Thoughtful Agility: Embracing Opportunity While Nurturing our Humanity
Jim Jenkins
Jim Jenkins
CEO, Universities East, Sodexo North America

We should have seen it coming, we really should. Popular culture has long been full of robots, from movies like Alien and The Terminator to the Transformers our children played with. We accepted their presence as the industry emerged, but few foresaw the full societal ramifications. Now their presence is a daily reality and a growing influence on how we live, work, and learn.

In “Meeting the Needs of the Next Generation of Learners: The Agile University,” the latest chapter of Sodexo’s President to President series, Dr. Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D., Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, posits that higher education must evolve expeditiously to meet the new realities brought by technology. The challenge is to maximize the opportunities that robots and artificial intelligence offer in a volatile, complex, and ambiguous world while giving students a skillset and mindset that prepare them for a future in which they are likely to hold nearly 20 jobs in five different industries, including industries that do not yet exist. And, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, uniquely human skills including divergent thinking, social and emotional intelligence, empathy, and an entrepreneurial outlook will not be replicated by artificial intelligence, and therefore, we need to nurture them as an essential educational component.

Dr. Johnson believes that the Agile University goes further by fostering learning, empowering people, and embracing change to add and create new value to society. Evolving colleges and universities to meet the challenges involves empowering faculties to think creatively about what a 21st century learning environment looks like and providing the tools and incentives to try new approaches that will be relevant for the future of work and the broader needs of society.

Higher education is not alone in this paradigm shift. Like our Universities segment clients, companies like Sodexo must embrace change, be disruptive, foster a positive culture, and accept risk. But how can we best approach what may be risky changes?

In an article from the Harvard Business Review, “The Discipline of Business Experimentation,” Stefan Thomke and Jim Manzi cite numerous example of businesses that sought to increase business results through selective experimentation. Some drove positive results (revised opening hours at Kohl’s) and some were disasters (JCPenney’s short-lived new business model). Other companies that have experimented with change with varying degrees of success include Bank of America, BMW, Hilton, Kraft, and others. Having the freedom to try new and innovative ways to conduct business or educate students requires recognizing what currently works and understanding one’s customers, while experimenting with new approaches and taking calculated risks to improve outcomes.

The first point that Sodexo considers when developing and piloting a new product or service is “How will this improve our customers’ Quality of Life?” Dr. Johnson might say that this is an intentional approach for a business, as it seeks ways to add and create new value as part of the process. One example of creative disruption that will improve Quality of Life was launched recently at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, where students have a new dining option at their disposal: on-demand food delivery via autonomous robots on wheels. Thanks to Sodexo’s partnership with Starship Technologies, George Mason students can order food from places such as Blaze Pizza, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, as well as a grocery store, with additional options planned soon. Users place an order via a mobile app, and then a dining employee loads the items into a robot vehicle equipped with geo-locator technology. The robots deliver food all over campus, offering an innovative, convenient, and fun experience. It’s a long way from the pizza truck that would show up on Friday nights when I was in college, and it’s a great way to enhance the student experience!


Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.

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