In the Ancient Greek fable “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” a fox fails to sneak up and attack a hedgehog because the hedgehog’s prickly shield keeps him safe. The moral of the story is that it’s better to be a hedgehog than a fox because “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox is cunning, fast, elegant, and strategic, but the hedgehog knows how to defend himself, which is ultimately what he needs to know to survive.
Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t,” applied this parable to modern business philosophy by coining the term “Hedgehog Concept,” which holds that organizations that focus on doing one thing well have a higher likelihood of success.
From the point of view of the enrollee, universities are like foxes, because they provide education and resources across a range of disciplines. However, as investors and public institutions recognize, universities do one thing very well: supporting and maintaining a national infrastructure for social mobility. America’s network of colleges and universities has made education more accessible, increased the earning power of families, and advanced intellectual progress.
Progress also does one thing very well: it creates new specializations. In the fourth industrial revolution, these specializations are evolving rapidly. Many technologies considered disruptive five years ago could be considered obsolete today. Findings from a recent survey of 800 tech experts suggest that five years from now, 80% of the world’s population will have a digital presence, and global rates of internet access and smartphone usage will reach 90%. As the vast majority of the world goes online and exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology become integrated into daily working life, the workforce will explode with new specialized fields of skilled labor.
The significance of these changes extends beyond the rollout of the newest iPhone; it influences the job market that shapes the economy. Colleges are struggling to keep up with the programs that teach adults new workforce skills because they are trying to keep pace with evolving specializations in the current job market while maintaining an institutional infrastructure that serves a wide range of learning paths.
As universities strategize new ways to address the changing needs of employers, private entities have stepped in to provide highly technical and specialized education. Blue chips such as Google and Facebook are expanding their certification programs while hundreds of tech bootcamps spring up across major cities. As a result, partnerships with for-profits in higher education have seen a tremendous uptick over the last few years. According to HolonIQ, in 2021, estimated higher education partnerships doubled pre-pandemic estimates to reach a total of over 600. In 2021, bootcamp review site Course Report added 138 new schools to its directory. One third were offered through these partnerships with universities and colleges.
Partnering with bootcamps allows colleges and universities to refresh and augment their programming with minimal lift on their end; bootcamps will deliver their cutting-edge tech curricula with the student reach that schools already have at their disposal. As Caltech Center for Technology and Management Education program director Rick Hefner put it in a recent highereddive report, “The tech stack is changing so quickly, (and) these kinds of partnerships give the university a chance to pivot quickly.”
Now, imagine a fox and a hedgehog working together, a sophisticated animal with a strong protective shield. That’s the appeal of college and university for-profit partnerships: preservation of institutional missions with the added benefit of defense against change. Adopting the Hedgehog Concept to ensure success in a foxlike economy where specialization is the norm does not require universities and colleges to scale back their offerings or their resources. To realize their potential as hedgehogs, universities need only reframe their roles and positions. Universities are not concourses where students shop around for whatever means of advancement suit their interests; they are workforce development centers turning a nation of foxes with a host of untested potential skills into hedgehogs ready to use their specialties to stimulate the working economy.