How Millenials Are Driving the Evolution of Online Learning–It’s Not What You Think

Online learning as we currently understand it has existed in some form since roughly 1995, about a year after the introduction of the World Wide Web. By some measures, online learning has been a huge success in the sense that today millions of college students in the U.S. take some or all of their courses via online delivery. Globally, the numbers are much larger. In fact, about 25% of all undergraduate content delivered in U.S. higher education today is accessed via learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard or Moodle and over half of graduate level content is accessed the same way. However, this form of online learning is dwarfed by the learner driven activity taking place every day, driven largely by Millenials. While there is a broad consensus that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have flopped relative to their initial, lofty goals, the fact is that MOOCS are fast becoming the primary mode of learning and skill development for tens of millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s called YouTube. And Wikipedia and Instagram and Tumbler and Vimeo and Facebook and other social media platforms.

The single greatest repository of educational content in the world is on YouTube, which has millions of tutorials on virtually every conceivable subject. Research by Google (the owner of YouTube) has found that nearly 70% of Millenials believe that they can learn anything via YouTube tutorials and over 90% of young professionals access social media sites for ideas, data, and instruction when completing projects at work. And what is really important about this phenomenon is that for younger users in particular, they see their learner relationship with social media as organic and undifferentiated from their other relationships with, and uses of, social media platforms. They have grown up with this self-defined version of eLearning and they are exceptionally confident learners in this medium. While people of all ages and backgrounds are using YouTube and wikis for self-education, Millenials are fearless when it comes to teaching themselves how to do virtually anything—and they are largely successful. They are also the creators of much of the educational content on YouTube and other platforms, completing a circle of learner and tutor.

Why does this reality matter for “traditional” online learning and education in general?

As with other user-driven trends, many millions of people are organically shaping eLearning in ways that are sharply diverging from the online education currently offered by colleges and universities. In other words, although traditional eLearning delivered by institutions of higher education (IHEs) has become quite sophisticated in terms of the pedagogical models embedded in the LMSs used by those institutions, these formal eLearning models force users (learners) to abandon the behaviors they normally use daily in other internet activities, especially those connected to self-directed learning.

The way that many, many more “students” learn online via YouTube and Wikis and shared knowledge via multiple social media platforms is moving sharply away from how online learning is designed and delivered in universities. This does not bode well for IHEs who are frankly asking students to use tools they find less effective and with which they are less comfortable, in a medium that they otherwise use pervasively to transact every aspect of their lives.

So far, traditional IHEs have been protected by a monopoly over credentials, which until recently, has been largely supported by employers. That monopoly is now at significant risk due to a major shift, not in higher education, but in the economy.

The rise of the gig economy has many implications for those who work in that sector of the economy; implications which have been discussed at length by economists, sociologists, policy makers and others. What has not been discussed is the extent to which this shift to on-demand, piece work will have huge impacts on the educational paths that people have traditionally taken on their way to skilled positions. The reason for this is simply that the gig economy is based on deliverables, not on educational credentials. A video editing project or a training curriculum is successful if it meets the needs of the contracting entity, whereas the contractor’s academic credentials are close to irrelevant. Doing good work, to spec, on time are the markers of value (and continued access to subsequent contracts). Young people, working in both the gig and traditional economies go to social media and other internet platforms (not colleges and universities) as their first choice for professional and skills development. They are also much less “proprietary” in their thinking about intellectual property, either their own or that of others, and see the sharing of knowledge and skills to be a “public domain” activity. Finally, Millenials are proving to be quite utilitarian and pragmatic and much less “hung up” on the formalities and conventions of previous generations. That, combined with an economy that is also shifting in fundamental ways, has huge implications for education in general, but online education in particular.

Change Management Has Become a Core Leadership Requirement: A Few Things You Need to Know

In a previous article I suggested that the current demands on executive leadership have become so deep, broad, and complex that it is basically impossible for any one person to possess all of the competencies required of contemporary organizations and operating environments. As a result, I further suggested that we are probably better off focusing on a narrow set of competencies and traits that are essential to effective leadership. One of those—and possibly the most critical at this point—is change management. The reason for that is because contemporary environments are so dynamic that much of what a leader does on a day to day basis is to identify and manage initiatives, strategies, projects, etc. that all represent change of one kind or another. It is change management itself that ties most of a leader’s efforts together. This phenomenon has been in play for at least a few decades, but the rate of change and the volatility of change are qualitatively different and more challenging now than in the past. One key reason for this is that technology is an accelerant of change and a disruptor of the status quo. I will address that in detail in a subsequent post.

So, what are the implications of this reality for leaders and what do you do about it?

First, both individuals and organizations are inherently stressed by change itself. In other words, just the presence of change elicits reflexive stress responses from people individually and from organizations collectively. Because of that reality, it is important to limit the depth and breadth of change that anyone or any organization must absorb at one time. This can be really challenging for leaders who possess a bias for action. We often evaluate ourselves based on how much activity we are driving, how many strategies are in play, etc. While understandable, a much more productive approach in the current environment is to very carefully and purposefully prioritize initiatives or strategies based on the relative return on investment (not just monetary) and/or criticality of each initiative. Because there is a limit to what people and organizations can effectively absorb relative to change, both leaders and their organizations are better off if they engage in fewer distinct initiatives (changes) at a time, but get more value out of the ones they choose.

Second, because of the first point above, it is critical to realize that the success of virtually any initiative or project is as dependent on the extent to which it is viewed as a change management challenge, as are the actual strategies and resources connected to the execution of the project itself. As such, leaders must build a change management plan into the process of executing on the initiative or project or strategy.

Lastly, we frequently talk about “change management” as this thing that happens rather than a thing we do. Leaders must approach change management itself as a formal process with best practice steps and components in the same way they would address conflict resolution or budgeting or strategic planning, etc. It is beyond the scope of this article to present an entire change management process, but you can see an example here.

In short, it is extremely unlikely that leaders can be effective today without understanding that change management is core to just about everything they do and that because of that reality, leaders must be as purposeful about managing change as they are about executing on any strategy, project or initiative deemed critical to organizational success.

Don’t Just Fix Problems. Let People Know that You Are Fixing Problems.

Some of my posts are about “big” issues like how effective leaders treat other people and some are little nuggets like how to schedule one’s day to include things you actually want to do. This post is one of the little nuggets that can help to smooth day to day operations.

A characteristic common to all good managers is the ability to fix problems. People respect and appreciate individuals that can size up a challenge and implement a solution to that challenge. And they expect managers to help them be successful. However, many of the best solutions take time to develop and implement. In the mean time, if you’re working feverishly on a great solution to a problem, does anyone know that? A key, but often overlooked component of good management is clear communication about what is being done at any give time to solve a problem or challenge.

I learned several years ago that when someone brings a problem or challenge to your attention, even if you are dedicating significant time and resources to helping the person, if you don’t explicitly tell him or her what you are doing, he or she is likely to think you are doing nothing, which creates a double problem. First, the employ is feeling anxiety over the fact that he or she still has the problem, and second, the person is also likely to feel that you didn’t hear him or her or don’t care about the person (or the problem) because you aren’t doing anything about it. Ninety percent of satisfaction is managing expectations. So, if, on the other hand, you let people know what you are doing to solve or help solve their problem, what the likely timeline is, and what kind of resolution they can expect, they will feel confident about the problem—because they know you’re working on it—and they will appreciate your efforts, even though the problem hasn’t been solved yet. Periodic updates, even a quick email or SMS, when you are working on a solution to a problem or an answer to a request will go a long way to keeping employees engaged and appreciative, and they will know you haven’t forgotten them or their issue!

Is There a Future for Higher Education As We Know It?

A decade ago pundits began predicting the demise of traditional higher education at the hands of online education, and more recently than that, by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). While that has not come to pass, something else has and it does not bode well for higher education, at least in the U.S.

Over the last few years, for the first time in modern history, large numbers of Americans have begun to question the underlying value proposition of higher education. Within some sectors of society, a majority of people have decided that colleges and universities are “not good for the country.” This is astonishing.

My personal experience in higher education as a student and a professional educator spans 35 years. I came into the system in the early 1980s at the tail end of its “glory days,” as an exclusive, well-funded, highly respected institution of American society and enterprise. While significant structural change has been in play for a good 25 years, higher education is entering the most turbulent time in its history.

So, what has happened?

Higher Education as an “industry” has hit three simultaneous tipping points that collectively will almost certainly change the very foundation of post-secondary education:

  • Student debt (in excess of 1.2 TRILLION dollars)
  • An unsustainable financial model for traditional colleges and universities
  • A disconnect between what colleges and universities do and what employers and the economy need

Over the next couple of decades, these three tipping points will combine to:

  • materially reduce the overall number of colleges and universities (and locations)
  • continue the decline in the number of “traditional” students who spend four years on a residential campus
  • virtually eliminate career, full time, tenure track professorships
  • bifurcate higher education into a smaller market of institutions that have the student demand and financial means to operate in more traditional ways and a larger set of institutions based on quickly changing, market-driven professional programs, many of which will not lead to traditional credentials such as bachelor’s degrees.

The lines between for-profit and not-for-profit will blur as all institutions will have to operate more as “retail” entities (think aggressive marketing, fierce competition for students, intense focus on financial metrics) than what we think of as traditional colleges and universities. And unfortunately for institutions of higher education, supply is currently in excess of demand.

Tipping Point 1: Student Debt

Student debt is not new. What is new is the enormous shift from collectivefunding of higher education by states (taxpayers) to individual funding (by students and their families). This represents a massive paradigm shift in both funding and political advocacy that has resulted in extraordinary, and unsustainable, levels of private debt. Whereas students used to take on debt that was relatively small and could be paid off within several years of graduation, the average student debt today is tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands in some fields of study. Despite the conventional wisdom, fueled by media reports, the highest levels of student debt are not held by students of for-profit institutions (although that debt is problematic as well). The highest per capita debt is held by students attending “middle of the road” not-for-profit private liberal arts colleges that do not have the means to provide large scholarships and grants (but still charge high tuition). As a result, students have been borrowing heavily from both the government and private lenders in order to afford what is typically very high cost education. In just the last few years, however, a tipping point has been reached in which borrowing by students and families declined 20% between 2010 and 2015. In basic terms, students and their families have determined that the return on investment of a lifetime of student debt is simply not favorable, and in fact, in many cases will leave them worse off than if they had never attended college at all!

In short, students and families, in large numbers, are now refusing to incur such unsustainable debt, which is translating into financial crises across much of the private, not-for-profit liberal arts sector of higher education, resulting in unsustainable deficit spending and increasing school closures. Roughly one third of such colleges now operate at a deficit. Approximately 15 not-for-profit private colleges are closing per year and that number will likely increase going forward. In the for profit sector there has been a veritable blood bath with nearly a thousand locations closing in the last five years and it has not hit the bottom yet.

Tipping Point 2: An Unsustainable Financial Model

Tipping point two is related to tipping point one. In most private institutions, that have always been more tuition dependent than their public brethren, the reticence of students to continue borrowing has hit revenues hard. In the short term, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that we are in a demographic trough of high school graduates, so enrollments are also depressed by the simple fact of fewer available students. The simple reality is that the overhead of a typical private liberal arts college or university is far in excess of what a given student population could possibly pay in tuition. As an example, even a small liberal arts college is likely to have an annual budget for physical plant, personnel, and operations of thirty to fifty million dollars. If we split the difference and use $40,000,000, that means that with a student population of 800 students (common for a small liberal arts college), each student would have to pay $50,000 each per year (without including room and board) for the college to break even. In a typical institution of this type, the average student’s tuition is, at most, half of the $50,000 figure. Why? Most liberal arts colleges today are heavily discounting tuition in an attempt to hit their enrollment goals because the market simply will not support the “retail” tuition rates. The vast majority of small to medium size private colleges do not have adequate alternative means of revenue (endowments, legislative appropriations, research grants, etc.) to fund the half of expense budgets not paid for by students. Many of them are technically insolvent already and are surviving on deficit spending. There is simply no viable business model for most of the institutions of this type operating today. Many will merge, change, or close over the next couple of decades. And, as it relates to tipping point one, even with heavily discounted rates and scholarships, the average student still must borrow tens of thousands of dollars a year to cover what is unfunded by the institutional contribution for tuition, books, and room and board.

In public institutions, which are far more tuition dependent than they were 25 or 30 years ago, there is an uneven story of haves and have nots, but broadly speaking, the “second tier” (non flagship) colleges and universities are struggling with both declining enrollment and declining funding—a similar situation is affecting community colleges, but they have the advantage of attracting students based on lower cost.

Through the early 1980s, roughly 75% of public college budgets were funded by state taxpayers. Today, that number averages less than 25% and in many cases, is less than 10%. In fact, many of these institutions are actually insolvent, but are still open, because interestingly, there are not formal mechanisms to close them. As a result we are seeing program closures, layoffs, critical maintenance deferrals, failing technology, defaults on loans and bond payments, and other serious matters. Accrediting bodies are loathe to sanction public institutions, even when they are clearly failing to meet articulated standards. If that were not the case we would see large numbers of institutions on probation for “financial exigency” and other failures to meet standards. The accreditors have some cover on the financial exigency issue due to arcane formulas which often allow institutions to count the “full faith and credit” of their states even when the institution itself is broke and not actually benefiting in any way from the non allocated resources in state budgets.

Tipping Point 3: The Disconnect between What Colleges Do and What Society Needs

This may be the most interesting of the three tipping points because it offers options to the most entrepreneurial institutions. From the employer perspective, traditional colleges and universities continue to graduate large numbers of students who are nowhere near “job ready” on graduation day. Moreover, the bulk of job growth today and for the foreseeable future is connected to technical fields that require post-secondary education, but that do not require bachelor’s degrees. Examples are as varied as allied health and HVAC (heating, air conditioning, and ventilation). The sector of higher education that is currently best aligned with employer needs is the career college sector, which is predominantly comprised of for-profit institutions. Community colleges also tend to be better aligned with employer needs, but graduation rates in those institutions are so low that comparatively few students actually benefit from programs in those institutions.

Broadly speaking, the very core of higher education for over a century—the college degree—is at risk of obsolescence. And the model (dedicating four to six years of study) that leads to bachelor’s degrees is also increasingly out of step with the reality of most students. The financial return on investment is becoming more and more dubious in many academic majors as is the curricular model itself. Concepts such as “competency based learning,” certificates, and badges are experiencing growing currency in the labor market, and in many cases, carry greater value (and certainly greater ROI) than higher level academic degrees for large numbers of students.

The reality is that higher education (particularly for private institutions) has become as susceptible to market forces as just about any other sector of the economy. Students are customers, price matters, and competition is fierce. As noted, supply is in excess of demand as well, which will contribute to school closures, consolidations, and re-organizations. The recent acquisition of Kaplan University, by Purdue University, a stunning reversal of the typical acquisition process, is a powerful indication of how even a public flagship institution like Purdue recognizes that it’s future is largely dependent on the ability to expand the student market, and importantly, to reach students via delivery models (Kaplan has a very robust online infrastructure) that are sensitive to market realities.

To be clear, there is a future, a bright future, for post-secondary education, but it will look very different than the higher education system of the last century. High demand elite private institutions with robust, non-tuition revenue streams will survive and even thrive into the foreseeable future because they operate on a small, highly exclusive minority of the student population to begin with (think Ivy League, Stanford, etc.). We can expect a similar outcome for large, flagship state universities with political advocacy and robust alternative revenue streams. Many community colleges will persevere as long as they continue to receive taxpayer funding and serve a broad-based community mission, but they will have to solve their current graduation problem. A material number of four-year state institutions will also survive in some form as long as they are perceived to offer a reasonable return on investment for their students and students’ families. A smaller, but likely very robust career college sector will survive and likely thrive because it is structured to provide value to students and employers with job-focused, generally shorter-term programs. The biggest losers over the next few decades will be small to medium size, less exclusive liberal arts colleges, many of whom will simply close. We will also see many fewer humanities programs across all sectors of higher education simply because financial models in most institutions will no longer support programs that are net revenue consumers rather than producers. Ph.D. programs in the humanities or arcane fields will also close in large numbers. Most institutions that survive will shift to market driven professional programs and even more “contingent” faculty (adjuncts). Anachronisms such as faculty rank and tenure will still exist, but in a continually contracting number of institutions.

The biggest winners may be institutions that don’t even exist in any material sense now—those that can provide affordable (mostly non-degree) credentials that lead directly to employment, followed by “re-credentialing” and back to employment as a repeated cycle over professional lifetimes. These institutions are likely to be much less dependent or completely non-dependent on Title IV financial aid than mainstream higher education institutions.

While it is difficult to know exactly how much “traditional” higher education will contract overall, if we extrapolate recent trends and assume a slight increase in those trends based on lower demand, it is not unreasonable to think that upwards of a third of all higher education institutions could consolidate or close in the next 20 years—and a potentially larger percentage among private liberal arts institutions. The situation would be even worse for for-profit career colleges except that the sector has already contracted so dramatically that it is reaching a new equilibrium. It may end up providing the best return on investment for students who complete career focused programs in high demand fields.

In short, some parts of the American higher education system will survive and look remarkably similar over the next few decades, but that will occur in the midst of an overall contraction, a continued move toward more market driven programs, more contingent labor, and more retail-like business and customer models. One can debate the overall plusses and minuses of such a future, but the current reality will no longer support the higher education model of the last century at anywhere near its historical scale.

Sometimes “Bad” Managers Rise to the Top

Most of my “Things I’ve Learned as a Manager” posts talk about skills or behaviors that I’ve found to be effective in the workplace, and that generally, reflect the practice of good managers or leaders. You can see a post on what makes a good boss here. Ironically, however, one of the realities of the workplace is that sometimes “bad” managers rise in organizations, sometimes all the way to the top. How is this possible?

First of all, it is less common than it used to be, but it still happens. Most managers were, at one time, highly skilled technicians, who got promoted into management because of their technical skills. Unfortunately, most managers are not promoted into entry-level management positions due to their management skills, which, by definition, haven’t been part of their job descriptions. And of course, not all employees who are great accountants or computer programmers or salespeople are also great managers. Some are and some learn to be, but some really struggle with behaviors and skills that are totally different than what they used as technicians. So, how do folks who are poor managers continue to get promoted?

Sometimes it is simply being in the right place at the right time. Organizations that are growing rapidly inevitably have more inexperienced or ineffective managers because of the need to promote very quickly from within as the operation grows. Sometimes, individuals, though poor managers, can be exceptionally productive in their own right and get results even as their teams suffer. This is more common at lower levels of management where the manager can do much of the work him or herself. Sometimes individuals have strong connections with powerful people in an organization and get promoted or stay in positions despite poor performance as managers because they have political advocates.

Regardless of the reason, it does happen. We have all had a bad manager at some point and wondered how did that guy or gal get his or her position? Fortunately, the days of truly awful managers—those who scream and yell or denigrate their employees; those who manage with conflict and political games; those who are utterly incompetent or dishonest—are mostly gone. While every organization has weak managers, the demands of the modern workplace—fewer people doing more work with fewer resources; matrixed organizations; remote workers, and more open and effective employee relations programs—make it much more difficult for really bad managers to get to senior positions or stay there. It happens, but it’s increasingly rare.

What is more common today is managers who are simply “over their heads” in terms of what is required of them vs. what they are capable of doing. As noted in another post, the complexity of today’s typical organizational environments and leadership jobs have outgrown the skillsets of many managers. As those individuals become more frustrated (or fearful) about the disconnect between their abilities and their responsibilities, they are more prone to act out or make unreasonable demands or blame subordinates, etc. Unfortunately, the default setting is often to double down on what is already not working by doing more of it (working harder rather than smarter), putting more pressure on subordinates, etc. What is different about today’s environment vs. previous generations is that the demands for short-term results are so powerful that ineffective managers and leaders are more likely to be moved out of organizations by those above them than they used to be. In effect, all levels of management feel the same pressures and are more apt to “recycle” those below them more quickly than they used to.

So yes, some bad managers still rise to the top, but the current environment makes it less likely that they will survive long term than used to be the case.

Change Takes Time

People often talk about change being “difficult.” However, change is simply part of the human condition, for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. What clearly is difficult in our “immediate gratification” society today is having the patience to wait for the results that planned change is supposed to accomplish. This applies to both individuals and organizations.

The phrase “fail quickly” has become popular in many organizations. The idea is that you can be more aggressive with risk-taking because if you determine quickly that an initiative has failed, you can end it and change course with limited exposure to the “failed” course of action. The notion of failing quickly makes sense relative to limited, tactical changes, but I believe that it has been frequently misapplied to systemic and strategic change. As a result, many organizations find themselves whipsawed back and forth from one new strategy or market initiative to the next without ever allowing enough time to determine if the strategy was effective to begin with! This is connected to an unfortunate focus in many organizations on quick wins rather than sustainable success, but that is another article!

One of the most profound mistakes of this kind I have witnessed was the decision by a career college system that presciently entered the online education world very early, in 1999. A new CEO came to the organization shortly after the online initiative was launched who thought online education was a fad that would never catch on. Rather than dedicate modest resources to the effort and show a little patience, he pulled the plug on what would have been the greatest growth and revenue generating strategy in the history of the company–and the organization would have been well ahead of the industry. Today that organization has contracted significantly and is on the verge of closing completely.

Certainly, there are “tactical changes” that can produce immediate results (or can be quickly judged). If a manager decides to increase the building thermostat for air conditioning from 68 to 72 degrees, electricity use will immediately decline and savings will result. Similarly, if he or she changes from one vendor to another there might be an immediate benefit in service or product quality or cost. However, when leaders make systemic, strategic or transformational changes, they must not only be prepared to wait, sometimes for extended periods of time, but they must actively nurture the change to see if it will produce the desired results.

Changes in leadership, culture, organizational structure, and strategy are often necessary and critical to long-term success, but, unlike tactical change, they must be managed and supported with the understanding that it not only may take a significant amount of time to achieve results, but things may actually get worse initially as the organization adjusts to the new reality. The worst thing a leader can do is to put an organization or a team through jarring change, then alter course prematurely! When that happens, not only does the organization fail to achieve the desired outcome, but people in the organization have endured the stress and complication of major change without seeing a benefit. In such a case the manager then has to deal with a “failed” strategy and people who have become cynical about change itself!

So, in the face of material change, have confidence, be patient, and persevere long enough to truly assess whether or not the change will deliver the desired results!

Transparency and Candor Are Powerful Tools…In Healthy Organizations

Almost all organizations (and leaders) claim that they want their employees to be transparent and candid—or some variation on that theme. Some even adopt stated cultural values using those words. It has been my experience, however, that despite an intuitive understanding that such values and behaviors support better communications, teamwork, and decision-making, most organizations don’t actually reward such behavior on a consistent basis. In fact, in both my organizational leadership and consulting roles, I have found that it is actually quite rare for organizations to be healthy enough and safe enough that employees (both staff and management) have the confidence to speak in truly unfiltered ways.

At worst, organizations overtly encourage transparency, but then punish people who challenge conventional wisdom or the status quo. Usually however, the dysfunction is more subtle, in which some kinds of transparency and candor are OK and even rewarded, but the “hidden” culture has taught people to steer clear of voicing opposing opinions about key topics or in contradiction of certain people.

This dynamic, though common, is terribly unfortunate because the power of transparency and candor can be truly transformational. In organizations in which senior leadership have the confidence, sense of security, and foresight to allow for healthy conflict, passionate disagreement, and open challenges to the status quo, the quality of problem solving and decision making is remarkably better than in organizations that fear and restrict such behavior.

A really good and entertaining read on this subject is Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni argues, correctly I believe, that one reason that transparency, candor and healthy conflict engender much more successful outcomes is because those behaviors are markers of teams rather than just groups of employees, managers, etc. In fact, he believes that teamwork is the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can possess.

In contrast, transparency and candor, if they exist at all in unhealthy organizations, are often levers for gaining political advantage rather than higher quality problem solving or decision making. In dysfunctional organizations, and in the absence of true teams, conflict is unhealthy and unproductive, because there is an underlying lack of trust among colleagues. That lack of trust makes healthy conflict impossible.

Although rarely the topic of leadership training, one of the greatest leadership challenges any leader can face is moving an organization (and the people in it) from self-interested and dysfunctional to team focused and healthy. In fact, it is so poorly understood and difficult, that it is rarely ever the primary focus of leaders’ efforts—either because leaders don’t realize the significance of organizational dysfunction or they do realize it, but don’t have the “chutzpa” or confidence to tackle the challenge. Leaders are usually focused on operational, financial, or strategic initiatives, which although important, will inevitably be compromised by a dysfunctional culture. The fact is that even the most difficult operational or financial problems are generally easier to deal with than deep cultural change, which is why most leaders avoid the challenge.

It takes effort to sustain any organizational value worth having, but if you really want your leadership to create transformational change, then you must nurture the kinds of values and behaviors that will result in true teamwork and the synergies that come from teamwork, such as trust, risk-taking, transparency, candor, healthy conflict, and deep collaboration. It will not be easy, but it will pay bigger dividends than just about anything else you can do as a leader.

There Really Is a Difference between Working Smarter vs. Working Harder

Earlier in my management career, I bought into the notion that the best managers (and employees) were those who worked the longest hours. It seems intuitive that someone who gets to work early and stays late and comes in on the weekend must be more valuable and productive than someone who works less “hard.” And, in fact, there may be a correlation between long hours and the dedication one has to his or her work and organization. On the other hand, not only is there not a correlation between how many hours someone works and how much value they bring to an organization, in the extreme, putting in very long hours can actually make someone less effective and less valuable.

I have worked 12 and 13 and 15-hour days in my career. Occasionally there are situations in which a particular task or issue is so time sensitive and so critical to the organization, that it is justifiable, if not necessary, to work an extremely long day or week. However, over time, week in and week out, if someone is working 12 to 15 hour days, he or she is probably lacking in efficiency and/or unable to prioritize effectively. Moreover, as most of us have experienced personally, after a certain point, our ability to do “good” work, to focus, wanes. This is supported by compelling research into the effects on cognition of extended work without breaks. After 10 or more hours in the office, the quality of our work and the clarity of our attention is simply at a lower level than it is earlier in the day. In fact, we begin to make mental errors. We also become less creative and more rote—and that is certainly not good for ourselves or our organization.

Additionally, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the elusive “work-life balance” when we are working such long hours. By definition, if we are spending that many hours at work, we are not spending those same hours with the people who matter to us outside of work and that will eventually create stress and conflict at home that will distract us at work!

Again, while there are occasions when working a long day or week is necessary, getting more done and doing it well within a reasonable time frame generally leads to better results and a better mental state. As I noted in a previous post about the myth of long hours correlating with productivity, I cite very compelling research that suggests that people who work at very high levels, but for shorter periods of time, likely create higher quality outcomes and more value than those who work long hours, but with diminishing mental focus. In short, identifying which tasks will create the most value for ourselves and those around us, and doing those well, is working “smart” and it is preferable to accomplishing more tasks with mediocre results. Regardless, for many of us, we will never get to a point during the day in which we are “done” with our responsibilities. We simply choose the point at which we leave what isn’t done until tomorrow. If we have prioritized well and done good work, then we can choose a reasonable point to leave the rest for tomorrow—and we will be happier and healthier, both at work and at home.

One last point: shifting to working smarter requires that we give ourselves permission to violate what are long standing organizational norms and socialization. In many workplaces, particularly in the U.S., managers don’t even use all of their vacation time, let alone give themselves permission to work shorter/flexible, but more productive days. It can take a lot of courage to be the one who walks out the door at a reasonable time, but if you are in an organization that actually values quality and productivity over quantity and activity, you will ultimately be rewarded for working smart.

Online Delivery: Silver Bullet or Potential Trap? And What Questions Any Institution of Higher Education Should Be Asking

To Offer Online or Not?

Looking back to the mid 1990s, it is fair to say that the quality and sophistication of learning management systems are much improved from the early days of online education. And, in some ways, it is much easier for colleges to be in the “online business” today than it used to be. To be clear, however, the underlying architecture and the pedagogical models are mostly the same as they were 20 years ago. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) do not yet effectively leverage what other applications typically do such as captivating social interaction, user-friendly transactional tools, gaming principles, or even high end adaptive learning capabilities. What LMSs are good at is providing stable frameworks for holding and disseminating content, basic interactions, highly consistent pedagogical models (far superior to traditional classrooms), and flexibility for learners. Even though online education has a long way to go in terms of its potential, it can still be a compelling option for IHEs and students.

Whether you have been delivering content online for some time or still debating whether or not to take the leap, it is important to periodically review why your institution should or shouldn’t be in the online business to begin with. In most cases, schools are motivated by the opportunity to increase enrollments. However, that is only one possible reason and enrollment growth is not at all guaranteed, particularly if the goal is to reach students outside of an institution’s local geography.

Because online delivery is resource (both money and people) intensive, it really has to be clear that a school or its students or both, are better off having online access to content than not. The truth is that in some cases, there is no objective added value for having online delivery, and if that’s the case, schools should steer clear!

There are three basic ways to use online learning technology:

  • Web Enhanced (online content and tools added to an otherwise traditional brick and mortar classroom)
  • Hybrid or Blended (online content and tools replace some of what would be delivered in the classroom)
  • Fully Online (all content and services are provided via an LMS to students who do not access any content in a traditional classroom)

Note that any of these three modalities can be delivered “at a distance,” in the sense that internet based content and applications can be accessed by students and instructors outside of the physical classroom. However, online education is not necessarily “distance” education since even campus-based students may access educational offerings online while in a classroom or other campus location.

Of significance, after over 20 years of online education via the web, the vendor market has matured substantially and it is now possible to outsource virtually all of the required components of online education for any of the three definitions offered above. Such service is typically called “OPM” (Online Program Management) and there are many established providers serving higher education today. Relatedly, almost all online education is now delivered through commercially available learning management systems such as Blackboard or eCollege and an open source application called Moodle. Although some higher education institutions have developed proprietary LMSs, that is fairly rare due to the costs involved in development and maintenance.

Why Do Online?

Regardless of how online content is delivered, the decision to launch or continue online education has to be more than “everyone else is doing it.” Some reasons to pursue online education are:

  • Enrollment growth (new markets, geographies, programs)
  • Financial outcomes (revenue and margins)
  • Instructional quality (consistent pedagogical model)
  • New partnerships (opportunities that require online delivery)
  • Facilities efficiencies (new programs/courses without additional space)
  • New educational models (competency based education, short courses)
  • Public image (online as a marker of “modern” higher education)
  • Student outcomes (learning, retention)

It is very important that an institution be able to identify clear benefits based on at least high-level empirical data to support reasons for starting or continuing online delivery. For example, “we want to enroll students at a distance and online will do that” is not sufficient. You need to know where those students are, how you will reach them, and why, in a very crowded market, they would choose your institution over many other options. In fact, what many institutions have learned is that marketing to reach online students is more expensive and has more competition for inquiries and students than campus based programs in local markets. This also often applies to course development, support, and other cost areas. So, at the least, any institution thinking about starting online or continuing online delivery should engage in a robust discussion with a good cross section of organizational leaders to rate the likely outcomes at least on the list of the eight items above. That can be a facilitated activity with a skilled consultant or it can be led “in house,” but online education is too complicated, expensive, and potentially distracting to engage such an initiative without compelling rationales to do so.

In short, because online education burdens any school with additional staffing, technology, support, regulatory, marketing, and other requirements, there must be a clear ROI argument for online decisions or the institution must have access to incremental resources to support online education.

At the very least, online delivery must provide added value in one or more of three categories:

  • Incremental revenues
  • Better margins through efficiencies, or
  • Improved student outcomes such as learning or retention, that help students and benefit the P&L.

Some additional helpful questions to ask are:

  • Can we reach a student market with online content that we cannot reach without it?
  • Will online delivery free up brick and mortar classroom space?
  • Can we scale online content more efficiently than traditional campus delivered content?
  • Will online delivery allow us to save expense with instructional materials or instructional cost?
  • Will online delivery improve instructional quality?
  • Who will own content?
  • Do we envision any accreditation barriers?
  • Will we create content, design courses, train instructors, host an LMS, do marketing and other activities in house or use an out sourced solution?

Fortunately, online education is no longer a mystery to accreditors and virtually every accrediting body now has straightforward standards for approving online delivery. However, most also require additional criteria, tracking, and reporting for content delivered online and/or at a distance, so that has to be a competency of the accreditation and regulatory folks within the institution.

Lastly, if you determine that you want to serve students outside your local market and/or you already do that and wish to evaluate new program opportunities, in addition to your normal new program process, schools typically benefit from rating the following criteria:

Mass Market Appeal

Fully online distance education almost always requires operating at scale with fairly large enrollments. Can you effectively sell a program to many students?

Identifiable Lead Sources

Are you confident you can reach potential students at a distance via affordable marketing options?

Effective Online Platform

Will your current (or future) LMS work to effectively deliver the program you want to launch fully at a distance? This is very different than for web enhanced or hybrid.


Will the program design facilitate acceleration of program completion? This is a critical selling point for many online students.

Short/Flexible Courses

Will your course design process and administrative policies facilitate short and/or non-traditional course schedules? This is usually an important differentiator for fully online programs.

Course Sequencing

Will your intended program(s) allow flexible course sequencing? In other words, you want to avoid restrictions such as extensive pre-requisites and required course sequencing that limit class size and increase completion times.

Open Admissions

Will your intended program(s) invite applications from a broad pool of potential students? For mass market programs, you want to avoid high barriers to entry such as GPA, entrance exam scores, and limited transfer credit among others.

Support Infrastructure

Will you be able to provide equal or better academic support and student services to students at a distance?


Although we’ve come a long way in the twenty plus years of delivering educational content via the web, many of the underlying questions and challenges are similar. You must have good reasons to “do” online and you must be prepared to adequately resource such initiatives. While online technologies can provide a range of benefits, those benefits are not “magic” and not guaranteed.

Two important things that have changed are broad acceptance of online delivery and the option of outsourcing almost any aspect of online education from marketing to course design. Outsourcing can be a great option when internal capital is limited, but as with any vendor relationship there are compromises.

Interestingly, as online education has achieved critical mass, it is starting to affect traditional, campus based education in positive ways as well—one of the most compelling of which is simply improving the pedagogical models in brick and mortar settings. The reason for that is that learning management systems require that course designers (and instructors) make a series of pedagogical decisions that historically were never part of the traditional classroom. As such, the discipline involved in online education is bleeding over into the campus classroom.

While there are many good reasons to pursue or not pursue investment in online delivery, schools can only arrive at logical, defensible decisions by engaging in formal dialog and analysis—which should be the case with any important strategic decision!

The Deeper Message Behind the Effort to Repeal the Affordable Care Act

Political Disclaimer: I have never been a registered member of either major political party, but my preferred candidate in the 2016 presidential election was John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio. The Republican party in Washington today is beyond recognition to me. While my essay probably appears to be an attack on Republicans, that is simply a result of the fact that Republicans are exclusively behind the current, wholly partisan effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. There is no way for me to criticize what I see as horrifically bad legislation and related outcomes without criticizing those who are exclusively responsible.

The House bill (H.R. 1628), the “American Health Care Act of 2017,” which passed the House in May, and the Senate reconciliation bill, the preposterously named “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” recently brought out of secret negotiations in the Senate, are about much more than access to health insurance and health care in the United States. These bills are talismans of what could be a very bleak future, as privileged Republicans in congress and the Whitehouse are sending the unambiguous message that, as a matter of principle, they believe that reducing taxes for the very wealthiest Americans is more important than it is for tens of millions of Americans to have access to health care at all. Let’s be clear: policy debates about the “free market” or mandates aside, the reconciliation bill, in it’s current form, would be an unmitigated disaster for the delivery of health care in the U.S. The current legislation is a moral failure, which, if enacted, would do more damage to the well being of tens of millions of Americans than any other legislation in memory. What is shocking is not the fact that some members of congress support legislation that would devastate millions of American families. What is shocking is that nearly all Republicans in both the House and Senate have either already voted in favor of the legislation or said they would. This is not some theoretical dinner table conversation about the relative pros and cons of government involvement in American health care. The bill, in its current form would completely deny health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who have it now and eviscerate coverage for many millions more. That is not political opinion. It is a hard fact of the proposed repeal legislation.

What could a back room conversation about the effort to repeal Obamacare inside the Republican caucus possibly sound like?

“Well, this bill will increase the number of uninsured to almost fifty million Americans and it’ll be hardest on the lower income and disabled, and a lot of folks will probably lose coverage for pre-existing conditions, and rural hospitals will close, and people struggling with opioid addiction will be out of luck, and bankruptcies will spike, and somewhere over 35,000 people will actually die due to loss of health insurance, but we’ll be able to transfer nearly four hundred billion dollars in tax breaks to our very wealthiest friends (goosebumps) and…this is the best part… we’ll really stick it to Obama out of pure spite! Heck, that’s worth several thousand deaths by itself!!”

It has not always been this way. Over the last 70 years or so, Republican legislators and presidents have supported the common good with everything from the interstate highway system (Eisenhower) to a progressive tax system to preserve social security (Reagan) to the Americans with Disabilities Act (G.H.W. Bush) to global AIDs funding and prescription drug benefits for the elderly (G.W. Bush). There was a time when “conservative” did not mean reactionary and certainly didn’t mean coldly trading the health care of tens of millions of citizens for hundreds of billions in tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. To be clear, the ACA would eventually face critical funding challenges without modifications, but the current Republican plan is based on a tax mechanism that would make the funding situation much worse! The only way hundreds of billions of dollars can be shifted to wealthy companies and individuals, while cutting taxes earmarked for health care, is to eliminate coverage for upwards of 30,000,000 people and reduce coverage for many tens of millions more through 2026—and that is the core source of opposition and dissonance for so many Americans. It is also a frightening precedent as it demonstrates that the current Republican calculus has no moral “red lines” when it comes to human cost.

What we see in the current health care bills is not only a cavalier attitude by well-off, medically insured (Republican) congressmen, senators, and president toward the least empowered and most at-risk citizens (those who rely on Medicaid for access to health care), but both bills also redirect hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes from that same Medicaid program (which the Senate bill cuts by nearly $1,000,000,000,000—yes, trillion) to the nation’s most wealthy companies and individuals. Moreover, by removing subsidies and tax credits, the House bill and the Senate reconciliation, would also eliminate access to insurance, or usable insurance, to many millions more who do not qualify for Medicaid, but do qualify for financial support to purchase insurance on the ACA exchanges. In fact, based on existing non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessments, the only likely beneficiaries of the current legislation would be young, healthy individuals whose premiums would likely decrease (but who may also lose benefits). The worst off would be low income Americans in their 50s and 60s, and, distressingly, the CBO estimates that in excess of 15,000,000 people would lose health insurance in the first year alone under the Senate reconciliation! The very basic reality is that the proposed repeal of the ACA would have the greatest negative effect on the poor, the near-elderly and elderly, the disabled, and specific groups such as those suffering from opioid addiction and pre-existing conditions. If that were not bad enough, recent research by Harvard University found that roughly one in every 830 people without health insurance dies as a result. In other words, the predicted loss of insurance for approximately 28,000,000 Americans by 2026 would result in nearly 37,000 preventable deaths. It is no small irony that Republicans refer to themselves as the “pro-life” party.

Of equal importance, the CBO report also states that the current instability in some ACA markets is not a product of the law itself or of some structural problem in those markets, but rather of President Trump’s threats to end enforcement of requirements to procure insurance as well as threats to de-fund subsidies that support the cost of premiums. In other words, the president has found a way to cynically fulfill his prophecy about problems with Obamacare by creating those problems himself.

And to be clear, there aren’t even good political reasons for Republicans in congress to pursue the current path. The proposed repeal of Obamacare is wildly unpopular. A significant majority of Americans from both parties are opposed to the current legislation and only 17% in recent polls support it. Even among Republicans, well less than half of voters support the current legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. While the polls do not explain in depth why so many Americans are against the current efforts in congress, it is not difficult to surmise that there is broad based fear about a future in which Republicans sacrifice the well being of millions of American families for a set of principles that benefits the most well off Americans at the expense of the most vulnerable. That is viscerally frightening to a substantial majority of Americans, including those who voted for Trump and Republican legislators in Congress.

In fact, the negative impact of the repeal of the ACA would be so severe to actual health outcomes, that the American Medical Association has claimed in a letter to Senate leadership, that passage of the bill in its current form would be a violation of the Hippocratic “do no harm” oath. They add in their letter that, “We believe that Congress should be working to increase the number of Americans with access to quality, affordable health insurance instead of pursuing policies that have the opposite effect.” Similarly, in response to the same CBO report, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in which they said, “…the loss of affordable access for millions of people is simply unacceptable… These are real families who need and deserve health care,” followed by, “We pray that the Senate will work in an open and unified way to keep the good aspects of current health care proposals, to add missing elements where needed, and to not place our sisters and brothers who struggle every day into so great a peril on so basic a right (emphasis added).” While fiscal restraint, freedom from mandates, and free markets are all defensible principles, the Republican disregard for the well being of many millions of Americans highlighted by the USCCB is a frankly jarring spectacle to witness.

Of course, providing anything close to universal health insurance coverage is dauntingly expensive and complicated, but the notion of denying basic access, while shifting resources from those most in need to those who are already the most well off, is simply immoral, and that has not been lost on most Americans. In fact, it would seem that the disagreement within the Republican party is between conservatives, and those who are more conservative, about how much pain to inflict on the American public.

Unless you believe that roughly 275 legislators in Washington are that cold hearted (or have that little political self-interest), the only other viable explanation is that the motivation to kill the Affordable Care Act is not about any principle at all, but rather about a deep, nearly pathological need by many Republicans to avenge eight years of the Obama presidency regardless of the human cost. Either way, it is disturbing to contemplate that a majority of members of Congress (and the president) would casually devastate many millions of American families for either reason. It makes them seem frankly unhinged, particularly since there is no critical need to change anything with the Affordable Care act right now. A bipartisan effort to improve the ACA could happen at any time.

To better understand historical context of government involvement in health care, the reason we have Medicare and Medicaid at all is because in the mid 1960s both parties of congress and the president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, recognized that the free market would not and could not support access to health care for those in poverty or near-poverty, by reason of disability, age, and unemployment. While there was certainly opposition to both programs, there was bipartisan support for the principle that even in capitalist systems, there is broad social value, if not moral compulsion, in creating a floor of services, medical and otherwise, funded by society as a whole. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was an attempt, unwieldy but broadly successful, to bring access to medical care for about half of the nearly 50,000,000 Americans who did not have such access prior to 2010.

Of course, there are elements of the Affordable Care Act that are unsustainable in their current form and that would have to be modified at some point regardless. A compelling example is the notion of Medicaid as an “open-ended” (the government simply pays what it costs for each new enrollee) benefit whose cost continues to increase at rates in excess of inflation. While all health care costs have been increasing for decades at rates in excess of inflation, Medicaid (and Medicare) are almost wholly funded by taxpayer dollars. Without a change, those costs alone would eventually eat up virtually all discretionary federal tax receipts, which, of course, is not viable. However, there is a rational, compassionate place between adjusting Medicaid and Medicare expenditures and taxes on the one hand and wiping out access to health care for tens of millions of Americans on the other hand, while redistributing hundreds of billions of dollars from poor Americans back to wealthy ones!

As for mandates, no one likes to be told what to do. But to suggest, as Republicans in congress have, that the mandate to purchase health insurance, which is central to the ACA and any other sustainable insurance market, is somehow unique to Obamacare, is at best disingenuous, and at worst, out right dishonest. Our government issues mandates in every sector of our lives, including other forms of insurance! When was the last time you tried to get license plates for a car without having “mandated” liability insurance? Health care providers are mandated to have malpractice insurance. Every 18 year-old male in the U.S. is mandated to sign up for the selective service. Tens of millions of children are mandated to attend school and every day nearly 3,000,000 airline passengers are mandated to show a government ID, sacrifice their privacy, and pay “security fees” to get on a plane. Our daily lives are infused with mandates and the underlying rationale for all of them is that the common good in those cases outweighs individual choice. You cannot legally drive without purchasing auto insurance because of the undue burden that puts on others in society if you cause a wreck. The same argument applies to health insurance. If an individual does not have insurance, but ends up in the emergency room and intensive care after an accident, those who do have insurance will ultimately pay the bill through higher premiums and higher costs for their own health care.

Republican histrionics aside—no, the Affordable Care Act, is not a “disaster;” Hurricane Katrina was a disaster—the fundamental problem with the Affordable Care Act, despite its flaws, is not the law itself, and the problem certainly wasn’t the noble goal of creating access to healthcare for tens of millions of uninsured Americans. The problem is that it was bolted onto an underlying health care system with deep structural flaws, many of which the ACA attempts to address symptomatically rather than causally. If the Republicans in congress and our president were acting in anything approaching good faith, they would be engaged in a bipartisan effort to create lasting, structural solutions to our health care system, even if that means material compromises for both political parties. In comparison, although the ACA was ultimately passed along partisan lines, the initial discussions on the bill were largely bipartisan, including a presidential address to Congress and Whitehouse strategy sessions involving members of both parties. The reason that is not happening now is because the current Republican repeal legislation has absolutely nothing to do with improving the healthcare system. Their motivation is either to create a healthcare system based on free market principles and privilege, regardless of human cost, or their neurotic obsession with poking Obama in the eye, or both. The very name of the Senate reconciliation bill itself, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” is laughable on its face. It may be cheaper for some and it may allow others to avoid buying health insurance at all, but in no way does it improve care for anyone.

Let’s be clear that as a society, we either believe that access to some meaningful level of health care is a guaranteed right (as we have done with primary and secondary education), and make collective sacrifices to achieve that goal, or we believe that access to health care is a privilege enjoyed only by those with the financial means to afford it. It’s that simple. Most Americans have said they believe health care is a right. Republicans in Washington, through their repeal legislation, have declared the opposite, and will likely lose the moral and political battle over time.

Let’s also be clear that no broadly effective health care solution, ACA or otherwise, will work long term, in any way approaching “affordable,” without acknowledging a combination of undeniable truths.

Some of those truths are:

  • Almost all Americans will have to contribute some level of their own personal financial resources to their own health care.
  • Not every American can have access to every medical service, test, treatment, etc., or have such access precisely when they want it. There must be some management of care.
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require that some form of government sponsored insurance be part of the solution (Medicaid, Medicare, VA, etc.)
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require substantial tax receipts, most of which will come from wealthy Americans and businesses, because they pay most of the taxes collected in the U.S.
  • Covering nearly all Americans will require healthy people to pay into insurance pools, which will subsidize less healthy people.
  • Some individuals will have to pay for some benefits they never use.
  • Some form of centralized negotiation of cost will be necessary for public programs the same way it exists now for privately insured programs (the federal government already does this with the VA health system)

In short, the current Republican effort to repeal the ACA has absolutely nothing to do with improving health care outcomes or the health care system. As confirmed by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it would objectively wipe out access to health care for over fifteen million people in the first year of implementation alone! The Republican effort is about legislating the principle that health care is a privilege only for those who can afford it, while decreasing tax obligations on the wealthiest Americans. Heaven help us if that becomes the driving moral principle for all Republican policy while they have a congressional majority and hold the presidency.