Quitting is for losers

Compared to universities; CAA and Endeavor are very “different kind” of actors. And even though they are big well-established companies they seem to be totally un-known to most universities at this moment. But they are, at least will become, very relevant for the university’s future. Here is why, and in what way, universities should care.

Imagine the university sector seriously would start to disrupt – MOOCs and Zoom and all that are just forerunners. Imagine also that things then happening would be rather similar to what already has happened to the music industry (In previous posts I have explained why this parallel is unusually useful). What can we then learn about how universities of today could, even should, start acting?

Ones upon a time record labels held the commanding height-position in the music industry. They were the middleman between musicians and the customers ­– similar to the position that universities have, between teachers and students. Record labels controlled the market. But then the internet arrived and today; record labels do not have the same kind of position. It took some time for this to happen, 10-20 years or so, with iTunes and Piracy as middle-steps (you now see why MOOCs and Zoom are just middle-steps?). But finally it has now manifested itself with “the world of streaming” of today. Record labels have had to work hard, actually still do, to find a new position ­on the market during that process – if not just shutting down of course, which some have.

Exactly the same is very likely to happen to universities, if this industry disrupted for real and if universities do not seriously start preparing for it.

But why should existing universities give up the game of disruption already today? Because they see no other option for their own future perhaps? In that case I suggest you to continue reading, because here I show an option instead of just quitting, and it probably is the most interesting, and also possible one – dreams of impossible options is something universities already have enough off.

CAA and Endeavor are two actors/companies that show what universities could develop themselves into, in this kind of scenario, and how it even could look. That is the point by them here. Call them Hollywood talent agencies if you like. They are already very big. One of them, Endeavor, was even about to do an IPO, going for the New York Stock exchange, as late as 2019, but due to weak stock market demand they finally pulled the plug.

There are actually other possible options for what universities could do, if this industry disrupted for real. But how good are they? For instance; they could just downsize, become smaller than they are today, and focus on a tiny local market – what some record labels also have done. There is actually, still, a market for vinyl records, though a very small one. So that is nothing I believe universities would prefer to consider.

You could also imagine a situation where this suggested downsizing-scenario actually would be the end-station where a lot of universities would finally end up, more or less by it self, sooner or later, if they did not seriously prepare for another option. Disruption is a Darwinian process that tend to act in that way, if one do not try to adapt to new circumstances.

If education was unbundled in a similar way as music already have become unbundled, something similar is very likely happen to universities that already has happened to record labels (why unbundling could/will happen to education is something I also have discussed in previous posts). In the case of the music industry, it was the album that became unbundled. Today it is about singles instead ­–­ that´s why we today can have playlists. But in the case of the universities, it would happen if (when?) exam and education are unbundled – separated from each other.

Exam, today, is the last “commanding height” that universities possess in order to control this industry (leading to the obvious conclusion that lot of universities would fight hard not to let go of today´s existing bundling-logic, acting similar to how record labels fired back against piracy, a battle they finally actually lost, when streaming arrived instead and became the final new norm).

Why would a university exist in a world where teachers exist but are floating around in the virtual space of their own? Why would a university exist in a world where a student can go somewhere else and get an exam (yes, independent exam centers would evolve in this scenario)? Why would a university exist if the students already had the option of finding a teacher by themselves directly on the web? Exactly; these are the questions universities of today should ask themselves. But could they even exist during such circumstances?

Actually yes, universities could exist under these circumstances. I even suggest that they should, just follow me here.

Let´s look at record labels of today, not of yesterday. Why do they even exist? Why are not all of them already gone? Musicians can get direct access to customers, for instance via YouTube, but also via a streaming service. Customers can get access to these musicians in the same way. So how come, actually, that at least some record labels exist today?

There are two major reasons why record labels of today exist.

One reason is that record labels might be in possession of historical songs already recorded that customers still like to hear. In the music industry this is called “the back-catalogue”. A decent number of people still like to listen to old Beatles-songs and if you happen to be a record label that own the rights to these songs, you still can earn money on that.

However, in the very long run, this is a problematic business, simply because, sooner or later, customers will stop listening to old existing songs. You yourself do for instance not very likely listen that much to the old Elvis Presley-songs that your parents ones did. And even if you, still, like to listen to the Beatles, do your kids? One constantly therefore have to find new musicians and new songs, if one for a longer period wants to earn money on just owning the rights to music. And at least most universities have an idea of staying in business for a very long time. They prefer the idea of being around also for the next, and the next, generation of students.

Few university-managers think of their own role as short-time-maximizing and then leave a sinking ship (am I wrong?).

Adding to this; Is there even something similar here to the “rights of content” that the universities of today have, just like the rights to music that record labels have? Actually, not that much. Universities do not own what a teacher does in a class-room. At least they cannot own what is in the head of a teacher. It is similar to consultancy firms: competence is difficult to lock in. So this parallel does not work that well here.

Gladly therefore is that the second reason that explains why record labels exist at this moment is of bigger interest to look into and that is the “manager role”. Successful record labels of today have tried, or still try, to develop themselves into “managers” instead of only being “owners of rights”. So, instead of just trying to “own” their musicians they try to become a “support-function” for their musicians.

This is a very interesting role to be good at, also a lucrative one ­– just look at the size of CAA and Endeavor.

Yes, I do know that this is a different role compared to the one record labels historically held. But when life changes you sometimes have to just accept it and develop a new kind of living based on that particular situation. Doing that, literary just that, is what serious disruption actually is about. It is about finding your new role, and do actions in order to get there, before that position is taken by others (all this I previously have discussed in depth in my book “Stop Nobody Move: Transformation Beyond Digital“).

All that is also the reason for why this post is worth reading at this particular moment in time, not ten years from today. Ten years from today it could very likely be just too late to read this post.

A manager is an actor that finds “Zlatan before he became Zlatan and then helps him to become Zlatan”, so to speak. Zlatan is a Swedish soccer player that today is on the global top 10-list, but started off totally unknown in a poor part of the country. The manager signs a player in his early days, and helps him to become Zlatan – the keyword is “help”. He also negotiates on the behalf of Zlatan. As long as the manager is good on exactly just that, he gets a cut and Zlatan will keep him. It is actually not that easy to become Zlatan just by yourself, particularly when you are young.

But if you instead are already very big and well-known you can do like the musician Robyn, leave your existing record label and set up your own record label instead. Robyn is a Swedish very big global musician that actually got upset on her record labels ones and therefore did just that, the picture. It is often what people with strong positions on a market do, if they do not feel that they get good value for their money. Universities having well-known researchers employed, for instance the ones that has got a Nobel Prize, already know how that kind of game easily end up – I am just claiming here that something similar also soon will happen with teachers.

Now notice: who is actually working for whom here? A manager is working for the musician, not the other way around. It is a sign of how power between the two actors involved is distributed. You see the difference compared to the universities of today? I am indicating a need for a kind of mental change. University managers of today have the mental perception of them being in the power position towards their own teachers (neither understanding nor accepting the loss of power position was the biggest problem that record labels had, when the music industry disrupted).

Exactly this mental perception is what lot of university-managers have to change.

In a seriously disrupted world of education, it will become somewhat difficult for single teachers to find their own way forward, particularly for the young ones who are not established on the market yet. They would therefor gladly give away a cut of their own earnings to someone that can help them to develop, and perhaps even negotiate on their behalf. So, this could be a very interesting role that universities of today could develop themselves into, not the least since this position, at this moment in time, is not fully taken, yet.

CAA and Endevour are two of the biggest “manager-companies” existing on the planet at this moment, ­ both of them based in US but with offices and representations all over the globe (of course; you can find similar companies in China and elsewhere). They ones started off with movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin, but since way back they are also good at helping musicians and not the least athletes of many different kinds. Would you then be surprised if I tell you that they also, since not that many years back, have started to sign digital influencers, speakers, book-authors, YouTubers and for instance pod-casters? No, that is not surprising at all. It is an expected thing for a manager-company to gradually developing into. Would it then be surprising if they also, sooner or later, will sign teachers? Or, could they perhaps already have started to do that? Check their websites and perhaps find out for yourself?

Unless universities become better in “managing” their own teachers than they are at this moment, it is very likely that companies like this will enter into this field. There is enough money into the world of education to guarantee that to happen, sooner or later.

Well, if you are a university at this moment you can of course totally skip the idea I am indicating here. You might continue struggle the way that you already do. Perhaps at this moment mainly trying to fix all digital education that Corona have forced you to manage, something that by the way only will push the scenario I am discussing here forward. Your existing strategy will probably hold, at least for some time. But for how long will it hold?

You might also start fighting hard to keep the exam-part of your existing business, the last out-post of the power-game in this industry so to speak. But if you do; bear in mind that an exam is just a brand that is in the hands of the customer, and it is not that unusual in other industries that customers lose interest in certain brands (what is the fact that a huge number of existing ICT-students of today never graduate a sign off?). Brands have never been owned by the suppliers. Brands are perceptions in the eyes of the customers.

You might also like to try another strategy than the one I suggest here, for instance you can decide to develop yourself into an “exam-center” instead of becoming a “hosting platform for teachers”. But if you chose that strategy instead I guess you in the end will be forced to fire huge number of the people you have employed at this moment. Just doing exam is a role that really do not need that many people employed. Will you manage with just something like 10 % of the existing employees? Is that a future you really would prefer trying to head for if you at this moment was a university?

Adding to that; Is not exam something that gradually is becoming even more digital than it already is?

You might also decide just to wait and see what will happen, because to be honest; the university sectors of today have not seriously disrupted (yet?). Serious disruption has not happened, yet, so why would it happen soon? Well, it is for you to decide on what you believe will happen during the upcoming years. But betting on the idea of just waiting, and at the same time be responsible for an organization that is extremely slow in changing; is not that a bit scary strategy to hold on to? Adding to that: How quick, slow actually, do you think a university can make a radical change, if it suddenly would be needed in the future? Will ten years be enough?

Sometimes just sitting a waiting can be far more dangerous than acting oneself. It is for instance during earth-quakes better to move away from where it will happen, before it does happen, compared to waiting for it to happen.

Imagine then instead you seriously would prefer preparing for this suggested idea; of a university in the future being the “manager of teachers”. Is that actually a strategy you can start working on already today? Yes, you actually can, and it would not be in the way for your existing business, not even cost you that much, and that is actually my big point here!

It is something you can start working on already today. It would also be an unusually cheap bet, at least at this moment in time.

What would such kind of strategy mean in practice? Well, you could start off by launching a serious “development program” for the teachers you already have enrolled. And utilize the unusually great teachers you already have, because they already know what is needed to know in order to become a good teacher (top managers at universities are not themselves always that “good in teaching”, it is far more common that they either are good at administration, or research). But I mean a serious development program, not the kind of “career-ladder-programs” several universities run at this moment. Neither do I mean the kind of “pedagogical development-programs” some universities have. It would have to be something far better than that.

These existing programs now mentioned are actually not support-functions for teachers. They are instead just doors an academic have to pass, if they want to get to the next “level” so to speak – like becoming promoted. These programs are not development programs but more or less control functions – set up by universities to control the academics. It is a big difference between a system that is designed to check how good a person is, compared to a system that is designed to make a person good. They are at least definitely not the kind of programs that companies like CAA and Endeavor would prefer to run for the creative people that they have signed. If they did, it is very likely that a creative person would just leave and use another agency instead.

What is then in the way for all this to become? I would claim that the biggest barrier are actually not resources, not even knowing how this should be done in practice. All this could actually be managed, not the least if you start benchmarking companies like CAA and Endeavor and utilize the already great teachers that are employed. It is a mental perception that is most likely in the way instead. Because what I actually suggest here is that the ones at the top of a university have to start realizing that, at this moment, they are actually not on the top anymore. Instead, they are more or less gradually becoming in the hands of the best teachers they have. This is a radical change of power-position (by the way; this is also most likely the reason why you, if you work at the top of a university of today, now perhaps would prefer telling me why I am just plain wrong in this whole article).

Then bear in mind; exactly all this has already happened in the music industry. Ones that industry started to disrupt, musicians also started to “play around” with their own record labels (my recent book “Play it, well; Strategies for digitally disrupted time” describe this in detail). They did it simply because they could, and they really “managed” to create hard times for the record labels (Yes, I know that musicians not always are that polite, but neither are academics). The musicians did it because they had realized that now, suddenly, they held the power position versus the old record labels in their own hands.

Of course, it was also the musicians that already sold well, the cash-cows for the record labels, that was the forerunners of this, making the whole situation even more problematic towards their record labels than otherwise. And perhaps, this is a reason good as any not to make great teachers upset at this moment – utilize them instead, for instance in these development programs, and support them instead to become even better than they already are.

After a while it even led to a situation where the record labels messed up a lot of it just by themselves. Because record labels themselves was instead actually already fully occupied trying to understand what was happening at the other end of the market, customers that had seriously had started to go digital instead of buying physical records so they where not prepared (is that what already have started to happen at this moment due to Zoom, MOOCs and all that?). Not totally surprising on the other hand, since when the “panic-level” become high enough such things easily is what does happen.

I guess record labels just assumed that musicians would sit and wait until the industry-situation had cooled down again. Boy, were they wrong.

All this that happened to record labels are also very likely to happen also to universities, if the university sector starts disrupting for real, like the way I described it here, and if the universities of today do not seriously start preparing for what is actually ongoing under the surface of this industry at this moment. And I guess; if such kind of situation evolves, is not that the moment in time when you start thinking about just quitting, if you happen to work at the top of a university?

But heading for a future role as a “manager of teachers” could actually lead to a very prospering future for a university instead. Not the least; if you are among the first ones that does it. And the ones in control of what direction a single university will head for, are the ones at the top. Please chose the right way here.

I suggest universities all over the globe start preparing for a different world and seriously consider this particular option. At this moment they are far to important, and interesting, not to.

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