Moving off the sidelines: Why I’m joining the Fidelis board

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Jun 27, 2012

When Clayton Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997, educators from around the country began asking him to apply the theories of disruptive innovation to education.

In 2006 I had the opportunity to join Clayton to do just that, and for two years, he and I, along with Curtis Johnson, lowered our heads and wrote dozens of drafts that led to the book Disrupting Class. We’ve been humbled by the impact that the book has had on changing the conversation in education since its publication in 2008.

In the course of writing Disrupting Class, Clayton and I, along with Jason Hwang, decided to create a non-profit think tank, the Innosight Institute, to amplify and refine the message after the book’s publication so that our work would help transform the education system into a student-centric one and wouldn’t be just another academic exercise that gathered dust on people’s shelves.

I also made a conscious decision to be a “Switzerland” in education. I didn’t join boards of for-profit or non-profit companies trying to gain ground with educators, and I tried to be judicious with whom I associated formally. From my journalistic background, I believed that remaining a neutral, third-party voice in the field would be critical to our efforts at Innosight Institute, given that we would have the ear of policymakers, educators, and other critical stakeholders. I did not want there to be a question about where our loyalties lay. I was also learning a lot from the many people who reached out to me in the wake of the book’s publication.

With six years of research and learning behind me, I have decided to break my rule of thumb and join the board of Fidelis, a technology company founded by my long-time collaborator Gunnar Counselman, who also worked with Clayton in applying the theories of disruptive innovation to the problems in education before I joined the effort. Fidelis seeks initially to provide an end-to-end education solution to the military-to-civilian career transition, a difficult problem that impacts not only the nation’s service members, but also the health of our society.

The reason I am writing this is because I still believe in those journalistic values, so being forthright about this change is important. I am joining the Fidelis board, however, because I want to play a larger role in solving the educational challenges facing our country. For me, these problems are too significant to be just a “critic,” as President Theodore Roosevelt would have said. Although that remains an important function, I believe that our education system will ultimately be transformed into a student-centric one by those in “the arena” who get their hands dirty.

I believe Fidelis’s approach will solve important problems for students and for employers in a viable and sustainable way, but I also know that the challenge is in the execution of a great idea. Given what I’ve learned over the past several years, I believe I can help Fidelis execute on its mission as an independent board member.

Fidelis stands to solve problems that plague students, companies, and colleges, as it is integrating in a way no other entity is to provide the end-to-end experiences students need to learn valuable knowledge and skills and create critical networks for them to enjoy success in life. Just as Dell in the mid-1990s and then Apple in the 2000s understood where the user experiences were not good enough and integrated to do something about that, so too is Fidelis doing the same. As a result, as Clayton has said to me, Fidelis is in position to take the burgeoning modular online components—be they the massively open online courses (MOOCs) from Udacity, edX, Coursera, and others; learning applications; or other pieces—and put them together in a way that provides meaning for students, employers, and ultimately society.

If we are successful, we’ll have been part of the solution that accomplishes what Clayton and I set out to do when we initially wrote Disrupting Class—transform our education system into one that allows every student to realize her fullest potential and most daring dreams.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.