue or spends its money.

To illustrate, at our institution we’ve been delivering graduate cohort programs off the main campus, for decades. Our cohort programs typically are master’s degrees, offered in lockstep fashion, part time, over two years, at a branch campus or other location. Instruction is either face-to-face or through interactive television, primarily, with the same courses being offered by the same instructors as our main campus program. The programs are financially lucrative, if enrollment exceeds 20 students.

I’m pleased with these programs, and I imagine the approach was quite entrepreneurial in its time, but after 30 years, it seems like a stretch to call these cohorts entrepreneurial. Offering additional cohorts of the same or different programs may yield growth in enrollment, but they still are linear extensions of what we’ve always done. The fact that deans and chairs are eager to get on board with cohort programs these days reflects the economy and our budgets, not an entrepreneurial spirit.

On the other hand, these programs most definitely are part of a broader perspective on our commitment to entrepreneurship. Our marketing team has done some very creative and successful marketing of these programs over the past two or three years, so that the average enrollment in a cohort has gone up. They have built new relationships to help us spread the word, through what we call our Central Ohio strategy, giving Ohio University access to the Columbus metro population. (We sometimes talk about “breaking out” of our rural Southeastern Ohio region, although we remain committed to making sure that residents of our own region have access to graduate opportunities.)

The marketing efforts, in my opinion, do reflect an entrepreneurial spirit. I won’t go into details, but we’ve followed all the steps one would expect, in terms of testing and evaluating ideas, studying best practices around the country, making modest investments in new techniques to see how they go, and so on. Enrollment has grown by about 40% over the past two years.

That said, at the risk of being overly blunt, from my personal point of view, we are growing cohort programs because we can do so quickly, because many current faculty are familiar with and comfortable with that model, and because they can throw off cash to support the development of more innovative programming. I know this may sound cold, but the entrepreneurship lies in the overall strategy, not in simply growing cohort enrollment.

I believe much is at stake for higher education over the next five to ten years. It will not be an effective response to a disruptive environment to do more of what we’ve always done. It is not entrepreneurial to use interactive television to deliver the same program you’ve always delivered, with butts in seats and class minutes calculated to satisfy some bureaucratic reporting requirement. It may be a good idea to expand these programs, but there is no real innovation—no real creativity and no meaningful market positioning to respond to emerging competition.

In my opinion, there are certain keys to effective innovation in higher education. One key for the future, almost certainly, lies in developing a variety of engaged partnerships with other institutions. Successful leaders will be committed to listening to current and prospective students (nonconsumers), to employers, and to potential partners. They will take steps to co-design programs that speak to emerging needs.

We need to see delivery approaches and services that are targeted specifically to the needs of our students, not to the preferences of faculty members. We need to respect the challenges faced by students who are pursuing their educational dream, while juggling the demands of family and jobs. It is about value: An excellent program that meets students’ legitimate expectations for flexibility, support, and a price tag that they can afford.

Please do pursue creative recruiting practices and expand the programs available at branch campuses, as you can. Branch leaders know that we have to be opportunists and experts in interest-based bargaining. We have to stay patient and use language that builds support over time. But let’s not confuse that work with being innovative.

I am working on some thoughts tied to the topic of “how to think like an educational entrepreneur.” We have to do better than what I’m seeing at most institutions. One of the first steps is to recognize the difference between what we’ve always done and those creative approaches that change the game. Institutions may choose not to go this route, of course. I just believe that many of them will regret the decision.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Dr. Charles Bird said...

Well, Alena, I don't know what to say, either, except "thanks"! It's nice to know you are reading. I try to post once a month, although I missed January, so I'm intending to do something else yet in February.

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

Thought I would share this radical approach to education and management with you. What are your thoughts.
Ricardo Semler: How to run a Responsible Society

Dr. Charles Bird said...

I don't find anything at that web address. Says something about it being "malformed."