Disruption in Academia

Finding opportunity in changing landscapes.

Businesses that have stood the test of time – businesses such as IBM, GE and UPS – have done so largely because of their ability to adapt to change.

In today’s world, however, change and disruption are happening at a pace never seen. Game-changing innovations like cloud computing, fracking and crowdsourcing are disrupting traditional forms of business in ways we never would have imagined.

But who would have thought that these disruptive forces could also shake up higher education, one of the most established institutions we know?

I had the chance recently to speak to a group of educators in Houston at the CASE District IV conference. Since UPS hires more than 36,000 college grads in the U.S. alone each year, we have a vested interest in the excellence of the higher education system. I suggested to this group that business and education now face a similar challenge: meeting the expectations of the 21st century consumer or student by finding better ways to deliver their services.

The parallels between what consumer-facing businesses already have experienced – and what universities will face in coming years – are striking. Technologies like mobile and cloud computing has shifted power from the center to the edge – from the seller to the buyer. Today, consumers live by a single commandment: “Thou shalt deliver what we want, where we want it, how we want it, and when we want it.”

While I didn’t profess to have the answers, I shared with this group of educators four lessons I’ve learned about delivering amid disruption that might prove valuable to them:

1. Disruption happens. Whether you’re UPS, UTEP or UCLA, it’s easy to become wedded to a business model that has worked so well for so long. Which makes it hard to tear into the certainties that built your business and your culture.

The four-year university structure is one of the most stable institutions on the planet. It’s outlived many governments and all but a few commercial institutions. But amid all the moving parts in the transformation of higher education, one thing is clear: Technology and choice have joined forces to disrupt a century of campus-based learning.

2. Never underestimate disruption. Blockbuster didn’t see the threat in time from Netflix. Newspapers didn’t see the risk in time to classified ads from the likes of Craigslist and other web-based services.

By 2020, when we look back at companies, colleges, entire industries and systems, we will see winners and losers. The business winners won’t win purely on manufacturing, quality, service, technological advantage, or even on the strength of their IT. Similarly, the winners in education won’t win purely on the published works of their educators, the newness of their facilities, or the success of their football teams.

3. In disruptive times, interaction is key. To satisfy the growing demands of consumers and better support one of our biggest customer groups – retailers – UPS needed a stronger relationship with end-consumers. With all our technology and services, consumers were still operating on our schedule. We decided to put more control in their hands, and we’re doing that with new technology based services such as UPS My Choice. This service enables consumers to interact with us by rerouting, rescheduling or authorizing the release of their shipment to best fit their schedules.

In higher education, technology also enables a higher degree of interactivity. Imagine students holding a live discussion – via hologram – with Kofi Annan on Monday and the Dalai Lama on Tuesday, or viewing it later at their convenience. Whether it’s retailing, logistics or higher learning, ours is an omni-channel world with high expectations, no borders and fewer barriers to entry. So we all need to offer our consumers products and services they can’t receive anywhere else.

4. Disruptive times are times of opportunity – if you have the right skills. For UPS, disruption has not occurred in what consumers choose to buy, but in how they choose to buy. Consequently, our role is to help retailers create omni-channel capability so they can be there when, where and how consumers want to connect. That requires a unique set of capabilities and continuous innovation that UPS is committed to and is delivering today.

For students, one of the skills they need to be the leaders of tomorrow is the ability to communicate clearly. Having a strong point of view doesn’t mean much unless you can organize it logically – and express it clearly and forcefully.

Beyond that, we need people who can collaborate – and who have the curiosity and confidence to work across different cultures. And we need people who are able to find linkages where others can’t. In other words, we need people who can think beyond the textbook.

In disruptive times, business – and education – must each adapt to the new customer, whether they are consumers or students. For both of us, winning will come not from fighting the tides of disruption, but in finding opportunity in its ebbs and flows. Combining the best of what we’ve always done with the commitment to deliver more of what today’s customers need – and to do it on their terms. goldbrown2

This post was adapted from Gershenhorn’s keynote speech at the 2014 CASE District IV DELIVER conference held in Houston.


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Alan Gershenhorn Chief Commercial Officer at UPS.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.