Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has combined his extensive expertise in the areas of marketing, research, and analytics to focus on making an impact in higher education. The self-professed trend watcher also has a particular interest in exploring generational differences and how they are impacting education and the new economy.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Celisa talks with Jim about the value of looking at these generational differences, the idea that newer generations find it “creepy” when asked too much information too soon, and what you can do to lower your level of “creepiness” with prospects. They also discuss what Jim sees on the horizon for learning including a growing need for higher ed institutions to unbundle the traditional degree to offer alternative credentials.
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Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa interviews Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy.
[01:52] – You might consider the reflection questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- Jim talks about the 4th Industrial Revolution, automation, the implications and impact of newer generations on learning and working, and events like virus outbreaks. How is your learning business attuned to respond to these societal shifts? What are you doing to make sure what you offer and how you offer it best fits current needs and demand?
- Jim talks about a Creepiness Index he and his team are working on. Their work is focused on higher ed, but there is definitely application for learning businesses as well. Look at what questions you’re asking would-be learners. Are you getting creepy—i.e., asking for too much too soon? And what value are you giving in return to start and nurture a relationship with your prospects?
Highlighted Resource: The Value Ramp
[02:59] – The second reflection question around nurturing relationships with prospects brings to mind the Value Ramp™—it’s a tool that can help organizations think through the relative value of their offerings and make sure that some are available for free.
We usually stress free in terms of money, but Jim’s comments make it clear that it’s also important to offer some things that are free or close to it in return for information you’re asking for—not everything should be behind a sign-up form.
[03:43] – Introduction to Jim and some additional information about his background and work.
[05:11] – What led you to focus on marketing and research and what drew you to those areas? Also, what do you see as the importance of research and marketing, particularly in the context of lifelong learning?
Jim shares that he’s always been involved with marketing and how early in his career he was heavily into analytics. But he found himself being intrigued with society’s lack of analytics and decision making. So he went from the analytics side of things, to then also people watching and consumer behavior. He felt like this was the underpinning of marketing and strategy development, looking at how you measure things.
Jim then joined Penn State in the late 90’s (and left about 11-12 years ago) and looked at internal processes in marketing. At that time it was all about enrollments, return on investment, and growing market share. So he really took a passion in terms of working within higher education.
He was only involved with UPCEA as a member at that point, but he always felt like the association and the community needed more. So later on in life, he pulled all of his experience together and decided education was the place where he wanted to make an impact.
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The Value of Looking at Generational Differences
[08:34] – The impact of different generations on the workplace and the world in general seem to interest you. What do you see as the practical value of looking at generational differences for learning businesses?
Jim explains that it’s really the convergence of a lot of things that are happening right now.
We’re seeing education going one direction and most of the players in education are clinging onto degrees. But our economy is moving toward what’s been called the 4th Industrial Revolution—a lot of high-tech, automation, AI, data-driven decision making. And along the way, we’re having this generational uprising, and in the U.S., we’re having a presidential election year. All of these things are a perfect storm in terms of what education will look like in the future.
If a lot of these things were happening separately or independently, Jim says 2020 wouldn’t be such a big year for higher education but it is. What’s actually happening is that we have Millennials that are now 24-38 years old, they’re the biggest cohort in the workplace, yet they are now just starting to catch their power in terms of the economy. And we have a kind of controversial political system where their voice is actually being heard a little more.
On the other hand – and Jim says there’s a lot of debate on this – but the Boomer generation is starting to retire at a faster rate than it was over the last 5 years. And that’s kind of diffusing power into the other generations.
And then we have this totally different generation—Gen Z—which is roughly 14-23 years old. They’re a smaller cohort with a lot of similarities to Millennials.
So these phenomena, given the economy and automation, are really going to change this whole industry of higher education. That coupled with marketing technologies and shifting from traditional broadcast media to digital media.
[11:17] – What do you see as some of the implications around this generational shift?
Jim explains that what’s actually happening right now (amid COVID-19) is we have people working at a distance. We’ve got the service economy and other technologies really kind of rising up in terms of being a new foundation for the future. We also have this fast shift towards automation and a lot of companies that are pouring R&D into this are fueling it behind this younger-generation workforce. And then we have a Boomer generation which isn’t necessarily comfortable with this type of technology here so they’re almost giving way to it in a certain degree.
Jim points out that we have a lot of upheaval, but we’ve got new workers in the workforce that are generally comfortable with technology. And he thinks they’re going to be the natural fit in terms of the new developments and being the fuel behind them.
Jim discusses how for the past three years, he’s had Gen Zers working for him so he can better understand them and their behavior. He’s also asked them to help him with the report, An Insider’s Guide to Generation Z and Higher Education.
Along the way, they’ve been telling him that higher education has it all wrong. Jim says they started looking at their own membership and how they request information. And the systems that higher education put in place don’t mesh with this younger generation—they’re very creeped out by it.
So he had a few Gen Zers work with him to create a scale asking them and their community what kind of questions they think young adults/new adult learners want or are willing to answer.
When you ask Gen Zers and you look at all of the research behind abandoned shopping carts, they will give you their first name (sometime last) and email address, but then they want something back in return. They may actually answer another question such as “how did you hear about us” or “what are you interested in?”.
But then higher education will ask many other questions of the adult learner—and they think that’s very lazy. Jim points out they could actually do that twenty years ago when they had the power in terms of higher education, where you had the product and people wanted it. However, higher education doesn’t have that power anymore. Today, they need to develop the relationship, otherwise it gets creepy.
Jim’s research has looked at how once you get past 3-4 questions, it starts getting creepy when a higher education institution asks you who your employer is, where you finished in terms of your class, if you’ve taken certain certifications, your work address, etc. All of these things start developing a mode of creepiness.
They’ve actually measured what people are doing from a baseline perspective, an acceptable perspective, and a creepy perspective. And they’re finding a lot of folks are asking really creepy, unnecessary questions because they don’t realize they don’t have the power, or they’re unwilling to build the relationship over two or three touchpoints.
Learn more about UPCEA’s Creepiness Index here.
Implications of Creepiness Index for Learning Businesses
[16:49] – I know it was developed in the context of higher ed, but what might learning businesses take away from the Creepiness Index? How might they make use of it or be better aware of where they may be shading into creepiness?
Jim shares that the fundamental for him is that organizations (higher ed or not), need to know their customers. They need to understand who their customer is today and who they will be in the future, and what others are doing to convert on them.
The enrollment funnel is not any different from outside of higher education as it is within higher education. It’s just about what those touch points are in between and how you actually cultivate and nurture a relationship along the way.
It’s about using technology and people at the right places, how to use analytics throughout the whole process, how to get organizational change along the way, how to inform your decision-makers and whole organization about who this customer is, how they’re converting and what their needs are.
That whole trust factor really depends on knowing your customer and knowing what their values are. Higher education is a step or two behind other industries but there are a lot of other industries that are really lagging. They’re thinking that their customer or consumer is still a Gen Xer or a Boomer, when in reality they’re a very savvy Gen Zer or young Millennial.
Jim notes that this generation is a little more sensitive and fragile in terms of their psyche. There’s a lot of debate about their dependence on friends, their social networks, and family. So the moment they’re uncomfortable, they go to these networks and communicate that.
Their brand loyalties are very different, even from Millennials, but they’re more sensitive and thoughtful and they actually process information better than other generations.
The moment you create this unease or this creepiness, it’s really hard to get that back.
And that’s why there are certain companies that do very well at retaining their customers, especially these Generation Zers. Jim highlights Chipotle as an example of a company that has been able to get loyalty back by understanding their customers, despite some setbacks.
Unless you have that type of relationship or counter measures in place, Jim asks, will you as a university or another organization be able to retain these customers, or, if you lose customers how do you acquire them back?
Having a knowledge of Gen Zers, young Millennials (or any generation) in this new economy and new way of learning in this digital environment, is ultimately critical in terms of success.
On the Horizon for Learning – The Unbundling of Education
[20:59] – I know you’re a trend-watcher, and so I want to ask for your perspective on what the future holds. When you think big picture about what’s on the horizon for learning in the coming five years or so, what do you think will have the biggest impact on what and/or how we learn?
Regardless of where you stand politically, Jim thinks the Gen Zers and Millennials are going to find their voice. If their candidate wins, they will feel like they did it—and can do it again with something else. If their candidate doesn’t win, they’re going to protest and have their voices heard. So these new generations are going to reshape a lot of different things.
And one of the things Jim says we need to look at is that education has been bound very tightly under a nice little package called the degree. The degree was created a long time ago (and really took off post WWII and even before that with the Morrill Land Grant Acts) and it’s been packaged for the second generation here, one that Jim notes was heavily manufacturing based. Then it actually evolved into the third generation—the internet service sector. But he doesn’t think it’s built very well for the fourth generation.
What’s going to happen is this degree has got to unbundle itself. This next generation of learners are used to being on Khan Academy and learning via YouTube. So they are going to unbundle this nicely packaged degree package into smaller chunks—and we’re seeing that right now. We’re seeing badges happening, we’re seeing people getting certificates and things are starting to stack now.
And now with the economy – and even society – the way it is, once that power shifts a little more to the Millennials and Gen Zers, this stackable learning credential will mean more. Just because you’ve taken something on a non-credit basis, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t transfer into the same type of learning on a degree.
Jim thinks we’ll see more and more of this as the data analytics and the predictive analytics, and the assessment pieces get stronger as well. He says the unbundling of education is just starting to happen now and that’s where UPCEA has really shifted a lot of its emphasis.
Although recent events will refuel the online learning environment around credit, it will also fuel the online learning environment around non-credit.
Jim predicts we’ll see a lot of new innovations, new ways of learning, and new accepted ways of learning. No longer can the faculty at a university say they only do credit and that’s the only quality way to learn.
This economy, this state of our world right now, coupled with all these factors all coming together at once will really push towards new learning and acknowledgement that somebody with a lot of experience and that has learned on his/her own is actually capable of running a workforce and is very successful in this economy.
Jim adds another piece to this is that are a lot of institutions of higher education are on shaky ground, financially. He talks about how the unfavorable demographics are pushing for new ways of learning, new ways of revenue, and new ways of engaging populations. And they have to monetize them some way so although this unbundling isn’t as profitable for colleges and universities per unit as a degree or a credit is, the reality is they are going to need to find new streams of revenue.
The business of running an institution of higher education is becoming more of a reality and the new industry, the new economy is driving for that, otherwise new solutions will be created at a corporate level—and they already are.
Jim notes that a lot of their new research is showing that it’s not only supplementing the education, but it’s also reskilling the workforce. Institutions that graduated people in certain degree areas are acknowledging the fact that they need to supplement their education for this new economy.
They’ve also been doing a lot of research around the value of the liberal arts curriculum and how that almost has to be competency, certificate, and badge-based (in college and post college).
Jim points out the degree model isn’t necessarily the best model for the entire 4th Industrial Revolution—it’s important for the STEM fields but for the other sectors that are evolving and reskilling, they aren’t necessarily fully degree-based. And this is where we need to see more innovation and willingness to change by higher education.
In a perfect world, what you really want is for people to be learning on their own, learning from experts, learning from their company/work experiences, and from higher education. But all of these things should be stackable and acknowledge in some form some kind of credential. And in a perfect world, these credentials should feed into one another.
For example, imagine you get a badge from being tested on a certain competency, then that badge hopefully works toward a certificate—and many certificates should hopefully work towards an associate’s degree or a postbaccalaureate certificate. This could figure into a bigger degree, which ultimately could figure into a graduate or doctorate degree, or at least evolve toward advancements in the job, in salary, or ways of contributing to society where the metrics may not necessarily be monetarily.
Jim explains that all of these things tie together, and this is where higher education needs to think beyond the degree model and drive down toward the badging and certificate model. He notes a lot of institutions are already involved with certificates—their new research shows that 70% of their members are currently providing some form of alternative credentialing and another 26% plan on doing it.
So the foundation is being built but they need to generate enough supply to meet the demand, otherwise business and industry will develop their own sources of training and education.
[31:18] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Jim shares that he never stops learning and also surrounds himself with Generation Z and Millennials, which helped him better understand and appreciate their skillsets and strengths.
He says if you immerse yourself in what you want to learn and you keep an open mind, listen to people, and don’t get stubborn, it opens up new modalities in your brain in terms of what you can accomplish. So having a greater appreciation of what you don’t know.
His most valuable experience has been listening to Millennials and not believing the urban legend that they’re self-entitled—they’re just different. And he talks about what an amazing generation Gen Zers are too. So Jim’s appreciation for all this is what’s been his biggest learning over the past five years.
[34:21] – How to connect with Jim and/or learn more:
- Jim’s Blog at UPCEA: Benchmark This! (A blog on latest trends impacting marketing and higher education)
- LinkedIn: Jim Fong
[35:13] – Wrap-Up
- How is your learning business attuned to societal shifts? What are you doing to make sure what you offer and how you offer it best fits current needs and demand?
- Look at the questions you ask would-be learners. Are they creepy—i.e., are you asking for too much too soon? And what value are you giving in return to start and nurture a relationship with your prospects?
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[37:33] – Sign off