A shorter version of this white paper was published here in EdSurge on June 27, 2018.
Should higher-ed re-design its own re-design?
Despite ample innovation and copious human-centered design, higher-ed has been on the cusp of revolution for twenty years. Are we doing it wrong?
By Lisa Baird and Samantha Zucker
America’s postsecondary education industry is teeming with innovation. While the average citizen may have a passing awareness of MOOCs and bootcamps, insiders know the well runs deep, straight into the heart of curriculum, financial models, advising and supports, alternative credentialing, workforce re-skilling, employer partnerships, and just about any other shred of the student-centered experience that one might imagine or design.
Student-centeredness is de rigueur, table stakes. Folks in the industry really care about students — deeply, truly care. So much so, that when students say they’re involved in postsecondary for economic stability, folks believe them.
But there’s a hitch. Economic stability means getting hired. And it seems there is no amount of student-centered design that can make a hiring manager do what a hiring manager does not want to do. Decades of postsecondary innovation have still left America with 6.1 million job openings — just about the highest level since the data series began in 2000 — and employers who say they can’t find bodies to fill them.
Job openings is a measure of labor demand, which is to say: the demand is there. So why hasn’t postsecondary — and all its attendant innovation — been able to put people wanting jobs into the jobs wanting people?
Design thinking redux
Design thinking occupies a cultish corner of an already esoteric innovation landscape — not a place where one might expect the federal government to dabble. But the Office of Educational Technology casually sauntered in.
Recently, the small office buried inside the U.S. Department of Education began poking around the labor-demand mismatch and wondering whether a design-thinking exercise might produce some new insights, especially if tightly constrained. In particular, OET pinpointed business models and the nexus of workforce and education as areas ripe for technological innovation. The question was less “what might technology do?”, and more “why hasn’t technology done it?”
Soon, two senior policy advisors from the Department (Sharon Leu and David Soo) and two professional experience designers with expertise in postsecondary (the authors) were scheduled for a three-day design charrette in San Francisco.
Three days together in the bowels of a co-working space on Market Street was a vivid journey replete with Post-it-Note twist and turns, which we’ll gladly share below. But let’s cut to the chase. Though design is a process (not a thing), people still want to know the thing. Our thing is an insight, posed as a bundle of questions:
What if companies have been forced into the arms of automation because finding people has just become too damn hard? What if hiring managers are the real users for whom we should design? What if their needs are the real crux of the issue? What if student-centeredness is the problem?
Gasp, we know. But hear us out.
In economics lingo, postsecondary is a failed market. The allocation of labor is inefficient, the matching of supply with demand amounts to a shot in the dark, and even the most casual observer can imagine an alternate world where their neighbor’s cousin could’ve been made better-off without necessarily screwing anyone else over.
Envision a kitchen sponge sitting near a pool of liquid. If enterprise relies on human resources to survive, then it is the sponge — we expect it to soak up human resources — but uptake has been terrible, so for twenty years, we’ve set about modifying the liquid.
Collectively, the postsecondary innovation community has done everything imaginable to mold learners into the kind of liquid that we think the sponge will absorb, but we’ve spent precious little time talking to the sponge. I mean really, deeply empathizing with the sponge.
Sure, each of the four of us could recall talking to employers in the context of various student-centered design initiatives over the years, but none of us could recall a time where the “human” in human-centered design was the everyday hiring manager at a small, medium-sized, or large business across America. None of us could recall a design project arising out of the postsecondary innovation community that was centered around hiring manager needs.
We’re not talking about HR department needs. We’re talking about the actual functional manager who just got told, “Create a job req, and get it filled by next Monday. See if HR can help.” None of us could recall a design-research deck filled with four or five or six different hiring manager personas. Postsecondary innovation has never been all about their needs. That’s a problem.
Hiring managers are humans — perhaps the most important humans in the whole labor market value chain because they are the furthest downstream. They are the ultimate “user” of everything that comes before. To treat them as an unthinking monolith has been a grave mistake.
Demand-side state of mind
Working too hard on the supply side of the labor market is like pushing on a string. For one thing, it presupposes that the existing suppliers are even the right suppliers, and it doesn’t do much about uptake.
What if postsecondary design-thinking went long on the plight of the hiring manager? If their needs were met, would not student needs be met, too? At least the big one — economic stability — the one students have been yelling is their main one? It’s a new frame we want to explore, bound by a few constraints and principles:
1. Go small or go home. We’re less interested in the big-firm partnership. Convincing a handful of large players to soak up whatever’s coming out of some bespoke program feels tenuous and too much like off-balance-sheet corporate training and development. Don’t get us wrong — we’ll take it — but we’re interested in designing for the disparate employer masses. Big firms are important sources of jobs, but 48% of total U.S. employment lies in small and medium-size businesses that are scattered everywhere. We want a dispersed, decentralized, diffuse system to match the user base it aims to serve — a system that doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket.
2. Seek the highest hill. Psychologist and designer Don Norman describes innovation as a process of hill-climbing. Whereas incremental innovation seeks the highest point on a hill, radical innovation simply seeks the highest hill. After twenty years of rolling the ball up the current hill, perfecting, nudging, and cajoling our industrial-age model, we’re ready for a new hill. Think when Apple jumped to touchscreen technology while Blackberry was still perfecting the QWERTY keyboard — that’s the kind of jump we’re talking about. It means abandoning something.
3. Find creativity in the tails. Imagine a problem, then imagine a normal distribution of ideas aimed at creatively solving it. Designer and educator Rolf Faste hypothesized that there was no such thing as “good” and “bad” ideas. Instead, he posited that creativity is measured by distance from the mean. Instead of attempting to discard the low-end tail of the bell curve, spin the curve like a top. The resulting poached-egg shape is the universe of ideas with the most creative ideas resting in the fringes. We want to give those ideas a chance to grow upward as novel inventions, but also a chance to move laterally into the realm of acceptance.
4. Beware the ivory tower. Hiring managers tend to be products of the existing system. This has two implications. First, hiring managers are apt to replicate whatever hiring process worked for them, if not for lack of imagination then at least for lack of time. Second, it can be difficult for those who still lean on the strength of institutional brand personally to receive alternative signals from others. This is a point of empathy. Yes, we want knowledge and abilities to matter — not only for the job seeker, but also for the hiring manager and for ourselves, any one of whom might be the next job seeker — but we can’t denigrate vestiges of brand value in the process.
5. Systematize what humans do already. There is nothing new under the sun. We all have coffee dates with experts we admire. We all ask professionals for feedback on our work. We all call references to get the inside scoop on a candidate’s abilities. We all ask friends if they know anybody who can do XYZ. There is a vast world of painfully inefficient word-of-mouth going on in the labor market that could stand to be systematized. After all, systematizing is the first step towards democratizing.
That’s the big reveal — design for the hiring manager. It’s just a new angle for designing against an old problem. Now let’s talk about how we got there and one possible design solution we generated out of it that got us pretty excited.
Embarking on a design thinking journey is not for the faint of heart. The maddening ambiguity lasts longer than in traditional problem-solving efforts in part because the design process does not presuppose that the problem itself has been accurately identified, let alone the solution. Both must be collaboratively discovered, which can take time and drive people batty.
But the four of us agreed early on to collectively submit ourselves to the British Design Council’s double-diamond method for the duration of our three-day affair.
The double-diamond framework depicts two back-to-back cycles of divergence and convergence — one seeking to find the right problem and one seeking to actually solve it — with problem definition only arriving in the middle. The process can be applied to nearly any grain size, from three-day design charrettes to multi-year projects. The important thing is that the search for the right problem-to-solve is given its full due before a single solution is uttered. This is all to avoid the trap of designing for the wrong problem, as illustrated by the cruise ship example.
As legend has it, a famous cruise line had wonderful repeat business from its American patrons, but Europeans scarcely returned, despite the availability of attractive routes and pricing. The company hired a design firm to rethink its communication strategy — something just wasn’t resonating with Europeans. The designers convinced the client to scope a design research phase.
After observing and interviewing users, the design team found there was absolutely nothing wrong with the communication strategy — Europeans understood the deal perfectly, but they simply could not bear to eat dinner at 5:00 p.m. Quickly, the brief was revised to indicate a service re-design rather than a comms re-design, and the client dodged an expensive and unnecessary endeavor.
The cruise line’s initial design question was “How might we gin up repeat European business,” but by jumping directly from that to “How might we rethink our comms,” the client had presupposed the problem, and in so doing, presupposed the solution.
Step 1: Design question
Having embraced ambiguity and the necessity of proper problem-finding, our four-person design team began to articulate an initial design question. What exactly was the matter? What was making us uncomfortable with postsecondary? Ok, a million things — but what exactly?
We started with the notion of utopias. Much of postsecondary innovation revolves around grand visions of the future and how entire ecosystems of people, places, and things will interact with one another to generate good outcomes for all. These grand visions are both terrible and wonderful at the same time.
They are terrible because they are utopias — planned communities for unplannable people, planned by an omniscient planner. They often look like large maps or “ecosystems” that have an all-or-nothing air — a feeling that one must execute on everything in order to gain anything, which results in earnest responders trying to launch 2-in-1, or 3-in-1, or 12-in-1 solutions, and worse, always trying to launch them “at scale.” As the design adage goes: when you design for everyone, you design for no one. Equally true: when you design for everything, you design for nothing.
But utopic grand visions are also wonderful because they are necessary fodder for action. Without the inspirational kindling and matchbox that grand visions provide, progress never gets underway.
Hope is profoundly human and profoundly motivating, and grand visions are a kind of hope. When the way forward feels paralyzing, the twinkle of at least one possible future draws us up out of our resting position, even if we don’t know where we’ll land. The point is to start.
So we agreed on utopias — both blessing and blocker. They work well as inspirational motivators, less so as instructional maps. And the thing that was really bothering us about postsecondary? That so many of these postsecondary utopias were silent on basic human needs, particularly the need for economic security and safety. They all seemed to assume that the first two rungs of Maslow’s famous hierarchy were met.
We realized that somehow the conversation in postsecondary had become this-or-that. The industry was either serving basic human needs around economic stability, or it was serving higher-order human needs around self-actualization and civic engagement. We rejected this either/or thinking and swapped it for a continuum, writing on the whiteboard something we had heard once from workforce and education expert Tony Carnevale: “You can’t vote and read the newspaper if you’re living under a bridge.”
We are all on a personal march up Maslow’s hierarchy, and we’re all at various altitudes at any given time. What might’ve once been a one-way trip to the top of the hill for most people is now likely a series of trips for everyone, thanks to longer lifespans and faster rates of change.
But the existing system was designed for the one-way trip. If someone reached the top, then wobbled and slipped due to personal or economic crisis, there was no real floor. A person could slide all the way to the bottom and have to start all over again from scratch. Whatever training and workforce relevance they had previously amassed during their trip to the top had no discernible value in their new situation. How could decades of work in coal mining possibly translate into anything else under the sun?
We knew we wanted a system that prevented slipping and falling all the way to the bottom. We wanted to future-proof people, but rather than assuming people were deficient, we assumed the system was deficient. That is to say, rather than trying to dream up a magic resiliency serum that we could inject into people (soft skills! grit!), we assumed they already possessed it, and that the system simply needed to recognize it.
This led to our initial design question: “How might we make postsecondary education a tool for creating economic stability over a lifetime?”
Step 2: Problem Finding
Armed with the starting point of our double-diamond design process, it was time to start diverging. In a series of timed and untimed brainstorming spurts, we generated as many reasons as we could (one per Post-it) that we felt might explain why job openings and postsecondary still felt so misaligned.
After filing a wall with Post-its, four clusters seemed to emerge:
- Innovation Suffocation — The idiosyncrasies of postsecondary get in the way, like semester- or year-long innovation cycles, rigid funding mechanisms, research-ensnared missions and business models, and a tendency to avoid asking the proverbial “5 Whys” to reveal the root of the problem.
- Prestige Myopia — For postsecondary itself, it’s far easier and economically more sound to polish diamonds than it is to forge them from coal. Meanwhile, humans can’t help but erect caste systems, and for a youngish society lacking a formal one, higher-ed has filled the void.
- Inertia — Traditional postsecondary simply is not motivated, economically or spiritually, to serve as America’s job training function. Best intentions aside, the people working on the problem are almost always products of a system that, for them, has never felt terribly broken.
- Real World Economics — Companies have lower-friction ways of solving labor shortages than dealing with higher-ed. They can offshore and automate the bulk, and sort by bachelor for the rest. It’s clunky, but it works well enough, and revolutionizing it has been so far rather resistible.
At this point, it was time to converge. From these loose groupings, we pulled out a cross-section that felt particularly salient, and re-clustered them into a new theme that seemed to be about the need for fertile ground. The environment for innovation was hardly hospitable. Instead we saw a landscape marked by a pervasive feeling of misaligned incentives, chronic misdiagnosing of the problem, and exceedingly poor fit.
Tim Brown described poor fit to The New York Times Magazine in the fall of 2016:
“The need to redesign is really dependent on how fit for purpose the thing in question is,” Brown says. In his thinking, much of our world is built around systems designed to respond to the social structures and technologies of the industrial age. Everything from systems of education and health care to the design of cities and modes of transportation, he says, all trace their roots to a drastically different era and ought to be fundamentally rethought for the one we live in now.
Step 3: Problem Definition
From this distilled insight, we took another hack at our initial design question to make it point more directly at our problem:
“How might we make postsecondary education a tool for creating economic stability over a lifetime?”
“How might we make the creation of an educational system centered on lifetime economic stability irresistible?”
Of course, implied in our revised question is our problem: that the creation of an educational system centered on lifetime economic stability is currently resistible. We intentionally defined the problem not as specific failings of this actor or that, but rather a general lack of attractiveness.
Why has resolving the labor stalemate been so unattractive, so resistible? After all, 6.1 million job openings are able to hang out there in space, unfilled, without the demand side acquiescing to absorb what’s available, without the supply side acquiescing to produce anything different. It’s a standoff that nobody wants. Both sides grumble, yet the market still does not clear.
Step 4: Problem Solving
Armed with our problem definition, it was time to start diverging again. We knew that all of the bits and pieces of a healthy marketplace — particularly those on the supply side like learning and curriculum or advising and supports — were perfectly valid innovation spaces, but probably weren’t the highest leverage for our particular problem definition. We needed something much closer to the hiring manager, but what?
We had a vague sense that the problem — i.e. the fact that the formation of a working system was somehow resistible — wasn’t caused by a lack of digital talent marketplaces. There are plenty of robust online marketplaces fueled by wicked-smart algorithms where the demand side and supply side of the labor market can meet. The problem seemed instead to be massive uncertainty around how to actually do business with each other once there.
The buyers and sellers of talent lack a common language or currency that could enable them to exchange anything of value. They collectively gaze at opaque packages of all shapes and sizes — degrees, educational institutions, past job experiences, memberships, hobbies, interests — but lack the words to describe what’s inside each of those — the things a person knows, the things a person can do — which of course assumes that the things a person knows and the things a person can do are contained within all of that stuff in the first place.
Digital marketplaces have figured out how to digitize the existing forms of language and currency — degrees, educational institutions, past job experiences, etc. — but then buyers and sellers are still left to horse-trade abstract items of nebulous value — just digitally now — still leaning heavily on the same crude virtue signals as before. Labor market bidders and askers still don’t know how to unpack a degree or past job experiences, how to articulate what’s inside.
The situation reminded us of wooden tokens at a state fair — the one currency that all those delicious food stalls, game vendors, and ride operators universally and gladly accept. What would hiring managers accept as currency? What did they want to use? It was time to get inside the head of the hiring manager and discover their needs and experience.
After brainstorming the plight of the hiring manager, it was time to converge again. As we took a step back and internalized the painfulness baked into this cycle, we noticed how many times the hiring manager took shortcuts, basically relying on a mix of voodoo and luck, to make up for a lack of certainty.
Hiring managers needed something recognizable, standardized, and trustworthy, but came up empty-handed. What if hiring managers could just quickly ask panels of real professionals working in the field in similar roles or positions whether this job seeker really knew what they said they knew, or could really do what they said they could do?
We felt certain that the highest leverage point in our hiring-manager-centered design would be appraising and verifying job seekers’ knowledge and abilities. This could tap into traditional assessments, spur more workplace simulations, unlock competency-based education, and more. But importantly, it could also include diffuse, disinterested, third-party, field-relevant human review.
Step 5: Design Response
At this point, we were energized. We felt as though we were onto something. An army of dispersed, perhaps “gig” verifiers could potentially serve as neutral interlocutors for job seekers and job fillers nationwide, regardless of firm size. Short of convincing LinkedIn to get their endorsements act together, what might such a business or organization look like?
We set to work with the Business Model Canvas, a strategic method for designing new ventures from scratch that was initially proposed by Swiss business theorist Alexander Osterwalder. Using the BMC framework, we rapidly ideated what one possible design response might look like.
The first thing we imagined was a new verification organization, perhaps a profit-making company. For ease, we called it VeriCo. In its first iteration, VeriCo was more or less a digital headhunter company that would presumably be more profitable by achieving higher place rates, made possible not just through matching job-description words with resume words. Higher place rates would start at the job description itself, through sophisticated verification systems.
It starts by empathizing with the hiring manager who doesn’t know what to put in the job description and is probably copy-pasting from Google. They feel like Stanley Kubrick, who once said, “I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.” VeriCo helps hiring managers identify and articulate what it is they actually want.
- Value Proposition — write job descriptions for hiring managers + find people who can verifiably actually do that job. “Triple your qualified candidate pool with half the effort.”
- Cost Structure — labor opex for assessment professionals + licensing other assessments + gig fees for verifiers + tech and development, both opex and contract.
- Revenue Streams — percent-of-salary finder’s fee paid by hiring company <and/or> flat fee paid by company for performing a knowledge and abilities appraisal similar to background-check firms <and/or> contractual fees paid by digital jobs marketplaces who need VeriCo’s assessment and simulation IP in order to win more placements.
- Key Partners — gig network of professional in-field verifiers + learning organizations who would and could orient their curriculums to assessments and simulations.
- Key Activities — writing and maintaining a relevant assessment and simulation bank + building and maintaining relationships with hiring managers + verifying the verifiers.
- Key Resources — intellectual property + software development, design, and data-science prowess + spotless reputation.
- Customer Segments — company size (small, medium, large) + position level (entry-level, mid-career, senior) + industry (retail, hospitality, PR, paralegal, journalism)
- Customer Relationships — introduced to hiring managers via gig verifiers + repeat customers who come back as they get promoted and move around.
- Channels — incentivizing word-of-mouth among hiring managers and verifiers + digitally administered assessments and simulations + marketing on job posting sites.
The matching part of this idea (digital marketplace) is already being done, but only in a half-baked way. Startups have spent considerable resources building the marketplace (matching algorithms and AI) and relatively fewer resources building the common bid-ask language.
But digital talent marketplaces have garnered success in discrete industries. How have they been able to do this? Because in the industries where they launch, they start with de facto internal verifiers who understand the skills and job requirements. It’s no wonder that an online digital marketplace — with deep and obvious prowess in software and sales — is doing a bangup job placing job seekers into software and sales.
In order for digital marketplaces to spread into the 48% of myriad jobs contained in small and medium-sized businesses across America, they need some way of deeply understanding those environments. In order to do that, in-field experts must be brought into the fold.
What if digital marketplaces were supercharged with trustworthy, neutral-third-party, Kelley-Blue-Book level appraisal and verification data — formulated by real field experts and real human verifiers? What if they didn’t have to build it all themselves? What if they could just buy it from some centralized Kelley-Blue-Book source? And what if all that verifying work also prepped the army of verifiers to trust the appraisal when it came time for them to hire someone? (The verifiers and hiring managers probably aren’t different people!)
Call to Action
It’s important to note that the potential design response described above is a 100% sacrificial concept. It is filled with holes, discrepancies, contradictions, and blatant errors. For all we know, it already exists. We threw it up on the board in less than an hour merely to see if all of our hand-wringing over refreshed problem-finding and problem-solving could actually lead to solutions-generation that felt resonant, relevant, possible, and new — a tall order in the postsecondary innovation world.
We think that it can, and we think that it did, but the VeriCo concept has barely left the crèche, let alone been iterated and refined, and for better or worse, the crèche is where we must leave it. Instead, we look back on the double-diamond three-day journey and make our cumulative three-part appeal to postsecondary designers and innovators everywhere:
1. Design for the space between postsecondary and getting hired. First job, fifth job — it truly doesn’t matter. Figure out how to pull from the demand side. This means treating hiring managers as the “user” in user-centered design, shocking as that may be.
2. Remember that by and large, even at big firms, job openings are posted and filled by people whose main job is something other than deciphering another human being’s capacity and aptitude. That’s a lot of running blind. Empathize with them (and recognize the wildness of the opportunity!)
3. When it comes to student-centered desirability factors, hiring managers hold the keys to the kingdom. Helping them helps the student. Stop pushing on a string, and start looking for new ways to align incentives (e.g. ISAs) to yield the outcomes we’ve always dreamed of for strivers everywhere.
In sum, start delivering on the promise of an education-rooted, self-actualized life by making the provision of lifelong economic stability utterly irresistible.