Guest Column

Paddling Together Toward a Blue Ocean


Two business professors, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, recently wrote a seminal book, Blue Ocean Strategy.

It has transformed the way many businesses are looking at themselves and the markets — which the authors colorfully divide between red oceans and blue oceans — in which they compete.

Much of their analysis, the lessons pointed out and the proposed solutions have applicability to organizations other than businesses. It’s their clever use of a colored-ocean metaphor, not the specific subject matter of the book, that should resonate with those interested in schools, reform and children.

Taxes generated directly and indirectly by businesses pay for schools. In turn, schools prepare a future workforce. Intended as a virtuous circle, it now appears broken.

Because schools are part of the ocean of society, along with businesses, government and the military, Kim and Mauborgne’s ideas about permanent reinvention have considerable relevance.

Pinnacle Skill
Employers of all kinds demand candidates with four skills: critical thinking, problem solving, communication and, most of all, collaboration or teamwork. I would add innovative thinking to the list. Schools today continue to supply students with the skills of the past, stressing memorization, repetition and test taking. If, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, “We must educate our way to a better economy,” then America urgently needs to address this imbalance.

Ask any state’s governor or a chamber of commerce looking to attract a new plant or business to an area and they will tell you that 21st-century investment capital and the jobs it creates will flow only to locations with appropriate education. Business leaders seek the best-educated workers. Globalization gives them choices. Consequently, school districts are in fierce competition not only with other states but the world.

Fresh thinking is required, especially the promotion of cooperative learning and teaching. If all 21st-century skills were organized in a hierarchy, collaboration would be the pinnacle.

Leveraged Change
The businesses labeled as “red oceans” in Kim and Mauborgne’s book represent known and well-understood spaces where boundaries are accepted and rules understood and of long standing. These businesses’ products have long since turned into commodities, and their legacy has stifled innovative thinking.

The stakeholders in red oceans feel powerless. Red-ocean management makes incremental changes and modifications, instead of exploring transformative opportunities. Their worldview is one where knowledge is static, conditions are unquestioned, and leaders are powerless to effect change.

Blue oceans represent unrecognized opportunities. Increasingly they are knowledge-based and complex. Blue oceans rely on the nimble acquisition and effective deployment of knowledge. They are the result of leveraged change because they encourage teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and a willingness to look at the big picture and communicate clear visions. Leadership constantly challenges itself to adopt new ways of thinking and managing. Ambiguity is seen as an asset.

Blue Ocean Strategy tells us that incumbents create the vast majority of blue oceans out of red oceans when boundaries and rules are breached and management encourages altered thinking. As educators operating in the ultimate red ocean — an institution designed before the Industrial Revolution — this should give us hope.

Begin Migrating
It’s evident that sitting in rows and listening to lectures — didactic teaching dating back two centuries — does little to prepare students to collaborate on problems, let alone think critically and entrepreneurially or communicate clearly. If we are to reinvent and reform our schools, fostering a world-class team learning and teaching culture — at all levels — is a vital first step of any blue ocean strategy, and done right it will self-perpetuate as more see its value.

IBM says, in its corporate philosophy: “Teams are one of the most productive resources that companies have, provided that they operate with clear goals, effective process and shared accountability.” Why shouldn’t that also be the case in elementary and secondary schools?

According to school researchers Zhining Qin, David Johnson and Roger Johnson, of the University of Minnesota, quoted in the Review of Education Research of March 2009: “Cooperative small-group learning has been the subject of hundreds of studies. All the research arrives at the same conclusion: There are significant benefits to students who work together on learning activities. Teams outperformed individuals on all types of learning and across all ages.”

Fresh Thinking
The evidence shows that an ever-narrowing curriculum has homogenized student talent, and by teaching to the tests we have also stifled innovation. See Michigan State University Professor Yong Zhao’s argument in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way.

Our schools are facing monumental challenges. Schools are underfunded, but more money is only part of the answer. Current laws promote a form of teaching that does not align with the needs of employers, or the way children learn, let alone their developmental needs. These circumstances make fresh thinking about education a national priority.

This paradigm shift means aligning education with the needs of students, employers and taxpayers. This can only mean teaching students how to collaborate on problems and bringing innovative, critical and solution-oriented approaches to the forefront.

Recently I addressed a conference of superintendents, where one idea under discussion was mass customization, tailoring teaching and learning to the individual. Most were pessimistic. I am not. In a team culture, everyone learns and contributes at his or her own pace. It’s called leveraging diversity.

Alex Terego is an education consultant in Sarasota, Fla. E-mail: