August 16, 2023 |Exponential Change

How do we identify what the new business of higher education can and should be? How do we ensure we continue to provide all learners with the tools they need—both today and in the future?

There’s no doubt that higher education is moving through turbulent times. Demographic shifts, enrollment declines, growing competition, disruptive technologies, and diminished public confidence stare us in the face at every turn. As the president of a large regional university these issues are the ones that keep me up at night.

I believe deeply in the transformative power of higher education and its critical role in uplifting our communities, states, and beyond as we build our future. Our workforce, and culture, need skilled, educated people who know more than the basics; we need people who can analyze—think critically and creatively about the challenges and opportunities we face.  We need people equipped to research, experiment, innovate, and manage change.

With these trends and with the challenges on the horizon we already feel, higher education, particularly regional universities, will need to change. We will need to be nimble enough to adapt to meet needs and challenge historical assumptions. We need to be brave.

Traditional higher education, especially regional universities, will need to intentionally connect and strengthen ties to their regions. Becoming a nimble and dynamic partner that flexes and grows with the successes of our constituents begins with conversations and assessment. Many colleagues tell me they already do this.  Maybe. But I’m talking about an intentionality about place and region that is designed with the same rigor as our degree pathways. That is the reason for this blog. It is my sincere hope that the thoughts, information, and, possibly even, frustrations I share here will spark deeper conversations and open the door to new ideas and opportunities. While I am keenly aware that I have more questions than answers, I am interested in the debate around the questions.

I use this example a lot, but I think it’s a perfect case study for the dangers we face in higher education. When I was five years old, I received a Kodak Instamatic as a Christmas present—one with a flashcube. I was given rules for using it, including “Don’t waste film; it’s expensive" and "Only take shots that are important.” Great camera and I still have it. Kodak cameras were so popular that by the mid 70s, 85% of all cameras in the US and 90% of all film sold were from Kodak. Impressive.

At the same time, Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented digital camera technology but was rebuffed by Kodak leadership who could not imagine why anyone would want to view pictures on a screen. A missed opportunity and by 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy. In his article “Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology,” for the Harvard Business Review in July 2016, Scott D. Anthony posits, “The right lessons from Kodak are subtle. Companies often see the disruptive forces affecting their industry. They frequently divert sufficient resources to participate in emerging markets. Their failure is usually an inability to truly embrace the new business models the disruptive change opens up. Kodak created a digital camera, invested in the technology, and even understood that photos would be shared online. Where they failed was in realizing that online photo sharing was the new business, not just a way to expand the printing business.”

Nokia’s story is similar.  By 2006, Nokia had grown to be one of the top five cell phone manufacturers in the world. Much like Kodak, almost everyone had a Nokia phone. In 2007, Apple released the iPhone. The rivals both sought to offer consumers more and better ways to improve their lives. Both companies soon saw opportunities in navigation. Nokia purchased Navteq, a company that manufactured and installed road sensors that allowed Nokia phones to track road speeds and calculate fastest routes around traffic. Apple’s online store created the opportunity for small developers to create and distribute their own solutions, and a company called Waze did just that. Instead of installing physical sensors on roadways, like Navteq, Waze used subscriber cellphones as their sensors. The Waze app integrated with Google and Apple maps and didn’t have the expense of physical sensors. Waze updated its network through its app and iPhone platform. Nokia, on the other hand, required physical upgrades and new hardware to improve its network.

As Fernando Arbache points out in his online article “Exponential Organizations: Disruptive Innovation and Market Rupture – Juice and Waze,” “Nokia was linear, it thought of growing with physical assets, factories, structures and people. Waze used what it already had, it was unpretentious in the way that it offered its app, simple and accessible in its usage and with zero cost to the consumer. Exponential companies think differently, they think of growing without being capital-intensive by using what already exists and by facilitating the introduction into market. To be disruptive and exponential is to take advantage of what already exists. It is to be unpretentious, simple, useful and to look to innovate what really matters to people.”

And therein lies the crux of our current challenge, and the focus of this monthly blog. How do we identify what the new business of higher education can and should be? How do we ensure we continue to provide all learners with the tools they need—both today and in the future? The answers to these questions may well mean challenging longstanding traditions and beliefs about what higher education is. The question for higher education is not about whether to change, because it will, but rather how it is going to change and how our institutions will get in front of disruption.

This will be a journey for all of us, and I hope you’ll engage in the conversation as we go. Next month, we’ll take a look at the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how the changes coming will dramatically impact the future of higher education.

Until next time,
Edward S. Inch


About Dr. Inch

Dr. Edward S. Inch is the 13th President of Minnesota State University, Mankato. He assumed the presidency July 1, 2021, and brought with him strategic leadership and an understanding of the importance of working in a collaborative, transparent and authentic manner to build a shared vision. [Read more]