Is Higher Education having a Kodak Moment?

Kodak Agrees To Sell Camera And Film DivisionIf you know what a “Kodak Moment” is you are probably in the latter half of your career rather than the first.

A “Kodak Moment” refers to an advertising campaign by the imaging company Eastman Kodak, which was aimed at consumers to capture the moments of their lives on film – Kodak film. A Kodak Moment became the definition of treasured moments in your life that you wanted to be able to remember.

I was reading a recent article from the NY Times, “At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film”, which describes Kodak’s current focus on trying to re-invent itself based on all of the technology patents it had accumulated over it’s history. The article quotes Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s current CEO who said, “I’m mining the history of this company for its underlying technologies.”

I would guess that if you asked a Millennial, the majority would not know the Kodak brand name. But for the Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers, Kodak was a household name, just like Coca-Cola or Heinz Ketchup. Today Kodak is about 1/10th the size it was at its peak. Film technology, which was the horse that Kodak rode to its peak of greatness, is in an industry that has been transformed by digital picture technology.

Kodak did not embrace the changing marketplace, and they became a “Dead Company Walking” until they ultimately went into bankruptcy. Now they are trying to resurrect themselves by sifting through the technologies that they developed but never capitalized on when they were a healthy vibrant company. The real irony in their story is that Kodak had the lead in digital picture technology, but instead of capitalizing on it they chose to ride their mainline technologies, e.g. film, all the way to bankruptcy.

Higher Education

By chance I came across a blog that caught my attention on a website called “Inside Higher Ed”, written by Joshua Kim, titled “Kodak and Higher Ed.” . The blog was leveraging the same NY Times article on Kodak that I had read a few days earlier. The blog compared Higher Ed’s current industry state to Kodak’s situation at the dawn of digital picture technology.

Higher Ed is at the inflection point of radical change. They are having a different type of “Kodak Moment”, than the consumer marketing campaign I referred to above. Higher Ed, over the next few years, is at a defining moment, like Kodak was as digital picture technology started to take off – my redefinition of the “Kodak Moment”. But Higher Ed’s changes won’t have as binary a consequence as Kodak’s moment. Why? Because Kodak was a technology company whose technology had become obsolete.  Kodak’s business was defined by providing a technology that had become obsolete – the “What” had become obsolete.  The need for education is not going away, but the Higher Ed model, the “How” will change.


Higher Ed will not become obsolete, but technology is transforming how its services will be consumed. Higher Ed’s “Kodak Moment” is more akin to the transformation of the music industry. The appetite for music never went away, but everything about the music industry transformed radically, including most significantly, its business model.

Higher Ed has many technological influences and their side effects that are exerting their influence on the traditional model, which inevitably, will end up changing the model:

  • Flipped Learning
  • Connected Classrooms
  • MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses
  • Technologically savvy students
  • Accreditation models
  • And more

Mr. Kim, doesn’t have the answers, but I applaud him for asking the tough questions:

“Will higher ed leadership avoid making the same mistakes as the leadership at Kodak? Are they, are we, spending enough time and energy asking “what if?”

“Do you share my concern that the higher ed bundle is in danger of fraying?  Not for every school in every place, but for many schools in many places.”

“We are starting to see early indications that the power of one of the key pieces of the bundle, the system of awarding credentials, is beginning to erode.”

One of the more vocal proponents for change in our educational system is Sir Ken Robison. He states that every country on earth is trying to reform public education for two primary reasons:

  1. Economic: How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century, given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?
  2. Cultural: How do we educate our children so they will have a sense of cultural identity, while being a part of the process of globalization.

You can watch his video here:

What can be Done?

I don’t think the consequences that will result from the choices Higher Ed makes will be as far reaching as Kodak’s, because Higher Ed itself is not a technology. But as the industry evolves there will be institutions that will adapt, exploit the new technologies and paradigms and will thrive. On the other hand there will also be those that will languish, falter and fade away.

As I looked over the comments at the bottom of the blog, Rick S. Geiger posted an observation on the Kodak story that I found interesting:

“The executive and board members at Kodak knew exactly what was happening with the technology and their overall business platform, they just decided not to have the company participate in that business. And they did this because there were no large enough positions in Kodak stock to give decision rights to people that wanted a future for the company. The decision rights were with people that had a short term, a rolling 3 to 5 year time frame, and those people made decisions to maximize their compensation from Kodak. I know for a fact that Kodak knew in 1986 about the future of imaging and at that time Kodak had the best science in the world in all of imaging including electronic imaging. They just decided not to fund the company. Kodak is a strong example of a company that committed suicide, on purpose, slowly. [Emphasis added] The lesson from Kodak is not to invest for the long term in any company where the long term value of the company has no powerful advocates inside the company. Another company to look at with a similar issue is Apple. The board dismissed Steve Jobs and then by the time they begged him to come back, the company was very nearly ruined. Steve Jobs had many faults, but one fault he did not have was a short term view of Apple. One person can make a difference. Apple had that person. Kodak did not.”

In my previous blog, I pointed to the advice that Professor Gary Hamel offers to deal with a world where change is happening at an exponential rate. His advice:

  1. Change as fast as change itself
  2. Make innovation the work of everybody, all the time, every day
  3. Workers must bring the gifts of creativity, passion and determination to the job every day

And now I think Rick Geiger has pointed out another requirement for any organization:

4.  You need an advocate for the long term value of the company who has real authority


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