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Don't Let Yourself (Or Your Kid) Be The Next BlackBerry

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A degree in Canada costs $66,000, on average. Many students, parents and taxpayers are questioning the value of this investment this fall as two million students head off to Canadian universities and colleges. Is it worth it?

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Focusing on formal education alone as the path to a fulfilling career and life is not only wrong, it's the root of the problem. The standalone value of the classroom has long been oversold by the system, by policymakers, by society and often by parents. When almost two-thirds of Canadian adults have a post-secondary education, that education is no longer a differentiator -- it's a commodity.

In spite of being university professors, we argue that whatever makes a young adult unique and interesting isn't something they learned in a textbook. The most important decisions made during these formative years have little to do with a classroom.

As former marketing professionals, we are struck by the parallel between the formative years of young adults and product design. Delivering a valuable product is rarely about a single feature (such as a degree), rather, it's about the "whole product." This whole product analogy can help young adults to view their development differently.

Consider the iPhone and the BlackBerry. The success of the iPhone is more than just its physical hardware (which is frequently matched by cheaper brands) or the sleek exterior (which you have to cover with a case if you don't want the screen to crack). The iPhone includes the iOS software, iTunes and Apple Music, the App Store, and the million-plus apps that customize your smartphone experience.

The iPhone also includes the Apple Store experience, its service and the prestige of the brand. The whole product is everything a consumer needs and expects to get when they buy the iPhone, plus the promise of everything it could become. This is where BlackBerry failed; they never recognized the value of delivering the whole product until it was too late.

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Today, a degree or diploma is as about as unique and valuable as a smartphone with no apps. The hardware by itself, like a classroom education, is not a whole product. The knowledge students acquire in that political science, marketing or carpentry course is critical to their whole product, but the sooner they realize that it's not the whole product, the more prepared they will be when they graduate.

Young adults are wise to view their skills, attributes and experience through the lens of a product designer developing a whole product that goes beyond courses and grades. As a start, they need to ask themselves the same questions every product designer asks:

1. What whole product will you launch into the world?

2. Who is your target customer (your future employer)?

3. How many customers have you met to better understand their needs?

4. How will you be valuable to your customers?

5. How will you be different from others?

6. What evidence do you have that you actually possess the skills required?

7. How will you spend the next few years designing and building this product?

When students reflect on these questions, they start to think about the concept of "education" very differently. They come to see that their whole product -- what makes them unique and valuable -- involves skills developed not only in a classroom, but through volunteering, sports, clubs, work-terms, part-time jobs. They also recognize the risk of overvaluing the classroom and start to rebalance the time and money they invest in different dimensions of their life.

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Asking whether college or university alone is a good investment is missing the point. Education plays a role, but it's not the education system's responsibility to develop a whole product. It's the product designer's -- the student's -- responsibility. So young adults need to take control and approach life like a product designer. They need to invest their time and money into the areas that will make them a compelling whole product. They need to recognize the value of life beyond their grades.

If they don't, they will risk ending up as valued as a BlackBerry is today.

David J. Finch is an Associate Professor at Mount Royal University. Ray DePaul is the Director of Mount Royal University's Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (and a former product manager at BlackBerry who now owns at iPhone). They are co-authors of the book Designing YOU - Life Beyond Your Grades.

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