Henrik Totterman: What would higher education look like if it were run by IKEA?

  Hult International Business School’s U.S. facility, in Cambridge. The school also has operations in San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai.

Hult International Business School’s U.S. facility, in Cambridge. The school also has operations in San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai.

From the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

As a professor of entrepreneurship and management, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees in northern Europe, I often come to think of IKEA as one of the most mission- and value-driven examples of disrupting an industry and the way people live globally today.

Most of us have experienced the “mile-long IKEA walk” through the second floor furniture haven, to end up with a pyramid of meatballs on the plate in the store restaurant. Once culinarily satisfied, our journey has continued toward the increasingly automated cashiers, where consumers line up to pay for tightly packed furniture boxes and an amazing range of household accessories. Before exiting the building, we have routinely visited the IKEA food store to buy some Nordic delicacies and sweets. We do this primarily to bribe ourselves through the inevitable struggle of IKEA furniture assembly using the magic hexagon key, leading us toward the ultimate satisfaction of Nordic design interiors.

So the question is, what if anything, can higher education learn from a Swedish furniture manufacturer?

International higher education is facing increasing competition and pressure from new market entrants, who are introducing disruptive models of delivering more affordable education on scale. Higher education is definitely more than ever at a crossroads in terms of securing its future existence, which is why it becomes essential for academic leaders to benchmark and recalibrate their strategies, operational models and academic programs for survival and long-term relevance.

Higher education is often criticized for high tuition prices, outdated curriculum design and poorly scalable delivery formats. Typically, institutions operate in a regulated regional setting with voluntary international quality controls through self-governance, peer-assessment and university rankings. Despite all the hype around globalization of higher education, most institutions remain fairly small or at least regional with few examples of a true global reach.

Interestingly, IKEA has built its global presence in a complex and regulated market by addressing challenges similar to those higher education institutions are facing today. To support its success, IKEA’s corporate values build on offering decent quality for an affordable price, enabled by efficient logistics, strict quality and process control, and engaging strongly the target audience in delivering the brand promise. IKEA relies on extensive quality testing, and always aims to scale and increase efficiencies over time. This is done to reduce the price for the consumer, without scarifying the user experience.

In contrast to many higher education institutions, the IKEA journey is a unique experience that feeds creative minds, enables problem scoping and culminates in the collection and enrichment of core essentials and beyond. The educational journey across universities, schools and programs increasingly resemble one another. This is at least partially due to the ease of global benchmarking and the influence of international accreditations, government regulations and rankings that standardize the norms of education.

The IKEA customer is typically equipped with a curious mindset and a willingness to engage socially in constructing the journey, with enough guidance and ease of access to make it worthwhile and part of their lives. Where IKEA has succeeded in bringing costs down through operations on scale, in favor of their customers, very few institutions of higher education are actively engaged in a paradigm shift to reconfigure their operations to reach more favorable terms for their students and alumni.

Similar to higher education, the IKEA experience builds on a feeling of belonging—a social gathering of likeminded people. This enriching experience ensures that there is something for everyone, both in terms of education and building a network. However, in contrast, IKEA focuses especially on price-quality conscious young urban people, who typically appreciate affordability, functionality and flexibility to support their lifestyle and careers.

As with traditional higher education, the physical building space and printed product catalogs remain key for IKEA's success. Peculiarly, as for most higher education institutions, the online presence came late to IKEA and has only gradually increased over time. The challenge for higher education is twofold: how to build virtual social and career networks, while ensuring that engagement in the educational journey remains at the core. In many countries, faculty have strong academic freedom, but struggle with intellectual property-related issues in terms of course content ownership. On the flip side, higher education is currently defining the future in an increasingly digitalized educational space, without proper curriculum oversight and means for controlling content quality.

Here is how faculty and leaders in higher education can build on the values of IKEA to ensure their future prosperity:

In general, institutions should be more ambitious in driving tuition prices and costs down, while embracing academic quality and operations excellence in terms of resource allocation, service delivery and measuring outcomes.

Avoid offering one-size fits all pedagogy, and instead introduce real-world, problem-based learning. The modern form of problem-based learning starts from a real-world issue that needs to be addressed, in this case by students. In some European programs, learning is primarily based on students signing up for research/client consulting projects, and faculty then facilitate rather than lecture the learning. One such example is Academic Business Consulting, an incorporated company solely operated by graduates at Hanken School of Economics, as part of their capstone project.

Create unique study paths by allowing students to take detours from the norm; a good example is Northeastern University's cooperative-education program, which allows students to satisfy their educational desires by working for an extended time in a practical business context with strong academic ties.

In addition to small and exclusive classroom experiences, design learning activities with reach, access and scalability in mind, like Harvard University Extension School’s HELIX learning pedagogy. HELIX implies that a faculty member teaches simultaneously students in a class and online.

Institutions should emphasize unique educational approaches, true to their mission and values, like Hult International Business School offering a global, responsive and practical education in line with the ambition of being the most relevant business school.

Another example from Hult is topping the core educational experience with electives teaching essential tools and practices, along with offering lifelong learning opportunities through complimentary electives and innovative ways of aligning scholarly activities with the educational mission.

Finally, higher education would benefit from more transparency and objectivity in the way educational outcomes are measured. For instance, a company like Linkedin has comprehensive and fairly accurate data to compare the quality of incoming students and the impact of received education on alumni, in terms of career progression and importantly depth and breadth of their professional networks.

Henrik Totterman is professor of practice, entrepreneurship and management at Hult International Business School, a member of the teaching faculty at Harvard Extension School, and president of LeadX3M LLC.