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Lessons on Innovation From Other Industries

Note: Our guest-blogger this week is Anna J. Egalite, an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at North Carolina State University.

When I was in the fifth grade, my greatest ambition was to host a breakfast radio show. I recruited a cousin who actually had some vocal talent and together we crooned some jingles, recorded our favorite tracks from Ireland's hit radio stations (here's looking at you, B*Witched!), and saved our precious demo on a cassette tape, which (thankfully) was subsequently misplaced and lost forever. Man, times have changed. The iPhone generation uses apps like Mixlr or Spreaker to generate a high-quality digital library of episodes that are instantly ready for mass distribution. It seems as if every industry has embraced some form of innovative new technology to create and deliver specialized goods and services, changing how we select a restaurant, arrange transportation, and even choose a mate. As I see it, education has four important lessons to learn from other industries on this subject.  

First, innovation in any organization requires a work environment that encourages employees to express their imagination. Ideas bubble up; they don't filter down. It's messy and lots of seemingly bright ideas will inevitably fail, but progress demands this kind of untidy experimentation. Decentralized education policies like charter schooling permit this type of workbench tinkering, which is commonplace even in sophisticated industries like the Ford Motor Company, which crowd sources product development ideas from its employees by providing what is essentially a 17,000 square foot playground for grown-ups. A Detroit warehouse provides laser cutters, machine tools, and 3D printers for members to experiment and invent new technologies and high-tech equipment, quickly developing prototypes and filing the associated patents. Charter schools are education's analog to this.

Second, innovation allows the provider to personalize a product or experience for the consumer. Many companies will start by identifying consumer needs and working backwards from there. Take, for instance, the cars produced by Lexus. Recognizing that those individuals who are in a position to purchase their luxury vehicles are also likely to hire a driver, the climate control settings in the Lexus LX 570 feature a rear passenger climate control panel and the option to create distinct climate zones for optimum comfort. In education, individualized education plans are intended to imitate this level of personalization but are primarily reserved for students with special educational needs. 

Third, in order to innovate effectively, companies must be nimble so that they can adapt quickly to changing conditions and make changes on the fly. Taking advantage of modern technological tools is one way to accomplish this. Consider for instance, Starbucks or Panera, which have adapted to the "Uber economy," in which consumers expect to use their cell phones to instantly book and pay for personalized services. Both cafés have instituted mobile ordering systems that allow customers to place and pay for beverage and food orders on a smartphone before they even arrive at the store. By the time they pull into the parking lot, their purchase is already waiting for pick-up at a designated collection point. Dream with me for a moment about what education's parallel to this would look like. A parent's internal monologue might go a little something like this: "My son is really struggling with this algebra homework. Let me browse my smartphone for a local tutorial that meets tonight or maybe someone has developed a set of resources that might be helpful as I try to tutor him." The possibilities are immense.

Ignoring the corporate coffee giants for a moment, modern technologies also allow small companies to punch above their weight. This is exactly the type of advantage new school providers and emerging educational vendors need to get a new idea off the ground. Whether it's a comprehensive learning management system or a simple timesaving gadget, new technologies are easy to integrate (many can be connected to a smartphone) and offer affordable alternatives to expensive equipment, systems, and devices.

Fourth, modern innovation is frugal. Recognizing the scarcity of capital, resources, and time, companies are focusing on developing cost-conscious, no-frills goods. The modern consumer values affordability and simplicity in addition to quality, which has forced many companies to fundamentally rethink their business models. School funding woes may put many cities' education budgets in a similar perspective. Spending in education has increased about 300% in inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1970s but disappointing performance on the NAEP shows how much productivity has declined. It's unlikely that state and local governments will commit to massive increases in funding for education in the near-term, forcing the question: What does innovation look like in the face of stagnant or declining funding? Education is not the first sector to grapple with this question.

One response has been to refocus efforts on performing core functions well by offering no-frills products and services. See for example, the discount food retailers, Aldi and Lidl, which offer clean but rudimentary stores for thrifty shoppers who are comfortable with sacrificing in-store music and plastic carrier bags in order to secure low prices. Another response has been to engage in infrastructure sharing, which allows companies to reconfigure existing technologies so they can be used in new ways. A prime example of this type of behavior is evident in Los Angeles. In a creative move to keep pace with burgeoning cellular data traffic, street lights in LA will soon be equipped with 4G LTE wireless telecommunications technology that allows them to function as cell towers. Operators will be able to rent space in the SmartPoles to add density to their networks or expand service into untapped neighborhoods. Both of these solutions—a focus on specialized, no-frills, core service and infrastructure sharingare prime strategies for education providers to exploit, given the right policy environment and financial incentives.

In my next blog post, I plan to write about some good newsnot the revival of AJ/AB FM, unfortunatelyrather, I'll spotlight where we are seeing innovation in education and I'll highlight some troublesome constraints that inhibit the degree of innovation we really need. 

--Anna Egalite 

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