Higher Education at a Strategic Inflection Point

By Adam Brandenburger

The arrival of digital technology in higher education does not mean the death of face-to- face education. The picture is much more subtle — and interesting — than that.

By Adam Brandenburger

It is a fall day in Boston in 1996. I am sitting in my office working on my commentary for the Harvard Business Review on the just-published bestselling business book Only the Paranoid Survive by Andrew Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel Corporation. I am writing about my favorite idea in the book, which is Grove's notion of a "strategic inflection point." As Grove puts it: "[A] strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end."

Here is a diagram of the notion of a strategic inflection point (which I'll refer to as a SIP). This is Grove's original diagram, embellished to emphasize that the status-quo path is highly unlikely. The business will go either way up or way down.

Today, universities find themselves at about the biggest SIP one could imagine. The increases in tuition in recent years are unsustainable. Even if there is a global moneyed class that can continue to afford these increases, they are inconsistent with a university’s mission to serve the world, not just a small subset of the world. New forms of competition to conventional education are arising at a very fast rate, with a great deal of innovative talent and money behind them. The MOOC (massive open online course) providers Coursera, edX, and Udacity have received enormous media attention. But, many other types of new educational models are springing up, as well. (In business education — the area I know best — new startups targeting education for budding entrepreneurs are announced more or less every day.) As for universities themselves, they do not have a strong track record of innovating and embracing change. They are in many ways highly entrenched institutions. All these factors point to the very real possibility that many universities, if they do not evolve rapidly, face a less-than-bright future. No doubt, different universities are in different positions. Some – those at the top – will certainly fare well in almost any circumstance. But many universities are in a much less protected position.

Read full article as published in The Stern Opportunity

Adam Brandenburger is the J.P. Valles Professor of Business Economics and Strategy and Vice Dean for Graduate Education.