Recruitment & Retention Opinion

What Education Can Learn from the Failures of Business

By Emily Douglas-McNab — December 15, 2011 3 min read
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I’m not one of those people who think all school district functions should be run like a business. (So don’t shoot me yet!) The superintendent of a 10,000-student district and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company face very different challenges that can’t all be addressed with the same strategies or tools. However, I do believe there are some important lessons and practices around management, customer service, and efficiency from the business world that can be successfully replicated in education.

Businesses try new things and succeed daily. Businesses also try new things and fail daily. The same thing goes for hospitals, foundations, nonprofits, colleges, and K-12 institutions. The way I see it, whether it’s a business, nonprofit, or school district, everyone makes mistakes along the way, and it’s worth analyzing and learning from those mistakes so as to not repeat them.

On December 5, Forbes published an article by contributor Scott Davis titled “5 Brands Most Likely To Be Gone By 2015". The article details the findings from a survey of 5,000 consumers about which brands they’d put on the “deathwatch” for anytime between now and 2015. It’s a great piece and very forward thinking. But, I can’t say any of the businesses on the list, which includes Kodak, Netflix, and the U.S. Postal Service, surprises me. The important and interesting part of the article to me was learning why these brands have lost relevance. There are some key lessons that all organizations, including school districts, can learn so as not to repeat these mistakes in the future.

Brand Failure #1: They don’t know what their customers want and as a result provide them with bad service or services that don’t meet customer’s needs.
Lesson for Districts: Involving internal and external customers in district decisions is critical. Discovering what practices and processes truly matter to various audiences will provide a foundation to successfully manage change and accelerate school improvement.
Lesson for Talent Managers: When selecting teachers, principals, central office employees, custodians, janitors, etc, make sure you discuss their beliefs around “customer service.” Hiring people who value service can only help.

Brand Failure #2: They’re not innovative and/or willing to change even though their competitors are.
Lesson for Districts: Remember, not all change is bad. Thus, if you’re not willing to change or meet specific needs, there is someone who will.
Lesson for Talent Managers: Great talent has choices. I should probably repeat that again. Great talent has MANY choices. Make sure you’re not losing top talent and top recruits to other school districts or organizations.

Brand Failure #3: They use outdated processes and thinking resulting in ineffective practices and financial issues.
Lesson for Districts: Anything and everything that involves more than two steps or two people is a process. Understanding this fact and that we must investigate our processes is very important.
Lesson for Talent Managers: Having processes documented and communicating them is not only great for managing work but makes an employee or prospective employee’s life easier, improving your chances of landing top talent.

Brand Failure #4: They don’t use technology to their benefit.
Lesson for Districts: Technology is here to stay. There are numerous tech tools, from iPads to social media to Smartboards, that can help make districts more efficient, encourage communication and collaboration among stakeholders, and help improve instruction in the classroom. But the power comes from actually using them!
Lesson for Talent Managers: Some people are great with technology while others less experienced, and this is ok. Growing talent is as important as keeping great talent.

The business world and the education world are, in many ways, very different. But, this doesn’t mean that the two can’t learn from one another. The true power comes not from where or whom you learned a lesson from, but how you apply it to improve your organization.

How can all organizations learn from the lessons above?

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