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Editor: Paul L. Caron
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Competing Against Luck: Restructuring Higher Education

CompetingWall Street Journal, The Customer Is Always Right (reviewing Clayton M. Christensen (Harvard Business School), Competing Against Luck (2016)):

Every large company is consumed by the question of innovation. How to organize for it, how to execute it and how to deliver its benefits to customers. The attributes of big companies seem incompatible with those required to innovate. Size suffocates creativity. Efficiency kills dynamism. Executives become hostage to the data thrown up in a million slides and presentations, and they forget what it’s like to be a customer of the companies they lead.

Clayton M. Christensen is best known for his theory of disruptive innovation, which for some time now has had CEOs lining up outside his office at Harvard Business School. It is, he reminds us, a theory, not unassailable truth. But as a theory, it is immensely helpful in understanding how incumbent companies respond to the threat of innovation—for the most part, badly. Kodak was disrupted when it could not give up its profitable film business fast enough to adjust to the boom in digital photography. The newspaper industry is still suffering from the loss of its stranglehold on classified advertising to rudimentary services like Craigslist.

Disruption, in Mr. Christensen’s formulation, is not caused simply by anything new or clever. It arrives in the form of “minuscule threats” at the bottom of the market. The studios and networks treated Netflix as a minor player when it mailed DVDs, not seeing that the move to online streaming would turn it into a formidable competitor.

Similarly, grand universities right now see no threat from grubby online courses. But over time students and parents may wonder why they should pay all that money for sports facilities they don’t use and professors who don’t teach. Meanwhile, employers start to ask potential employees what they can do rather than where they went to school. And maybe the whole structure of higher education shifts.

So the question for established businesses is how to avoid this sort of thing happening to their own market share.

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