Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Back to School: 6 Lessons Universities Can Learn From Corporations

We hear all too often that corporate leaders need to be aware of the latest academic research. On the flip side, university administrators could learn a thing or two from their corporate counterparts?  What you ask? Well, I’m here to tell you.

Rapidly changing technology means that the treasure trove of tools available to higher learning institutions is enormous.  The problem is, university administrators and a lot of faculty members don’t know how to use it as part of a larger goal to turn out more engaged students. Corporations have found technology to be an essential differentiator in a time when Wall Street standouts are obsessed with big data and customer behaviors. But research to better understand what is happening with education technologies, even in private education, is slow moving and heavily focused on K-12 environments.

In addition, many places of higher learning are still using the push model to share information with student bodies.  Many of the integrated solutions that are most effective for corporate giants, could be game-changing on a university campus.  As a new generation of learners comes of age, universities must embrace data-driven, student focused approaches to drive change. How can century old institutions expect to understand this up and coming group of learners?  These students will be hard-wired to learn differently. Having grown up using cell phones and tablets, touch screens and instant communication devices they will be even more accustomed to instant gratification, and will likely find traditional teaching approaches stifling and stale.  So how do universities innovate change to prepare?

Here are a few takeaways that universities can learn from innovative corporations facing the same uncertain future:
  • Gather Data
Nowadays, data is power.  Uhh…did someone say Google? Like any smart organization, institutions should stockpile data to understand student needs and behaviors. The more schools can know about students, how they learn, how they gather information, how they behave in their dorms, in classrooms, in places of leisure, the better.  Luckily, universities are well equipped to study their closest specimen, the students themselves. 
  • Focus on the Customer…err I mean student.
Where is the customer-focused approach at the University level? Schools should treat students and parents, to some extent, as customers. The number one priority should be learning and corresponding social development of the students.  
  • Use Technology to Personalize & Engage
Embrace technology to serve the student body.  Allow tools, widgets and online platforms to enhance the great work already being done. Build user experiences to allow students to engage in curriculum development. Crowd source campus planning or allow every student to personalize his/her registrar page.  The opportunities here are endless.  The point is: The time for pushing curriculum and programs down the throat of students is over. 
  •  Be Transparent
Some of the most widely talked about corporations (Zappos, for instance) are making changes and sharing them internally with their workforce but also with the general public.  Universities should share strategic goals with faculty, staff and students and invite them to participate in the process. Let’s ignite the student population and energize the student groundswell to help craft the college experience.
  •  Consider Free Content
Sites like Khan Academy prove that universal access is the wave of the future. Stanford is also experimenting with universal access by opening up select classes to anyone with a web connection. The publishing and music industry are experiencing similar trends, with their customers demanding free content, anytime, anywhere. 
  •  Measure Results
Once you gather data and implement programs, make sure to follow up by measuring results. Establish clear metrics and track university successes and failures. This step is critical to any organism that seeks to continually improve.
  • Provide Structure
Universities need to institutionalize the use of technologies to encourage growth and innovation.  Just like corporations are quickly developing frameworks for social, mobile and local, universities should be exploring ways to share ideas and feedback quickly.

Given these six strategies, any place of higher learning could be more effective in their ultimate goal of fostering engaged students and developing contributing members of our society. Together, they will help universities learn from private-sector successes and be more prepared for the wave of the future.
Lesley Albright is a strategic marketing consultant and graduate student in the Northwestern Medill IMC marketing program.  She has spent eight years in interactive strategy, advertising and public relations.  Lesley is passionate about digital education, global brand strategy and coalition building.
Follow Lesley on Twitter @LesIoRants or on LinkedIn

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