The analysis cites Amazon, Apple, and Tesla as three of the major employers in Texas pursuing AI initiatives. Photo via Getty Images

If internet search volume is an accurate barometer, Texas is a hotbed for interest in artificial intelligence jobs.

An analysis by Agility Writer, whose technology helps users produce AI-generated content, shows Texas ranks second among the states with the highest monthly search volume for AI-related jobs. The analysis puts Texas’ monthly search volume at 1,300, with California sitting in first place at 1,900 monthly searches.

“As the AI revolution continues to gain momentum, the geographic distribution of interest in AI careers is likely to evolve further, with states investing in AI education and fostering supportive ecosystems poised to reap the benefits of this transformative technology,” says Adam Yong, CEO of Agility Writer.

The analysis cites Amazon, Apple, and Tesla as three of the major employers in Texas pursuing AI initiatives.

Dice.com, a search engine for tech jobs, says AI roles that are in high demand include machine learning engineer, data scientist, AI research scientist, and robotics engineer.

“Looking forward, the demand for AI professionals is expected to intensify as technologies continue to advance and integrate into everyday business processes and consumer products. AI is not just creating jobs but also transforming them, requiring workers to adapt by gaining new skills,” says Dice.com.

A January 2024 report from career platform LinkedIn found that AI consultant and AI engineer are two of the 25 fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. this year. Most of these roles are concentrated in San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, and Boston, according to the report.

On the flip side, some analysts predict millions of jobs will be affected by or even lost to AI. For example, research from investment banking giant Goldman Sachs indicates roughly two-thirds of U.S. occupations “are exposed to some degree of automation by AI.”

A study released in 2023 by Chamber of Commerce, a business research company, anticipates as many as 12 percent of Houston-area workers could lose their jobs by 2027 due to AI.

"AI and technology in general may be taking certain jobs away, and yet we also see how it is changing the nature of jobs and even organizations and professions. In the ever-changing arena of AI, employees, job-seekers, and students will continue to adapt and learn new job skills that align with and anticipate workforce needs,” AI expert Fred Oswald, the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University and a professor of psychological sciences, said in a 2023 news release.

CellChorus created a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. Photo via Getty Images

Houston health tech startup scores $2.5M SBIR grant to advance unique cell therapy AI technology

fresh funding

A Houston biotech company just announced a new award of $2.5 million.

CellChorus, a spinoff of the Single Cell Lab at the University of Houston, announced the fresh funding, which comes from an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) through its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

CellChorus is the business behind a technology called TIMING, which stands for Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. It’s a visualization AI program that helps scientists to better understand the functioning of cells, including their activation, killing and movement. This more in-depth knowledge of immune cells could be instrumental in developing novel therapies in countless disorders, including cancers and infectious diseases.

“While many cell therapies have been approved and are in development, the industry needs an integrated analytical platform that provides a matrix of functional readouts, including cell phenotype and metabolism on the same cells over time,” Rebecca Berdeaux, vice president of science at CellChorus, says in a press release. “We are grateful to NCATS for its support of the development of application-specific kits that apply dynamic, functional single-cell analysis of immune cell phenotype and function. The product we will develop will increase the impact of these therapies to improve the lives of patients.”

A two-year, $2.1 million Phase II grant will begin after the company achieves predetermined milestones under a $350,000 Phase I grant that is currently taking place. As Berdeaux explained, the funds will be used to develop TIMING kits which will manufacture analytics that provide end-users with rapid, specific and predictive results to accelerate translational research and the development and manufacture of more effective cell therapies.

TIMING is more than a great idea whose time has yet to come. It has already been proven in great depth. In fact, last June, CellChorus CEO Daniel Meyer told InnovationMap that he was initially attracted to the technology because it was “very well validated.” At the time, CellChorus had just announced a $2.3 million SBIR Fast-Track grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. The company also went on to win an award in the Life Science category of the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

That confirmation of success comes from more than 200 peer-reviewed papers that describe myriad cell types and types of therapy, all of which used data from TIMING assays. TIMING data has benefited industry leaders in everything from research and clinical development to manufacturing. With the new grant, TIMING will become more widely available to scientists making important discoveries relating to the inner workings of the cells that drive our immunity.

There are three topics in particular that business owners should refresh and/or make sure they include in their HR policies and employee handbook. Photo via Getty Images

3 things Houston companies need to freshen up when it comes to their HR practices

guest column

Just as we typically look to freshen up our homes this time of year, the same needs to be done for employee handbooks. Employee handbooks streamline HR operations, mitigate risks and set expectations to protect a business from negative workplace behavior by outlining employee policies and procedures.

There are three topics in particular that business owners should refresh and/or make sure they include in their HR policies and employee handbook: in-office attendance, social media and artificial intelligence (AI).

In-office attendance

When taking a closer look at hybrid workplace policies, the in-office attendance policies should align with your organizational goals. Whether you decide to implement hybrid work permanently or eventually return to being in the office completely, the return-to-office (RTO) policies should reflect those goals.

Clear expectations are especially important when defining office attendance rules. When attendance policies are set, employees respond best when they are fair, accessible and easily understood. Detailed policies outlining the nuances and consequences can help reduce noncompliance while supporting accountability.

Policies need consistent enforcement for them to be effective. Hybrid policies set prior to or during the pandemic may now be loosely enforced. The policies may state for employees to be in the office three days a week, but there may be no accountability for not meeting the mandate. Not enforcing attendance policies can give the impression that it is okay to violate other policies, too. Reviewing your policies allows you to course correct and write a policy reflecting your corporate culture and goals. You’ll then be able to reintroduce the attendance policy and enforce it across the board as intended.

Social media

You are hard pressed to find an employee without a social media account, whether it is TikTok or LinkedIn. If your business does not have a social media policy with guidelines surrounding employees’ online behaviors, now is the time to put one in place. If you do have a policy, social media changes quickly enough to warrant an annual review.

Social media policies should set boundaries between personal and professional use of social media. Employee activity on social media outside of work can influence business, as employees are often seen as reflecting the company. It is also important to note that social media policies should be based on input from senior management, HR, legal and IT, not just marketing.

The social media policy should delineate between an employee’s personal and professional use, establish a code of conduct and outline its use as part of crisis communications. Social media can just as easily elevate your brand, and you can potentially ask employees to share positive work experiences online.

Cybersecurity should also be addressed in social media policies. As it has become more common for hackers to infiltrate personal emails and social media accounts, policies can prohibit employees from storing company documents in their personal social media and email accounts for security purposes.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI seems to be changing the way we do business daily. However, the policies surrounding company use of AI are lacking at many organizations. Research from McKinsey states only one in five employers have established policies governing their employees use of AI.

AI technology has already streamlined many business practices, but it can also present major risks. Inaccuracy can threaten your business if employees use generative AI for assistance in completing writing tasks, for instance, and the system may not generate accurate or original information.

As we learn the evolving and complex nuances of AI, creating a policy needs careful attention. You may consider developing an AI team to write a comprehensive, well-researched AI policy tailored to your organization. This working group should gather insights from leaders within the organization, including frontline managers, to fully understand how employees use, or might use, AI. This team should be charged with considering the ethical aspects of AI’s use and ensuring the policy aligns with company values.

One of the most critical elements of the policy is an accountability process or system. The policy should clearly outline any corrective action or disciplinary steps associated with using AI in a manner that harms the business and/or its clients. Just as important, the policy should outline how to use and how to avoid misusing AI. Since AI continues to evolve month to month, this is a policy that will require more attention and revisioning throughout the year.

Keeping a critical eye on HR policies is an important part of business success. Setting aside time to review, update and even create new policies now – before being faced with an issue – can potentially mitigate costly challenges down the road.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

StormGeo, a Houston-based weather intelligence provider, has partnered with Norwegian company 7Analytics to create technology positioned to revolutionize planning for floods. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

Weather analytics platform with Houston HQ taps Norwegian biz to optimize tech

weatherproof tech

There’s no way around it: Houston floods. And with the deluge comes hurdles for businesses. The only real power we have in the face of such adversity is preparation.

StormGeo, a weather intelligence provider with its United States headquarters in Houston, has partnered with Norwegian company 7Analytics to create technology positioned to revolutionize planning for floods.

StormGeo debuted in Norway in 1997. In 2012, it acquired Houston company Impact Weather, says Bob Weinzapfel, a meteorologist and senior project manager of weather insights for StormGeo. Houston is one of 24 offices spread over 15 countries with more than 600 employees, Weinzapfel adds.

The team at 7Analytics, according to Weinzapfel, “Are a bunch of smart flood experts and machine learning experts.” Together, they are introducing a technology that Weinzapfel calls “a game changer” for Houston businesses.

7Analytics uses AI to give users an overview of Houston’s potential flooding based on a 72-hour forecast. “Any business like a grocery store or hospitals or even a refinery—any business with employees or customers, it’s important to know Are the roadways being flooded? Can my employees and customers get in?” says Weinzapfel.

StormGeo has long provided weather insights and guidance to businesses in Houston. Now, detailed maps provide real-time flood forecasting.

The maps forecast the probability of flash flooding in each subbasin, but perhaps more importantly, they can home in on clients’ buildings to show what inundation will look like in parking lots and nearby roads.

"Our product takes a real-time StormGeo weather forecast — for example, the risk of rainfall tomorrow—and translates it into actionable risk info, such as their site is at risk of up to a foot of flooding tomorrow with peak flood occurring at 2 p.m.," explains Jonas Toland, co-founder of 7Analytics.

Armed with such information, businesses can adjust operations ahead. For example, one client is a grocery store chain.

“They have business processes they have to get a jump on. The locations that have customers try to be the last to close and first to open,” Weinzapfel says.

That means that storm tracking can help with letting the store’s team know to purchase more emergency supplies to sell, schedule more employees to help sell them, and know when to close to keep those workers safe.

The Houston version of the solution is the first, but Weinzapfel says that the team is currently working to expand across greater Houston and then into Austin.

“We knew if we could do it here and do a really good job, we could do it anywhere using the same technology,” he adds.

There’s no question that flooding will continue to take place in Houston. But with StormGeo and 7Analytics’ Houston-area flood model, the people that serve us will be prepared.

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

Who's Who

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry.

Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Growing up the daughter of an oil and gas professional and traveling the world, Lori-Lee Emshey studied journalism and didn't necessarily intend to go into the family business, so to speak. However, that's where she ended up. She was surrounded by innovation and technology in New York working at The Daily Beast, but when she got her first job on an energy construction site, she returned to the antiquated process of pen and paper. The wheels started turning for her.

Future Sight AR is a company that is working on smart device technology for large oil and gas pants, where workers can see — in real time — how to fix a problem or log an issue. The company has done a proof of concept and is looking to do three pilot program as well as a round of funding in early 2019.

Jay Bhatty, CEO and founder of NatGasHub.com

Courtesy of Jay Bhatty

As vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, Jay Bhatty felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities, and he decided to something about it. He founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines.

After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens maybe have thought her true purpose was serving in the military, but it's lately it's leading her Houston-based drone technology company, Trumbull Unmanned, to great success. While in her doctorate program, the Air Force veteran started the idea using unmanned vehicles to patrol refineries and plants in the energy and utilities sector. The company took flight — her first clients were Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Gibbens juggles motherhood and engineering — among other responsibilities — as her company grows and technology evolves.


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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Here's what it's like using new connection-focused app that just launched in Houston

Branching out

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin editor Brianna Caleri recently attended a dinner arranged by Timeleft, an app that helps people meet each other. The app just launched in Houston — read about Brianna's experience using the app below.

Conventional wisdom — if I may be so bold as to define it — would suggest that people who want to make friends should: select a genuine interest, join a group centered around it, and keep attending meetings. I have not quite been sold on the generic women's group meetups I see on Facebook; and even the most passionate conversations about my ramen bar neighbor's favorite noodle dishes at have never led us to hang out a second time.

I tend to look for friends who will suggest ethical shopping alternatives, make impassioned, over-intellectualized art recommendations, and stay up late workshopping existential dread. But I recognize that's a lot to ask after one dinner.

Thus, I was both surprised and not surprised at all to really enjoy Austin's second-ever Timeleft dinner, a lightly match-made night out for strangers. I don't think I've discovered a new portal to jump into and skip all the awkward early stages of making adult friends, but I had an energizing night with people who impressed me with their social ease and willingness.

The setup
When someone signs up for the French app Timeleft, they are greeted with a pleasantly detailed, yet broad personality test. First, a this-or-that rapid fire: things like, "Do you consider yourself more of a smart person or funny person?" (Smart.) "Would you rather listen to rock or rap?" (Rock.) "Are your opinions usually guided by logic and facts, or emotions and feelings?" (Tough, but I chose logic.) Next is a 1-10 rating scale in areas like intro/extroversion, stress, spirituality, loneliness, creativity, and habits.

Some of these, like "I enjoy going out with friends" and "How important is family to you?", felt neat and inspired concise answers. Others, like "I enjoy politically incorrect humor" and "I enjoy discussing politics/news," felt like minefields. I do enjoy a wicked joke, but are we talking politically incorrect like The Office, or politically incorrect like I got kicked out of my bookclub and believe no one can take a joke anymore? I selected 3 for political incorrectness, and 8 for discussing news and politics, angling hard toward sensitivity and away from potential, if unlikely belligerence.

According to Timeleft, its algorithm considers these answers and a few other logistics to pair users with a restaurant and with each other, resulting in two medium-size tables at each. Our group of seven met at 68 Degrees Kitchen in East Austin; It would have been eight, but one didn't show up. A Timeleft representative says the app overbooked from the intended five, expecting that some people would not show.

Quoted from Timeleft's algorithm explanation, it focuses on these "main ingredients":

  • "Language: Select yours for fluid dialogue[...]"
  • "Balance: A balanced mix of men and women. Note that Timeleft is favored by women, who often make up over 60 percent of participants (thus 4 per table). [Note: Although Timeleft only mentions men and women on this list, it also offered a nonbinary gender marker)"
  • "Temperament: A mix of introverts and extroverts for a balanced rhythm."
  • "Generation: An age gap of five to seven years for common life echoes."

Before we met, we got to see a basic rundown of who would be joining, detailing profession, nationality, and zodiac signs. (Not my ideal trifecta, considering that six-sevenths of us were American, and I'm fairly confident in my ability to interact with people born on any day.) I don't think it's incredibly open-minded of me, but I did feel slightly nervous that half the group worked in tech; I like tech workers, but can't say I really relate.

The dinner
An unexpected point of beauty in the often overwrought world of app-coordinated socializing: Beyond matching us and making our reservation, Timeleft left us to a normal dinner. We ordered from the regular menu, sat among the regular clientele, and handled the payment ourselves, opting to get in a group chat and Venmo one person for one clean bill. It offered a "game," which was really just a list of conversation topics; We only got through two before the topic changing ran cheerfully rampant.

A group of seven — although it did increase the likelihood that we would all like at least one of our companions — was perhaps a bit too large to get to know anyone especially well. We talked as a large group about as much as we split into side conversations. That was perfectly doable, but it made me wish a few times that we had a quiet table of three or four, where we didn't have to raise our voices past each other or inelegantly shift our attention from one conversation to the next.

We discovered a fair amount in common: places lived, schools attended, foods loved, places traveled, parties and underground scenes frequented. Although some of it dipped very lightly into taboos (Who has been to sex clubs? Who has been kicked out of restaurants?), most of these were surface-level parallels.

I learned that one of my dinner mates shared my lack of enthusiasm for school spirit as a concept, but couldn't say whether it was simply noncommittal or deep-rooted antiestablishmentarianism. I learned that at least one of my dinner mates likes to do yoga, but I don't know if they prefer to work up a sweat to EDM or study the Yoga Sutras.

It would be hard to suss out many of the deeper values behind these things, since seven people sitting at a dinner table together are generally trying to be agreeable — or at least entertaining. We're playing to the lowest common denominator, and we don't really know what our denominators are. We never found the gold thread running through — for instance, if we all rated our passion for working out similarly. But if we could narrow it down that much, it might be time to cut out the middle man and join a CrossFit gym.

The after-dinner drinks, and social patterns
After the small group dinners, all the diners from the various Timeleft tables in South and Central Austin were invited to meet up at Hold Out Brewing. Our group (less one person with a morning appointment) decided to head over. It was already 9:45 pm by the time we left the restaurant, having spent nearly 3 hours together already. We were surprised to see the dense crowd that gathered among the picnic tables.

In reporter mode, I started popping by different groups to find out how their night had gone. I talked to more than a dozen people, all of whom had entirely positive feedback about their evenings. The only criticism I heard was that one person felt the $16 "ticket" to the dinner (which was then priced à la carte) was a bit pricy.

Other groups went to Fresa's Chicken al Carbon, North Italia, and what I have to assume was QI Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen, although diners kept pronouncing it "key." Most groups had met members of the other table at the same restaurant, and some even wandered over during the dinner to see how the other half lived. Our group never found its counterpart.

It seemed to me that our group was objectively the most outgoing. Not only were we the last to arrive after our long dinner (as far as I noticed), but we were also (definitely) the last to leave the brewery. One duo from another group said theirs was a little awkward, in a pleasant way, so the two of them kept up most of the talking. One group said conversation flowed fairly easily, but when there was a lull, they returned to the provided conversation topics. It seemed about equally common to share meals or order for yourself, but our gang all shared everything.

Every group noticed their close ages beyond any other unifying factor. No one offered up any common threads, yet people responded in conversation as if they knew each other, with affectionate interjections like, "Of course he would say that!"

Brianna's gang at the Timeleft dinner in Austin. Photo by Brianna Caleri

Final impression
Most interesting to me was that nearly every single person I talked to all night, including in our own group, first heard about the dinner series on Instagram and just thought it sounded worth trying. Only one person specifically told me that they wanted to make new friends because theirs were mostly from work.

My biggest prejudice before the dinner was that the majority of attendees would either be new to Austin or in need of some outside help in making friends. I was right about the first thing; It seemed like most people had only been here a year or less.

But I was wrong about the second thing. In retrospect, it makes sense that a huge group of people who got together just to get together are deeply friendly. And while I still wouldn't expect long-lasting connections to come out of this Friendly People Convention, I can see that's not exactly what most people are aiming for, either.

The app has direct messaging, but I don't feel inclined to use it. Our group is already on an SMS thread, and I got so many new Instagram followers at the after-event that the next morning, I was not even sure who one of them was. We have started rating our compatibility on the app, and indicating who we would be open to seeing at future events, and who we wouldn't.

If I can have a silly dinner with someone who is investing in the world I want to see, I'll happily get silly. I'm sure some of the people I met yesterday are doing that, but I would have little way of knowing — or at least, a much harder time than if we had started on shared ground.

It's tempting, then, to see this as a way to meet people who are very different from you and expand your worldview. I do think it holds some promise for people who want to legitimately invest in becoming friends with each other and learning what's underneath the amiable surface, but I'm curious about where that sense of initiative will come from. Perhaps more regular dinners hold the answer.

I would be happy to see anyone I met yesterday again, if we end up in the same place at the same time. But I think my days of connecting with strangers over no common objective at all are limited.

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More information about Timeleft is available at timeleft.com, and the app is available via Apple's App Store and Google Play. Houston's next dinner happens Wednesday, June 19. Dinners happen weekly, and RSVPs must be made no later than Tuesday evening.

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston energy data software platform expands into Europe, hires new execs

making transatlantic moves

It's official. Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe.

The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release.

“Our cutting-edge AI models are enabling our North American customers to benefit from data and asset optimization, on-site solar to commercial load management, and backup generation and we’re excited to bring these tools to our European customers,” he continues.

Leading the new initiative for Amperon is Ecker , who previously served as an executive at energy market simulation software company Energy Exemplar and as CEO of real-time energy data provider Genscape, which is now owned by Wood Mackenzie. He also co-founded at Energy Velocity, an energy data and software company now owned by Hitachi Energy.

“Amperon is providing North American, and now European renewable energy markets, with the critical tools they need to optimize their clean energy operations and support grid reliability,” Ecker says in the release. “As Europe faces high temperatures and rising power demand this summer, power market participants will need precise energy forecasting, and Amperon is looking forward to delivering these critical tools to help participants succeed.”

Hultberg joins Amperon from Houston-based Sunnova Energy International, where she was executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability.

Founded in 2018, Amperon closed its series B round at $20 million last fall. This year, the company Amperon announced that it replatformed its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Houston expert: How adopting business strategies in the education sector can improve results

houston voices

It’s no secret: K-12 public schools in the U.S. face major challenges. Resources are shrinking. Costs are climbing. Teachers are battling burnout. Student outcomes are declining.

There are many areas of concern.

Some difficulties are intangible, inescapable and made worse by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some can be fixed or alleviated by wisely allocating resources. And others — like a lack of strategic focus — can be avoided altogether.

It’s this final area, strategic focus, that researchers Vikas Mittal (Rice Business) and Jihye Jung (UT-San Antonio) address in a groundbreaking study. According to Mittal and Jung, superintendents and principals misallocate vast amounts of time and resources trying to appease their many stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, board trustees, community leaders, state evaluators, college recruiters, potential employers, etc.

Instead, Mittal and Jung show, administrators need to put their entire focus on one key stakeholder — the “customer,” i.e. students and families.

It may sound strange to call students and families “customers” in the context of public education. After all, 5th-period Spanish isn’t like buying an iPhone or fast food. The classroom is not transactional. Students and caregivers are part of a broader relational context that most directly involves teachers and peers. And students are expected to contribute to that context.

But K-12 public funds are tied to enrollment and attendance numbers. This means the success or failure of a school or school district ultimately comes down to “customer” satisfaction.

Beware the Stakeholder Appeasement Trap

Here’s what happens when students and families become dissatisfied with their school:

As conditions deteriorate, families (who can afford to) may choose to homeschool or move their children to private or better-performing public schools. As a result, enrollment revenue decreases, which forces administrators to cut costs. Cut costs lead to worsened performance and lower satisfaction among students and families. Lower satisfaction leads to further enrollment loss, which leads to more cost-cutting. And so on. (Schools need about 500-600 students to break even.)

It’s a vicious downward spiral, and it’s not unusual for schools to become trapped in it. To avoid this vortex, administrators end up adopting a “spray and pray” or “adopt and hope” approach, pursuing various stakeholder agendas in hopes that one of them will be the key to institutional success. Group A wants stronger security. Group B wants improved internet access. Group C wants better facilities. Group D wants to expand athletics.

It’s an understandable impulse to make everyone happy. However, Mittal and Jung find that the “stakeholder appeasement” approach dilutes strategic focus, wastes resources and creates a bloat of ineffective initiatives.

Initiative bloat isn't a benign problem. The labor of implementing programs inevitably falls on teachers and frontline staff, which can result in mediocre performance and burnout. As initiatives multiple over time, communication lines become strained and, distracted by the administration's efforts to please everyone, teachers and frontline staff fail to satisfy students and families.

Pay Attention to Lift Potential

Using data from administrator interviews and more than 10,000 parent surveys, Mittal and Jung find that students and families only value a few strategic areas. By far the most important is family and community engagement, followed by academics and teachers. The least important, somewhat surprisingly, is extracurriculars like athletics programs.

The assumption that athletics would be high on the list of student and family priorities raises a crucial point in the study. Mittal and Jung note that it’s a serious error to assume that the more a strategic area is mentioned the more it drives customer value.

“Conflating the two — salience and lift potential — is the single biggest factor that can mislead strategy planning,” the researchers say.

A customer-focused strategy prioritizes lift potential — meaning it allocates budgets, people and time to the areas that have the highest capacity to increase customer value, as measured by customer satisfaction. If family and community engagement is the most important strategic area, then savvy administrators will invest in the “execution levers” that improve it.

For instance, Mittal and Jung find that allowing input on school policies is the most effective lever for demonstrating family and community engagement. Another important strategic area is improving the quality of teachers, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is to emphasize their academic qualifications.

Just as important as instituting effective customer-focused initiatives is de-emphasizing those that are ineffective. It can be a difficult process to stop and de-emphasize initiatives, however ineffective. But ultimately, the benefit is that teachers and frontline staff will be able to concentrate on the execution levers that matter.

This strategic transformation can’t happen overnight. Developing the framework will require a school district 18 to 24 months, Mittal and Jung estimate. Embedding it into practice can take an additional 12 to 18 months. For example, it would involve changing the way senior administrators, school principals and teachers are held accountable. Instead of emphasizing standardized test scores, which do not add to customer satisfaction, it’s more effective to concentrate on input factors that directly impact the quality of academics and learning.

To help schools develop and implement a customer-focused strategy, future research can focus on frameworks for guiding schools to maximize the areas of value that students and families care about most.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see Mittal and Jung, “Revitalizing educational institutions through customer focus.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (2024): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-024-01007-y.