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The Real Fun Of Business: Seizing Inflection Points!

John Hennessy, the President of Stanford University, made quite a splash recently when he publicly predicted the death of the lecture hall as university education takes advantage of online capabilities.  In his acceptance speech for the 2012 IEEE Medal of Honor, he went on to explain that you certainly can’t fully automate all of teaching but parts of it are an excellent match to current technologies; such as the lectures themselves.

To drive his point home, he cited one faculty colleague who claimed “I don’t feel very useful when I stand in front of a classroom and give a set of lectures, 85% of which are the same as the year before.  It’s not very rewarding for the student, and sitting in large lecture halls is not the way students want to learn, particularly this generation.”  This faculty member pointed out that it has caused her to experiment where she broke her lectures into chunks of ten to twenty minutes.

Each had a mini-quiz in between.  The results of the mini quiz could be played back to the student, identifying areas where the student should go back and revisit the lecture.  The student can then go ahead with the next segment of the content.  There were also regularly scheduled faculty interactions with students.

Online Technologies

In the business world, if that kind of inflection point emerges, you see a mad dash by companies new and old to exploit it.  I recently talked with two university presidents to gauge their enthusiasm about the inflection point that online technologies represent.  While both were optimistic long term, neither seemed enthused.  Both quickly noted just how difficult it is to drive change in their worlds.

They pointed to all the constituent groups that would need to support any change; the faculty senate (whose members are typically tenured and tend to fear change), academic department heads, curriculum committees, the alumni association, the university development group, the board of trustees, accreditation officials, etc.  The sense I got from just looking at their faces was that change generates pain and anguish for them, not fun!

These two presidents were quick to point out how much easier it is in the business world to drive change, where leaders are not only given the responsibility for an organization but also the authority to change things if that is what it takes to be successful.

I came away from those conversations with the two university presidents with a deep appreciation for the following three powerful tools which business has, and those university presidents are envious of:

# 1. Reorganizing

When you want to pursue change, innovation, or improvement, it is wise to reorganize the group so that it’s clear what you want to have happen.  While you make sure the current business is well covered, the organization is configured so that it is anticipated the change will occur.

# 2. Personnel

Putting the right people in key jobs when you want change to occur is absolutely critical.  There is nothing like a fresh mindset and a high degree of motivation to achieve in insuring the success of a particular initiative.

# 3. Measurement, with Implications

With change, new measures need to be put in place and individuals need to be held accountable to make progress on those measures.  The results should be reflected in performance appraisals so that people understand that you are serious about achieving the change and making things happen.

For those of you in business, step back and realize the big opportunity you have; then jump in there and seize those opportunities to constantly improve.

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Images:  ”Portrait of young college student using laptop at university hall  /

Bob is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of Microsoft Corporation. Before joining Microsoft, he spent twenty six years at Procter & Gamble, the last five of those years as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, Bob has divided his time between working as a consultant for his own Herbold Group LLC and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Bob has written three books. His latest, "What's Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders" was released February 2011 by Wiley/Jossey-Bass.

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  • Hi Bob, great post and I love the comparison. Such a great example of how viewing something differently can have the potential to drastically change the outcome. Change is great business, great business is change, thanks for the reminder!

  • Bob: It is interesting how you take an example from the academic world. I graduated in 2000 from a new type of education called 3-Year Program in Business Administration at Southern New Hampshire University. The innovation of this program is to have an “integrating experience” at the end of each semester. For more info:

  • Universities take great pride in tradition and this can really hold back change and progress. There seems to be a lot of politics (small p) at play there too. As universities build more ties with industry, it is possible that they will shed the structures that hold them back, albeit slowly.
    Interesting post Bob.
    ~ Helen

  • Perhaps just highlighting the civil vs private chasm Bob? Academics and universities produce amazing studies, results, innovations, and discoveries. It’s sharing and exploiting them for the benefit of the people I feel they struggle with, simply because of mindset.

    Business owners on the other hand will take every opportunity to grow and exploit great ideas, innovations, and great discoveries.
    I think one side can learn from the other. When the 2 “sides” get together??? Amazing things can and do happen!
    Great post Bob – and thanks for sharing your insights from your experience.

  • So true Eric. I believe in first impression usually becomes the last and nowadays website is the first thing you check after hearing or knowing an individual or an organization. Website has no longer stayed as an online presence but it’s “Beauty with Brains”…. 🙂 Cheers!

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