Christensen, colleague Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, and Curtis Johnson of the Citistates Group have just released Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill). I'm writing this very inadequate tribute based on their book, on an article that Christensen and Horn published in the May/June issue of BizEd, and on a presentation Christensen and Horn gave at the Innovations in Education seminar hosted this past February 2008 by the Yale School of Management. I hope it inspires you to buy the book.
The short version of the theory put forth in The Innovator's Dilemma is this: the logical decisions that managment makes in order to sustain success ultimately are the same reasons they lose their positions of leadership (thus the dilemma). That's because once established, most technologies over time foster improved performance -- these are sustaining technologies. But occasionally these sustaining technologies are up-ended by disruptive technologies. In many cases the disruptive technologies actually had worse performance in the near-term and generally underperformed the sustaining technologies in the mainstream market, so these are not 'break-throughs' in the performance sense. But they are generally cheaper, quicker, smaller, and simpler than the existing competition -- they concentrate on a few features that new fringe customers heavily desire and they ultimately disrupt the status quo marketplace. To quote Christensen and Horn from the BizEd article:
In every market, there are two trajectories -- the pace at which products and services improve and the pace at which customers can utilize the improvements. Customers' needs tend to be relatively stable over time, while the offerings improve at a much faster rate. Therefore, over time, product and services that once were not good enough for the typical customer ultimately pack in more features and functions than the customer can use.In the new work, the authors turn the focus to education. They start by outlining the obvious: we all learn differently. They cite Gardner's multiple intelligences, different learning styles, varied paces of learning, etc. The logical conclusion is that we need multiplicity in our teaching styles to match and map to these varied learning styles. But this isn't possible. Interdependencies in the teaching infrastructure (temporal, lateral, physical, hierarchical) lead to standardization in the teaching process -- standardization that is in direct conflict to the customization needed by the learners.
So how do they relate this to the systemic issues that can plague technology innovators? They start by looking at the business model and then relate that to education. A business model is a value proposition (help people do something cheaper, faster, easier) whereby resources are applied (people, technology, products) are applied to processes that result in greater achievement/profits. The danger here is that over time, people become fixated and can only introduce things that make sense to the business model. An example cited is that of most legislation -- it is modified so heavily on the "way in" to the chain (to please legislators, contributors, lobbyists) that what comes out is of little value. The same is true in companies with product development as they try to please the profit formula. What comes out is very different than what goes in due to shaping/morphing to make it attractive to key constituents. Ultimately this process (which is inherent to the ability to win funding) makes things fit the business model of the company rather than the needs of the market.
The authors note that computers have failed to make a difference in education because they have been crammed to fit into this existing standardized model. Individualized, computer-based instruction requires a disruptive distribution model. This will require a new value chain -- changing inputs to gain higher-level outputs in the "business model" of creating good education. School board funding is based on standardized test scores (the equivalent of the Board of Directors), so courses that are not money-makers are dropped (language, stats, psychology). Instead of lopping off lowest-enrollment courses, schools could introduce computer-based training -- use technology to introduce disruption into the system. CBT then takes root against non-consumption. Technology is thus not the enemy of teachers -- it's the enemy of non-consumption (the antidote to getting rid of the courses).
Tackling the issue will be difficult. The authors note that the level of change will be commensurate with the level and sophistication of the solutions team. At a lower level, functional teams work great for component products -- improving individual steps in the process to improve the performance of each component. At the next level you need change the specifications for how the components must fit together -- for this you need lightweight teams. Next is product architecture. What are the components, and which ones interface with others? What are the process steps and in what sequence? For this you need a heavyweight team. The issues facing education are an architectural problem, and you cannot take on an architectural problem with a functional team. Lacking this approach, we have imposed disruption on our schools three times in recent history by moving the goalposts -- the metrics of improvement.
So the basic business model has to change. In education problems are addressed by functional and lightweight teams because of how schools are organized. But we need heavyweight and autonomous teams. Chartered schools are heavyweight teams but are not disruptive competitors because they are trying to do same thing, only better. But they do have the flexibility to rethink the architecture. Pilot schools can do this, though -- they might represent the best hope.
The book goes much further than this. The authors provide insights into how technology in the classroom can foster innovation among students, how educational research can be improved, and how consensus for change can be enacted.
In the meantime, disruption is starting to occur. The BizEd article makes the case that even the prestigious business schools who teach the very art of management are themselves in danger of being disrupted by corporate universities. These on-site training programs fit the classic disruptive model -- they do not pretend to come close to delivering the scope or features of a full-fledged MBA degree and its subsequent powerful alumni network; but they offer something in most cases more valuable for a fraction of the cost: targeted, just-in-time training tailored to the needs of the workforce. They are growing in number and popularity and will only grow in quality over time, and their impact is already being felt via declining admissions in MBA and executive education programs.
The advice of the authors? MBA programs should commoditize that part of their value proposition that is still viable and be prepared to shift it to a new stage. Specifically, they should commoditize the professor. They describe the scenario whereby the corporate university has a need for a challenging program that they cannot themselves easily create. Ideally they would log onto the MBA school's website and define their need, after which they are presented with modules of content tailored to their need.
This kind of change will be difficult. Christensen has noted in the past how difficult it is for organizations to "disrupt themselves". But it's refreshing to get a perspective from outside the educational sphere that is grounded in theory and gives hope for improving the way learning can best occur in this changing environment.