Eduvation Blog

A Moment for Reinvention

Good morning, and Eid Mubarak!

Today I’m excited to be spending the afternoon with the board and senior leadership of Saskatchewan Polytechnic. We’ll be exploring the ways visionary higher ed institutions are positioning themselves now, for success in the post-pandemic new normal.

In that spirit, today I want to share some thoughts for higher education, drawn by analogy from business analysts and consultants. Hopefully you know me well enough by now (from all my ranting about the way Laurentian U has abused the CCAA process, if nothing else) to know that I don’t think of colleges and universities as mere businesses. They are much more than that, but obviously, they are also organizations of employees working toward common goals, sometimes developing actual strategies, and certainly subject to fiscal pressures…



Pivotal Moment

The economic and social disruption of the pandemic creates a pivotal moment for all organizations, with risk and opportunity. Some will emerge poised for success…


The Big Guys Win More

In a March 30 report, McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the pandemic will boost productivity for large, successful “superstar” firms, while “lagging or zombie” ones experience an 11% decline in revenues – and some will even fail. (This is what I described as the “Amazon Effect” back in February, and to some extent we’re seeing it play out in PSE enrolments.) “Winners” deployed 66% of pre-pandemic resources to innovate, pivot boldly, and position themselves for growth post-pandemic, and experienced no decline in revenue in the meantime. As in PSE, that usually required a shift to online channels, investments in automation, heightened operational efficiencies and streamlined decision-making. Globally, business digitized activities “20-25x faster than they had previously thought possible” (which sounds a lot like what PSE endured too). The big leadership challenges (which also apply to PSE) include catalyzing change to spread innovations more widely, growing revenue rather than merely cutting costs, reskilling employees, and investing significantly in sustainability and infrastructure.  McKinsey


“The pace of digitization and automation quickened in some companies, remote working became the norm, firms became more efficient and agile, and many businesses—and people—went online for the first time. The bold response of many companies and governments proved that organizations can transform quickly when they have to.”McKinsey Global Institute, Will Productivity and Growth Return after the COVID19 crisis?



What About Smaller Guys?

In times of recession (and/or depressed enrolment, international mobility, or government funding, for public PSEs) midsize organizations tend to “play defense” rather than making bold investments like the big guys. They tend to get caught up in the crisis, and cut investments in PD, R&D, advertising and personnel. Three business scholars (including 2 from uCalgary) acknowledge that “ambidextrous” companies fare best, achieving “the delicate balance between cutting costs and making forward-looking investments.” But their research shows that firms that significantly increased investments during the recession saw strengthened financial results coming out in the recovery, while those that decreased investments in tough times saw all measures deteriorate afterwards. “Playing offense dominates playing defense” because recessions are “inevitably” followed by longer-lasting expansions: “Recessions are fertile ground for creative destruction and catapulting new winners.” They recommend several strategies for a recession, including attracting more affordable talent, considering mergers or acquisitions, deploying new technologies, and locking in long-term financing. They emphatically discourage restructuring or laying off workers, which usually incurs short-term costs, damages morale, and leaves you unprepared to rehire and train replacements when the crisis is past.  Harvard Business Review


“Recessions are fertile ground for creative destruction and catapulting new winners.” V. Govindarajan, A. Srivastava & A. Iqbal, in Harvard Business Review



Being Prepared

The turbulent and unpredictable context of the COVID19 pandemic has intensified the pressure on colleges and universities to become more nimble and responsive, but also offers an moment of opportunity…


Moment for Reinvention

The pandemic has been “the last straw for US higher education,” and for many tuition-dependent colleges, “financial viability will depend on new [economic and academic] models once considered out of bounds.” The best path forward depends on an institution’s starting position: with a weak financial outlook, institutions need to stabilize their finances, restructure costs and maximize revenues. In the worst-case scenarios, they need to consider major restructuring or consolidation. But ideally, institutions will take this moment to develop more differentiated program offerings, target new student markets and consider new economic models. More institutions are looking at career-focused microcredentials, lifelong continuous learning models, on-demand year-round offerings, flexible degrees and stackable certificates, and employer-funded tuition. PSEs will increasingly outsource housing, dining, athletics, facilities management and more, in order to focus on core academics. “The transformation will happen in waves, starting with insurgents and at the edges of incumbent institutions, and eventually expanding as followers replicate successful innovations.”  Bain & Co


4 Mindset Shifts

To transform an organization into an agile one requires people at every level to transform their thinking in 4 key ways. We must shift from a focus on outputs to outcomes, measuring not our production but our impact on strategic priorities. We must shift from thinking in terms of academic cycles to focusing on continuous incremental improvement, testing hypotheses in small-scale pilots and making data-driven decisions to scale them up. We need to spend more time considering external perspectives (such as the student, alumnus or employer) rather than myopic internal ones, and delivering segmented or customized programs and services. And finally, we need to distribute decision making throughout the campus, rather than struggling with the bottlenecks of top-down approvals. The result will be more creative, responsive, and accountable decisions, utilizing more of people’s talents and passion. (What’s striking is how much the pandemic has imposed many of these mindsets onto us. The challenge will be: how can we retain them going forward?)  Marketing Profs


9 Future-Ready Imperatives

Even pre-COVID, the world was being transformed by rising connectivity, automation, and shifting demographics. According to McKinsey, many global businesses are “too bureaucratic, too slow, and too siloed.” (That sounds nothing like PSE, now does it?) There are 9 organizational imperatives that will “separate future-ready companies from the pack,” and they seem relevant to higher ed institutions too. Start by strengthening organizational identity, clearly defining your shared purpose, institutional differentiation and understanding the value you bring to stakeholders. Don’t underestimate the impact of campus culture as the “secret sauce.” Then, rethink structure and operations to prioritize nimble responses, “radically flatten” hierarchy and delegate decision-making authority to the lowest levels possible (or even to algorithms). Ideally, your institution should aim to be “fitter, flatter and faster.” Treat talent as your scarcest resource. Finally, build towards success by adopting an “ecosystem view” of partners, leveraging big data and technology, and accelerating learning across the organization with a “mindset of continuous learning.”  World Economic Forum


“As organizations move from a mindset of coping to one of competing, the best companies will seize the unique unfreezing opportunity before them to imagine—and create—new systems and modes of organization that are more flexible, integrated, resilient, and ultimately, more human.” A De Smet, C Gagnon, & E Mygatt, McKinsey



PSE Opportunities Now

Instead of “going into hibernation until the pandemic passes,” campus leaders need to “lean into the work that we do,” writes Mark Zupan, president of Alfred U (NY). Now more than ever, higher ed can play a crucial role to address rising social issues of racial justice and economic opportunity, environmental sustainability and of course enhancing pandemic preparedness and antiviral vaccines and therapeutics. Campus leaders should seek out research grants, but also philanthropic support (yes, even in the midst of a recession). The pandemic has actually boosted personal disposable income by $1 trillion this year, boosted the consumer savings rate to 38%, and sparked a rise in stock and real estate valuations. Now is also, says Zupan, the time to invest in campus upgrades and new construction, to “build for the future.” Philanthropists know that higher education is a “smart-money” investment, with the potential to drive societal improvement and solve “most every problem vexing our world.” “Now is our time.”  Inside Higher Ed




Speaking of institutions taking strategic steps forward in the midst of a pandemic, you doubtless heard that Alberta’s RDC and GPRC have announced their evolution into polytechnics. But before those announcements, GPRC released a touching 2-min video reflecting on its accomplishments in the pandemic…


GPRC’s COVID19 Milestones

In this heartfelt 2-min video, GPRC reflects on “the remarkable distance travelled while apart” during the pandemic. “How do you measure progress in a pandemic?” (Besides case counts, R values, hospitalizations, etc.) COVID also “taught us how to care,” as illustrated by a series of moving moments of masked students, faculty and staff caring for animals and each other. “GPRC has demonstrated that the unexpected is actually a remarkable catalyst for growth.” (Which dovetails nicely into my theme today!)  YouTube




As always, thanks for reading!

I’m going to have a pretty full day today, so I’m giving myself a break tomorrow. (Admit it: do you really want another pandemic update before the weekend?) I’ll be back in your inbox on Monday!

Please do drop me a line if you spot something interesting, thought-provoking or cool happening on your campus, or elsewhere in the world!

Stay safe and be well!



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