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Learning From Universities’ Mistakes

It’s ironic that learning institutions appear to suffer a learning disability in how to serve their market.

Learning From Universities’ Mistakes

The COVID-19 fiasco is bringing to light inherent strategic and structural failures of many organisations. Here’s a parable of how strategy enhances or compromises our ability to cope with crisis…

First, some organisations show solid tactical responses based on more than opportunism. For example, while tourism and travel are hitting rock bottom, a few destination hot-spots are tapping into remote tourism by monetising their park cameras around waterholes or high-traffic wildlife routes. (SANParks offers a few free still and live cameras at Addo, Kruger and Kgalagadi Parks.)

Another well-known example is Zoom: at the start of global lockdown, Zoom initially looked like a winning app to support remote working, then lost favour due to security risks. The company turned this around with rapid fixes and regular communication. Zoom’s weekly email updates to customers show how frequent and informative communication can re-build end-user confidence.

Contrast this with the how-to-not example of the SA government, showing disunity, absent leadership and a patent incompetence to learn from new, more-reliable data about the disease and the economic impact of an extended and severe lockdown.

Maybe the best example of both operational and strategic failure comes from universities. They have generally promoted residence-based tuition, with a few exceptions aside.

Now, though, universities (and schools and colleges) are overwhelmed, failing to achieve the same pace and quality of learning through remote classes. Without predictive foresight of exactly when and how the coronavirus calamity would happen, maybe we shouldn’t hold it against them?

Nope. We can’t let them off the hook that easily.

Universities exemplify the inability to adapt quickly. It’s ironic that learning institutions appear to suffer a learning disability in how to serve their market.

A brief backstory will help not only understand universities’ technical challenges, but how strategy was already broken before COVID-19, pre-disposing them to their current turmoil.

Despite focussing on universities, this parable is relevant to any business struggling to adapt to the new normal. (Having developed and lectured university-level courses in advanced project management and business analysis since 2005 for a variety of institutions, including our own Growth Surge Academy, one could say I have a little industry insight.)

For many years, there's been a steady trend of declining university attendance. Although the shift is most-evident in the USA and some other first-world economies, South Africa lags by only by a few years. The sentiment against universities is patent in a Fast Company report (Jan. 2020): when asked, “How useful will a college degree be in 2040?”, 69% of respondents answered “Less useful”. The other options were “More useful” (11%) and “Equally useful” (20%).

In South Africa, although total enrolments at South Africa’s 26 universities increased over 16 years from ± 610,000 to ± 1,000,000 in 2016 (Stats SA, 2017, p23), this pales against population growth. As a ratio of matrics with a university pass, the number of matrics who entered university has decreased between 2009 and 2017 from 68.3% to 46.5%. That’s a whopping one-third decline!

If universities are losing out, where are students going? I can’t find definitive data that captures a complete answer because the range of substitutes spans options that don’t resemble what they’re replacing, like “courses” on YouTube videos.

Generally, the trend is micro-credentialing, as evidenced by the growth in several online training platforms. These fill the need for immediate, practical skills development, with rapid payback on the investment to both student and sponsor. Very few universities stand out in this space.

I posit that the same factors causing universities’ inability to adapt to macro trends is what’s behind their struggle to adapt tactically during this crisis. Whether we look at the structural and strategic reasons for this or the short term inability to cope with lockdown, universities seem unable to help themselves.

This failure is most evident in students’ remote learning experiences and learning outcomes. One can’t simply port the same mix of didactic modalities from in-person to online, like straight-up lecturing versus group activities. Nor can you apply the same pacing and timing – a full day in a Zoom class guarantees students going dark, both “cameras off” and mentally tuning out. And stop overloading students’ homework and readings with your shortfall!

The strategic solution is to completely overhaul the product suite to re-package the offering, market positioning, and marketing and sales functions so they match and lead into the online delivery mode. Coming to terms with blended modalities and a broader content optimised for online consumption is a great idea, but not likely achieved before you run out of money.

The tactical solution, then, is to tweak the lecturer approach, class timings and activities. But your tactical and operational response to a crisis can only ever be as good as the strategic design of your overall business model. And this is precisely where I see and read about many learning institutions struggling during lockdown.

Understandably. Adapting is not easy.

What can make coping with crisis easier is a culture of learning that supports change at both strategic and operational levels. (See my Learning To Adapt article for a breakdown of how to do this.)

Looking at the parable of struggling universities, can you see the parallels in your own business of how operational challenges are symptoms of strategic learning issues?

If your business is foundering like a university in lockdown, your first priority is to do what you can to survive the short term. And, don’t lose sight of what makes coping difficult: start nowto fix and improve your strategic learning.