What could our educational system learn from Wegmans?

Higher education in general has been almost inveterately averse to the idea that they should take a cue or two from the world of business, seeing our own ideals of educational transformation as going well beyond the utilitarian emphases of the for-profit world and its emphases on the bottom-line.  I think this wariness is warranted, and my own sense is that education in the United States on both the secondary and tertiary levels is being severely damaged by an over-emphasis on pre-professionalism at the expense of comprehensive intellectual and imaginative development.

Nevertheless, I think our wariness of big business suffers from the abstraction of the singular noun.  “Business” is not one thing, but many things, and businesses in the plural can be quite unique and plural in their approach to their own markets, blending bottom-line success with larger cultural and social goals within the culture of their companies and beyond.  Especially, it seems to me, higher education could learn something from the way some businesses have sought to place a premium on higher levels of more informed service as well as the effort to provide higher quality products that in some ways create the need and desire that is necessary for their markets to work, rather than depending on discerning whatever it is we think that people want or markets want or governments want.

I’ve been running across several articles recently along the lines of this one concerning Wegmans:

“Our employees are our number one asset, period,” said Kevin Stickles, the company’s vice-president for human resources. “The first question you ask is: ‘Is this the best thing for the employee?’ That’s a totally different model.”

Yet the company is profitable. Its prices are low. And it is lauded for exemplary customer service.

“When you think about employees first, the bottom line is better,” Stickles argued. “We want our employees to extend the brand to our customers.”

The Wegmans model is simple. A happy, knowledgeable and superbly trained employee creates a better experience for customers. Extraordinary service builds tremendous loyalty.

In a slightly different vein, I think Apple’s attention to providing the highest quality services to customers has paid off as well:

Part of the problem facing the non-Apples of the world is historical baggage. Big phone makers, such as HTC and Samsung, were never computing experts. As for PC makers, in the 1980s and 1990s, when Intel and Microsoft ruled, they had little choice but to focus on cutting costs to eke out a profit after paying the bill for those Pentium chips and Windows licenses.

Kerry Chrapliwy, a former executive in HP’s PC group, says that if a product did not turn into a blockbuster overnight at HP or Dell, it was often killed. “We were always fighting the philosophy at HP of, ‘How do I get this product to market at the lowest possible cost to the highest volume of people?’ There was not enough focus on delivering the right experience to people.”

Apple, by contrast, “had a worldview that said, ‘We’ll suck it up for three or four years and make it happen,’ ” said Roger McNamee, a co-founder of technology investment firm Elevation Partners.

I think both of these are examples of businesses that have succeeded in significant part because they worked in ways that were counter to the tendency in “business” to cut first and ask questions later–whether the cuts came in the benefits of employees, cutting employees, or cutting in to the quality of life of employees (by, say, attempting to deliver more services at the same price by stacking more work in to the lives of existing employees), or by cutting the quality or quantity of services delivered.  The brand of Wegmans and Apple alike is such that it has generated tremendous customer  appreciation and loyalty even when and if people have to pay more for those services and those products.

Our educational system is a different animal, to be sure.  Yet I still wonder whether the assault on secondary teachers and on faculty that is so pervasive in our political culture is really a prescription for educational success.  What if, in fact, we created an environment in which higher levels of performance by teachers was the result of educational environments that placed investment in teachers as job one, and investment in unique and creative educational product (rather than the production of students able to perform on standardized tests) as job one A?

And what would be the trade-off required of teachers or professors in creating that environment?  What if the price were something like loyalty to an institution and its mission and its immediate students rather than the more abstract loyalty that one has to one’s discipline or intellectual interests?

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