New Kinds of Value

In a post in the HBR blog, Ron Johnson, who is now CEO of J. C. Penney’s but once was VP for Retail at Apple, makes the case that retailers, and I assume he is thinking specifically about his current context, must offer customers more than price if they are to survive and compete against the big box discounters. He notes that the Apple Stores were not successes at first: no one came to the Genius Bar. But in a few years, they had to put an appointment system in place to manage the flow of people to the Bar. He also notes that employees in the stores do not work on commission, which frees them to focus on being with customers, trying to understand them.

The lesson for other retailers, Johnson argues, is not to mimic the Apple Store in various ways but to re-think their business. The question retailers should be asking themselves is not how do we increase profits or revenues but “How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?” His analogy is to Steve Jobs, who did not push hard on the development of the iPhone in order to achieve some percentage of market share but because he wanted to re-invent the phone.

The notion of creating value, especially new types of value, is a bit of a cliché in business circles, but time passes despite cliches about time passing. I think much the same kind of fundamental re-thinking of education is called for, but, and here’s the catch, it should be done in a dialogue with faculty. Faculty, perhaps better than anyone else in higher education (and perhaps not), know what it means to create and distribute knowledge: it’s our job to do both. More importantly, faculty are, by definition, almost always the ones most often in direct contact with the various forms of distribution as we both teach classes and submit our materials to publishing outlets for review, evaluation, and eventual distribution.

But I did say it was a dialogue, and one thing I can say to my fellow faculty members is that I am most happy right now with the freshman honors English course I teach. Why? Because as I worked through the process of possibly making it a hybrid course for my university, the change in the infrastructure of the course as well as the folks in Distance Learning at my university, demanded that I answer some very basic questions. “Begin with the end in mind,” they reminded me, which got me thinking about what were the core lessons I wanted students to learn. Suddenly I found myself re-thinking the way I teach writing and the way my students think about writing. I will detail the new structure for the course in an upcoming entry, but for now I can report that I am delighted with the results. And so are the students.