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Keeping One’s Eye on the Product, Not the Process

In the latter part of the 20th century, automobile manufacturers began to change how they made cars. Instead of sequence of design phases, followed by engineering phases, followed by marketing phases, they began to realize great gains in combining those disparate pieces. Engineers and designers met directly with potential consumers, who themselves were examining prototypes of new automobiles. The engineer, whose prior job might have been creating the production process for a door handle, suddenly was confronted with a real client who used the handle in ways completely unanticipated by the engineer. The designer, whose prior job was creating the most aesthetically pleasing door handle, suddenly was confronted with the tradeoff of a consumer who might not share values with the designer and an engineer who taught them about production costs. In retrospect, this reorganization seems to have borne benefits. The companies focused more on the product than the process of creating the product.

I recently learned about transformations among companies that had achieved their initial reputation as radio media units. Their job was the production of radio programs. The programs were designed to be listened to serially, at one set period of time, for a length of time that was prespecified. The program designers assumed that the material was to be heard once and only once by each listener. Enter the digital world. In that world, users wanted the freedom to listen to parts of content, at a time of their own choosing, for a length of time that they could control, in an order that they found attractive, for as many re-listenings as they wanted. It forced, I was told, a gradual rethinking of the business. Instead of a radio business, organizations refocused themselves as story-tellers, information disseminators, and multimedia archives of event documentation. In short, the new technology forced new attention on the product (stories, information) not on the process of producing the product (formerly radio programs, now digitizable information delivered in many ways beyond just the aural).

It’s interesting to apply this way of thinking to universities.

We have three “products.” First, we produce graduates, “refined” versions of persons who complete programs successfully. Ideally, those persons have become more sophisticated in their knowledge, to the betterment of their own prospects, but hopefully also as vehicles to build a better world. Second, universities produce research results, sometimes based on discoveries of previously unknown features of the world, sometimes surprisingly new interpretations of “old” knowledge, and sometimes new creations that evoke new ways of thinking about the world. Third, universities, at their best, enhance the quality of life of their communities or the larger society. These benefits arise from the delivery of consultation to apply knowledge directly in service to the world.

Consistent with the observations above about a “product” perspective, universities need to keep our focus on their outcomes. Inside a university, there are unending demands for attention to courses, programs, student services, classroom quality, space allocation, and all the process steps of a university. However, such attention is misplaced if we ignore how the individual processes contribute to the three most important products of the university. We do that best, I think, when we mimic the trio of the designer, engineer, and customer examining a future auto prototype. Our version of that is having administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and employers all involved in providing input to shaping the future of what the university produces. With that, we can be smarter at designing how to make that happen. In short, maintaining a relentless focus on outcomes helps us prioritize processes. Important to remember; easy to forget in the day-to-day.

4 thoughts on “Keeping One’s Eye on the Product, Not the Process

  1. Businesses aren’t the only entities that produce products/outputs.

    For example, in the Boy Scouts of America, we used to train our leaders to focus on two things when leading: (1) get the job done, and (2) keep the group together. Both of those things can be viewed as outputs or products (even within a broader process of producing men from boys). Similarly, it is helpful to have a university choose and communicate the focus that is to be kept in mind when planning and conducting its activities.

    Metaphors are only meant to illustrate a limited concept, but stretching the implications of the metaphor can lead to useful consideration of unintended ramifications that should be addressed (as was done by Arnold). Still, keeping one’s eye on the product is a useful focus!

  2. It is refreshing to see the ubiquitous “business metaphor” applied to education in a way that makes the student a product rather than a client. I like the definition of the three products of the university process: graduates, research, and community enrichment.
    The invidious nature of any analogy with business, however, comes through in the initial example of the door handles and the clients. If a client finds a different door handle more useful than the one we’re making, do we just change it until the client approves?
    For the university, the “clients” are the institutions and individuals who hire our graduates and use our research. To what degree do we compromise our principles, or even revise the content of our instruction and research, to mollify the clients in a mercenary capitalist society? Isn’t it our calling to witness to the intellectual truths we know, to shape the “client society” instead of catering to it?

  3. A nicely laid out position, so long as the “employers” involved are not simply from the mainline business world, but also government, NGOs, museums, start-ups, etc. etc.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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