The main thrust of the article is to challenge organisations to realise what they really do in order to make sure they meet the needs of customers (and arguably society) for the long term. 15 years after the article, Levitt himself wrote (in the commentary now included in the article) 'Its most common and, I believe, most influential consequence is the way certain companies for the first time gave serious thought to the question of what businesses they are really in.' Levitt's influence can be seen in the way that Apple has moved from supplying computers to entertainment and information, or the way that oil companies invest so much in alternative energy.
So, how can this be applied to education in the UK? My worry is that too many of us in education never really ask 'what are we actually in the business of? What are we doing that is sustainable for the long term and best for society?' There are regular, frightening, stories of schools that seem to think that they are in the business of 'doing well in league tables' or 'getting through our next OFSTED inspection' - such as this one from the Guardian. But will these schools really last as they jump through hoop after hoop set by central government?
Some schools are better - I've really enjoyed reading John Tomsett's blog and Tom Sherrington's Headguruteacher site where heads are really asking harder questions of themselves and their schools and their teachers. But I'm worried that even this doesn't go far enough - they are of course working within the existing system.
The first challenge is stepping back and realising that we are in the business of preparing young people for life. They are our customers - not parents, not the Government, not PISA and TIMMS and not even OFSTED.
Of course when we do ask our students what they want from school they don't have the experience to look much wider than minor changes to the existing set up - although their feedback can be useful (they can certainly identify the best teachers faster than an inspection programme)! But as Apple have showed so well, business success is not about giving customers what they say they want, it is about giving customers them something that is useful to them.
So, what do we need to do? My view is that, in whatever capacity we work within education, we need to look at the bigger picture. We need to learn about the world outside the school walls, talking to local and national employers, councils, colleges, universities and charities. We need to consider how our new curriculum, our buildings, our pastoral provision and our careers support will set students up for life - not just with exam passes but with the qualities and confidence to succeed.
Of course, many people are thinking this way - but following Levitt's hypothesis this isn't enough. This focus needs to pervade the entire educational establishment and my worry is that it's overlooked in the struggle for acceptance by OFSTED and good exam results.
Levitt shows the importance of challenging the status quo and received wisdom - and since I've started teaching my business experience keeps me asking questions like these:
- Why are schools still focused around large class groups with one teacher when the industrial equivalents (the workshop? the static production line?) have long gone?
- When students are carrying around smartphones many times more powerful than the computers in the Apollo lunar module, why do we ban them from using them in lessons?
- When most jobs involve presentations, teamwork and research, why do we focus so much on one-off exams?
- When we leave school, we take CVs and portfolios with us to job interviews - not a dry list of exam passes - where is the school equivalent?
I also believe this can't be done in isolation - we need to be honest about the support that students need at home and in their communities. We need to be honest about what schools can do (a lot, but not everything). And we need the humility to listen to others, and especially to scientific research and realise we all make mistakes. And we need to take raw politics out of educational decision-making.
This is of course, what happens in those countries, states and provinces that do well in international league tables - I can't really see many other similarities between Singapore and Finland for example. And it's not unknown in the UK - it's the approach many of the top private schools are successfully taking - have a look at Wellington College for example!
What is the alternative? Businesses who fail to realise that business has moved away from them go bust - as Levitt points out, there aren't that many 'buggy whip (carriage)' manufacturers left in the USA. But the impact of bad schools can be much worse -as they are propped up by the state they don't leave gaps for new ideas and alternatives - and more students are dragged through unsuitable processes and we fail to meet their needs.
*Levitt, Harvard Business Review, 38 (July-August 1960), pp. 24-47