Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on "Who is Our Customer?" Posts by Grant Lichtman

     At our administrative meeting this past Friday, we spent a bit of time discussing the points raised in two recent posts by Grant Lichtman on his blog The Learning Pond: "Who is Our Customer!?" and "Who is Our Customer, Pt . II." As he points out, the question is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. We have to consider it because, as Grant argues, "In order to enhance value, an organization must know their value, and have a shared vision for enhancing it." In doing that, we have to "create value pathways for each."
     In our discussion, we identified multiple customers: students, families, schools where our students matriculate, our neighborhood, our city, prospective families, future employers, beneficiaries of our service program. As you can see, we extended the notion of customer. Each is, in some way, hoping for something from St. John's, either directly or indirectly, whether they have actually "purchased" it themselves.
     That last point is where, for me, the conversation became trickier and much more provocative. Turn it into a transaction, and the focus somehow shifts. The expectations heighten on both sides, and we begin looking more and more for quantification and tangible proof of purchase. While I don't like that, I also accept it as a reality of the business of independent schools. In fact, I rather relish the challenge laid out by this notion.
     The question comes at an opportune time for us. We've been talking quite a bit about the real value of a St. John's Episcopal School education and how we tell out story. Yes, some of that has a marketing angle, tied to customer base and enrollment management and financial sustainability. But there is a more basic reason, one that I consider more important. The past few years we've worked hard at enhancing our students' learning experience and been fairly innovative in several areas. In doing so we have been quite intentional. At the same time, we want to make sure that we not lose the qualities which have made this a very special, very human and humane school which emphasizes relationships and community and character. It's why we talk about being high tech and high touch. For us it's about both value and values.
     The conversation ended with a crucial notion. Yes, particularly when there is such "an environment of increasing competition and alternatives for learning," we have to be able to create those value pathways for our customers. In doing so, we must know who we are at our core and speak to how that essence can serve our varied customers. It's about institutional integrity. Otherwise, we may find ourselves trying to be all things to all people. That doesn't really help anyone.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ethics and Athletics

     Last week I heard an interview with former major league baseball player Gabe Kapler. The subject was sign stealing and transferring certain information. He was explaining what was considered okay and what was considered cheating. Not being much of a baseball fan, I didn't completely understand his points. However, one comment has stuck with me. I don't recall the exact words, but I believe I can paraphrase correctly: that to a certain degree such behavior is just considered gamesmanship.
     This past weekend Manchester United player Ashley Young, who doesn't have the best reputation for such behavior, was castigated for diving to try to win a penalty kick. Of course, soccer players are infamous for this type of thing. However, United manager David Moyes called out Young publicly and said such things have no place in the game.
     This post is not even going to consider both sides of the argument. I'll just come right out and say that I side much more with Moyes than Kapler. As someone who has played highly-competitive soccer and also coached, I understand the drive and pressure which can lead one to seek any advantage. I certain won't claim total innocence, although I can say that my attempts to get away with anything were rare and generally ill conceived. Most of my coaches discouraged it. I've never taught players any of the tricks, let along encouraged use of them. If one of my players did something I found unsporting, I tried to make it a teaching moment.
     But I have to say that all this can be a murky area. For example, let's say a ball goes a bit out of bounds off a player's foot as she is dribbling. The assistant referee doesn't see it and fails to raise the flag. I wouldn't call it cheating or even wrong for the player to continue play. The official simply made an error. Let's extend the logic to another common scenario. Two players are chasing a ball. One tugs at another's shirt to gain an advantage and thus he wins the ball. It's one of the things that angers an opponent and is considered bad form by a purist. The referee doesn't see it, so there's no call. Cheating or gamesmanship? Again, I see both sides. Are they really that different from each other?
     As an educator, I have a concern, albeit one that doesn't really answer the question. In fact, it's based on another question. Where is the line? Perhaps professional athletes have an understanding of it. They, like Kapler, probably would claim they do. Yet Moyes' comment about his own player suggests not. Maybe I shouldn't equate sign stealing in baseball and diving in soccer. However, the principle remains the same.
In any sport, where is the line?
     This question has other implications. We try to teach children fair play, but they see professionals trying to get away with things. Try explaining gamesmanship to a ten-year-old sometime.Plus I wonder how this can disorient one's moral compass point. By that, I mean that for certain individuals the line can shift rather easily. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the same perspective which justifies rule-breaking, per either the spirit or the letter of the law, could lead to using other means to gain an advantage, such as performance-enhancing drugs.
     I'm not naive enough to think competitive sports ever will be free of such misbehavior. The darker side of human nature can come out in competition, and I've spent enough time with elite athletes to know they will do just about anything to gain an edge. And I like to win at whatever I'm doing. But I also know all the wonderful lessons that I learned through athletics. Those are what we need to stress with our developing athletes more than anything else. Therein lies the real victory.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Killdares Concert and Education



          Last night my 16-year-old daughter and I went to GrapeFest in Grapevine, Texas, so that we could attend a concert by The Killdares. (You can hear the music!) The easiest way to describe their music is hard-driving Celtic alternative rock. It's new and fresh, but with many traditional rock and Celtic elements thrown into the mix. They also have an incredible amount of fun when they are playing. My daughter was able to meet one of the band members after they played at her school, and he said, "Where else am I going to get to play the bagpipes in a rock-and-roll band?" As you can see in the photo, they have the usual lead guitar, drums, and bass--but also a fiddle and bagpipes. (One song last night highlighted the Irish tin whistle.) Anyway, I came home nice and sweaty from bopping around.
           And during last night's concert, I saw something I'd never seen before; I don't think I'd ever even heard of it before, actually, although it makes sense. For one song the bagpiper pulled out something that looked like a giant meat thermometer.
Electronic bagpipes! When he started playing them, I couldn't discern any real difference, and I thought it was quite cool. What a great piece of innovation!
          On the ride home, my daughter asked why I thought the Killdares have not become a really giant band. We concluded that their music might be just a bit too quirky for many people, even though that's what we love about them. The Killdares combine some very traditional elements from rock and Celtic music in really creative ways to provide a very unique, truly engaging sound. They very much appeal to that primal part of us that responds to wonderful music.
         Naturally, I see all this as a metaphor/lesson for what I'm urging for schools. We can't ever cease to be, first and foremost--places about those things which make us human at our very essence. Learning, creating, growing, connecting--these are what keep us moving forward as individuals and as a species. Now we live in this amazing time that fosters us so many opportunities to relish in those activities in new ways. Keep those traditional elements that truly matter, but design experiences that grab kids and makes them want to dance.