Disrupting College

By    Feb 15, 2011

Clay Christensen and his team at Innosight Institute apply Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation to higher education. It is a compelling presentation of the systematic barriers that keep the higher education sector from meeting its mission, the role that online learning technology and new providers are playing in changing the sector, and the way the business models of established institutions stop them from responding effectively.

So why do we care in the arts and culture sector? I see powerful similarities between the structural issues in the two sectors. Consider the following issues in the education sector, and consider which ones you also see in arts and culture:

  • Organizations are facing increasing financial struggles.
  • There have been goals for greater access and reach for decades, with little real change in audiences reached.
  • The products offered are complicated, expensive, and inaccessible — and therefore serve a limited few.
  • Individual institutions offer multiple value propositions (for education: research, teaching, and preparation for careers; for the arts: high art, entertainment, education, and social services outreach).
  • Institutions have built convoluted business models around those value propositions, in the style of conglomerate businesses, that are inefficient and difficult to adapt compared to “point players” focused on a single value proposition.
  • The field is facing disruptive pressure from digital technologies that 1) are simple, affordable, and convenient and serve many no matter their wealth or expertise, and 2) redefine quality in a simple and often disparaged application that gradually improves to serve more and more customers.

This analysis of education, with its parallels to the arts and culture sector, offers us a chance to better understand how disruptive innovation happens to a field and why existing organizations do not respond effectively. It is an opportunity to consider how arts funders and organizations should respond to make our own disruptions — from technology, competition, changing communities and societal values, and changes in philanthropy — into sustaining innovations for our field rather than disruptive threats.

The executive summary and full report can be accessed here: Disrupting College.