News & Insights

The New York Times has run an obituary of sorts for Xerox, the American corporation that is merging with Japanese behemoth Fujifilm Holdings. In the 1930s, one of the employees of the M. H. Kuhn Company developed “xerography,” a photocopying technology that the company patented.

Eventually renamed Xerox, the company prospered and innovated for decades. Copiers become more sophisticated, and the company’s Silicon Valley research center refined inventions like the computer mouse. Steve Jobs toured the facility in 1979 and incorporated some of what he saw into the first Apple Macintosh computer.

But then Xerox fell behind. They were so good at doing what they did — high end paper processing — that the company had a hard time adapting as desktop computing and e-mail took off and, eventually, photocopying declined. Xerox tried new things, like financial services, that were out of the company’s wheelhouse, but these business lines also lagged. They had some success in supplying technology solutions to large corporations, but nothing made up for the loss of profits as “I’ll make you a copy” was replaced by “I’ll forward you that message.”

Ironically, their merger partner, Fujifilm, is named after a technology that’s even more outdated than “Xeroxing.” But Fuji has adjusted to a world without film by using its know-how in chemicals and imaging to create new products and meet new demands.

Xerox once had a monopoly on a product, but according to the Times article, it fell into a “competency trap.” It was so good at its one thing that it couldn’t adjust to a new world.

The comparisons with higher education in general, and with theological education in particular, are suggestive. Some seminaries are probably in the “competency trap” right now. They may be resting on their laurels or making minor adjustments when comprehensive changes are required. They may be relying on the good reputation of a celebrity professor, or using educational technology that seemed cutting edge 20 years ago. They may have been bolstered by “monopoly” status — they are the only seminary of their denomination, or the only seminary in their metropolitan area, so recruiting hasn’t been all that challenging.

But things change. Star faculty members retire, denominational loyalties weaken, and competing schools start branch campuses in the backyards of other schools. What happens then? The schools that will continue to thrive don’t just do one thing well. They have to be nimble, to shift their own competency.

Nimbleness starts at the top, with boards and senior administrators who have the capacity to see the landscape. They have to have the courage to make wholesale changes too.

Read the New York Times obituary for Xerox here.

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