Business and Technology Bring Continuous Innovation – But Will Higher Education Take Advantage?

Making sense of ever-changing conditions is one of the primary functions of the mainstream business press. Regardless of one’s line of work, publications like  The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the Harvard Business Review offer a lenses and perspective on the almost incomprehensible dynamism of human economic and technological activity. They are well-written, informative and timely sources of information and knowledge. And even though higher education often keeps score differently from business, I encourage students and academic colleagues to look to the world of business for innovation and the creative disruption. It is usually a good idea to spend time regularly outside of one’s discipline.

September 2012’s edition of Harvard Business Review is a perfect case in point: the magazine offers two articles that have absolutely nothing to do with higher education, but could, in the right circumstances, have everything do to with higher education.

In “Better Customer Insight – in Real Time,” authors Emma K. Macdonald, Hugh N. Wilson, and Umut Konus look at ways that marketers have used real-time experience tracking to gain a much richer understanding of consumer behavior. The system uses microsurveys thought mobile phones and is able to capture decision-making behavior and reasons as they take place. Customers/survey-responders engage with the questions, too, when the surveys align with points of interest and concern. The authors believe that this technique will lead to better knowledge of drivers of behavior, the impact of touchpoints, and the ways that customers establish meaning and value within a train of decisions.

H. James Wilson’s article, “You, By the Numbers,” explores the burgeoning world of auto-analytics. Thanks to technological gains two broad kinds of auto-analytic tools are popular today – and many of us have these on our mobile phones. One group consists of trackers, or ways of recording and analyzing behavior. Many dieting applications are based on tracking, for example, letting us log in our consumption. As psychologists have documented, tracking a behavior makes us more aware of it, which in the right circumstances, can lead to better understanding and behavior. The other group of auto-analytics are nudgers, tools that tell us to do things differently. Nudgers give direction and advice. GPS navigation systems are nudgers, as are exercise applications that ask for another set of push ups. More advanced auto-analytic tools combine tracking and nudging provide richer levels of data, analysis and support.

Nudging and tracking is what institutions of higher education do, all under the guise of teaching and academic support. We nudge students into the right classes, the right tutorial centers, the right residence halls and to the right mentors. We track performance, learning, behavior and wants. The more sophisticated the institution, the more robust the systems for nudging and tracking – and the more impressive the results.

What business is creating are high-tech re-conceptualizations of higher education’s nudging and tracking, with better analytics. The innovations described in HBR could be developed for higher education – should an institution have the resources and inclination to invest – and the payoff would be substantial. However, the systems were not developed for higher education, or by higher education.  (Though I would wager that the developers have graduate degrees).

Innovation in higher education almost always come from outside. Colleges and universities are chock full of smart and clever people, but academia’s internal systems our academic and institutional economies, to borrow from Bourdieau, do not incentivize stakeholders to push for change. We celebrate intelligence that has an impact elsewhere, but not in our own backyard. And for as long as that remains, academicians should read the Harvard Business Review.

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