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Meet our episode 38 guest Lex Dennis

Like access to mobility, access to lifelong learning has the potential to change lives. Lex Dennis of the Drucker Institute shares how they are working with residents of South Bend, IN to build a lifelong learning platform that is “radically accessible.

For more on finding the right solution for your community, check out this blog post on how officials in Johnson County, Kansas, tailored microtransit to fit the unique needs of their community.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Dennis: Lex Dennis

Cohen: I’m always looking for stories of those bringing about change in areas outside of transportation, so we can learn new ideas to help us better build our mobility future. And so when I heard about the Drucker Institute, whose goal is strengthening organizations to strengthen society, was building a software platform to increase lifelong learning in South Bend, Indiana I had to find out more. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Lex Dennis, the director of lifelong learning for the Drucker Institute in South Bend, Indiana. I’m going to let Lex give us a proper background on Peter Drucker for whom the Drucker Institute is named. But the reason I started diving deeper into their work was one of Drucker’s famous quotations, and this is the quote. “The most important thing about priorities and posteriorities is not intelligent analysis but courage,” end quote. And obviously that theme of courage is one that has come up on this podcast before as a critical element to make the equitable, accessible, and verdant mobility future we want. So welcome to The Movement, Lex.

Dennis: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.

Cohen: So let’s go ahead and get started. I would love for you to just give us a little bit of background. Before you even get into what you’re working on there in South Bend, which is really exciting, I’d love to hear just, for our audience, to give us a little bit of background on Peter Drucker and the Drucker Institute. Just kind of set the playing field.

Dennis: Absolutely. Peter Drucker, who was the person for which the institute was founded, is seen by many as the father of management as a school of study. So a lot of famous management quotes, you know, things that show up in corporate notes after your email, a lot of those things can be attributed back to Peter Drucker. And the Drucker Institute was founded really to kind of carry on his vision and ideals and a lot of the stuff around effectiveness and kind of translate them into today’s world. They’re always going to be relevant, but they just might need a little bit of translation to get them out to the broader masses.

So the Drucker Institute is a social enterprise based out of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. The institute’s mission is strengthening organizations to strengthen society, and we do that by working with public and private organizations to, like I said, kind of carry forward Peter Drucker’s teachings. And how that typically works is those things become translated into tools for effectiveness and hopefully that those tools and those projects become formalized programs that become kind of business units of the institute.

Cohen: Definitely. And I think that’s part of what really appealed to me, is kind of taking these management ideals and then kind of how do we systematize them, if you will, and do them for the good of society, which is certainly consistent with the work I’m doing. So let’s maybe transition to giving us a little bit of insight into some of the work going on in South Bend with the Drucker Institute. South Bend is obviously something that I’m sure maybe you’ll touch on a little bit, but obviously Mayor Pete is pretty famous right now running for president. And so I know he was kind of an early adopter of some of the work that the Drucker Institute is doing, so I’d love to learn a little bit more about what your work is going on in South Bend there.

Dennis: Yeah, absolutely. A big fan of Pete. I’m not from South Bend originally, but I feel like I’ve adopted him as my, you know, a native son along with myself.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Dennis: But anyway; like any dutiful Drucker Institute employee, I think I’m going to start with the man himself, Peter Drucker. The kind of concept behind or one of the concepts behind the Lifelong Learning Initiative is this idea of a knowledge society, which Peter Drucker began to talk about as early as the 1950s. And a knowledge society is one in which knowledge is the primary resource. Kind of in a post-World-War-II world, it’s no longer land or labor or capital but instead knowledge that’s the primary resource.

Cohen: Hmm.

Dennis: And Peter Drucker went so far as to say that, you know, those that are set up and equipped to learn would thrive most in this sort of society.

Cohen: Was that like the beginning of the knowledge economy, like, that concept?

Dennis: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to trace back, you know, trace these things back to its origins, but I think the earliest that started to show up was like 1959.

Cohen: Wow.

Dennis: So that was—it was early—pretty early on.

Cohen: Wow.

Dennis: Yeah. And so the other thing that I would mention is actually a reflection on our mission, “strengthening organizations to strengthen society.” Historically the Drucker Institute had done a great job at the first half of that mission strengthening organizations, you know, working with a nonprofit in Texas, a Fortune 50 company in New York, a public entity or a government in South Bend, for instance. But it was the second half of the mission that it was harder to say if we were actually strengthening society through these kind of one-off projects.

And so that kind of prompted two threads in our thinking. One is, “What’s one piece of development, or what’s one muse that we can work in that kind of crosses all different organization and people within a community?” And we landed on learning because that helps the individual; that helps the companies; that helps the community. And then the second piece was, “Why don’t we take a deep-dive focus and use the city as the smallest unit of society and see if we can prove that we’re strengthening that sort of community first?”

You know, we started working in South Bend in 2013, ’14 by happenstance. One of my colleagues, Lawrence Greenspun, who is the director for public sector engagement at the Drucker Institute, his wife moved here to take care of family, and he followed and actually found a fertile pilot partner with the City of South Bend. This was early on in Pete’s tenure as mayor. And he actually piloted his main program, which is the Playbook for the Public Sector in South Bend. And now that program is in cities across the country and actually potentially signing a big deal with another large country, which I can’t divulge any details, but it’s exciting stuff.

And that program got its start in South Bend, so we knew that South Bend was a great place to pilot and then have it expand to other communities. And that’s because of this beta-city concept that Pete talks a lot about. But it’s basically that South Bend is big enough to have the demographic mix and the issues of a larger city, but it’s small enough that you can get 20 or 30 influencers in a room and actually kind of wrap your arms around meaningful change, so.

Cohen: Wow. Wow. That’s fascinating to see. And it’s also interesting that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Right? You know, the fact that Lawrence’s wife needed to move there and it just so happened that they found a mayor who was open to trying some of these things out, that’s really fascinating.

Dennis: Absolutely. We’ve all benefited a lot from—and me in this role and in my former work too. Pete’s just been a boon to this city, so.

Cohen: So maybe let’s transition to the project that you’re working on now, and maybe you can introduce that and kind of what you’re hoping to accomplish with it.

Dennis: Yeah, absolutely. So kind of going back to some of the things I was talking about, you know, learning is one thread we can pull on in a community. And the knowledge society concept, you know, these things prompted actually my boss Rick Wartzman, who is the director of the Center for Functioning Societies at the Drucker Institute—but he had this vision for a universal platform that anyone from a fifth grader that wants to learn to code, to Mayor Pete that wants to learn Norwegian or whatever he’s on now, to an elderly person that wants to just kind of keep their mind sharp, that all of these people can be united with one goal, which is to learn something, and be united on one platform, which is hopefully Bendable.

Bendable is what we are calling our lifelong learning platform. And kind of the main premise is that it takes the burden of navigating existing educational resources off of the end user. I mean, there’s a ton of learning content out there, and it’s really hard to determine what’s a good fit for you not only in terms of what you want to learn but also like how you like to learn. And so that’s kind of the goal, is to kind of create a universal platform that anybody within a community could log into and find value from. And we’re actually partnering with the library, the St. Joseph County Public Library because they are already a center for a bunch of different people from all sorts or all walks of life. And their mission is lifelong learning as well, so.

Cohen: So they’re kind of your main quote-unquote “sponsor,” if you will, to kind of help deploy this throughout the community then, the library?

Dennis: Yeah. You know, they are who we envision owning the platform once it’s developed.

Cohen: Okay.

Dennis: Yeah. Like I said, they are—they probably have the highest Q Score out of any institution in the U.S., even more than like the Boys & Girls Club and things like that, so yeah. They’re just an ideal partner; mission alignment spread within the community, infrastructure, it just made sense for a ton of reasons.

Cohen: Yeah.

Dennis: And it was actually Pete Buttigieg that suggested that we work with the library.

Cohen: So the library obviously has this goal of lifelong learning. You have this goal of lifelong learning. Their expertise, obviously, is not in the building of platforms and so forth, although they have a lot of skills that probably—some libraries have a lot of skills and assets that sometimes people aren’t aware of, but—

Dennis: Oh, yes.

Cohen: But I guess I’m curious, like, what challenges you’ve run up against as you’ve gone through this process. And maybe you can kind of share kind of where you are in this process just to kind of help us connect the dots there.

Dennis: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think to answer your question I’ll start where we kind of started, which was to say that if we built this platform for South Bend instead of with it, that it would be a flop. And so our first year on the ground was just listening and learning. You know, one of Peter Drucker’s central tenets is listening to the customer, understanding your customer. And that’s really what we did.

We worked with teams from IDEO and other organizations to reach out into the community, ask what they like to learn, how they like to learn, where they like to learn. And, you know, the library was a key kind of face for that work but also our key integration point with the community. You know, we held meetings within the libraries; we met one-on-one with patrons and really just observed what was happening on the ground both in the library but in other places of learning as well. You know, we talked with over 2,000 people in that process.

Cohen: Wow.

Dennis: And those people really told us what they wanted from a learning platform as opposed to us telling them what they wanted. And so things that we uncovered through that process and our team from IDEO uncovered through that process began to form the design principles of our platform. And so radical accessibility is one that we talk about all the time. You know, there’s different levels of technology competency within the community, and our platform needs to be able to be responsive to that.

You know, there’s a high level of mistrust for institutions and for technology in the community, and so we designed the platform to have your neighbor’s face as—you know, your neighbor as your DJ for your learning playlist. So that sort of an understanding of the customer and understanding of the community is central to our success. And when we are ready to expand Bendable to other communities, that pivotal kind of six months to a year of just learning from the community is something that we will replicate.

Cohen: That’s really interesting that you say you spent a year learning, because I recall a conversation I had with one of my colleagues who was a Peace Corps volunteer earlier in her career. And one of the things she mentioned is that one of the things that the Peace Corps does really, really well is they—it’s a two-year stint that you’re a Peace Corps volunteer, and the first year is just community building and learning. It’s just sitting down, going to places like the library and meeting with folks and having coffees with folks.

You’re not trying to do anything other than learn. And obviously that’s a big commitment. Right? If you have a two-year project like that and you’re spending 50% of that time investing in just listening and not doing, you know, I could see many organizations and many companies not being willing to make the time to do that. So I think that’s a really, really critical insight that I’m glad you guys invested in, because it seems like that’s paid off.

Dennis: I feel very privileged to be working for the Drucker Institute, I mean, understanding the customer, getting to a solution that actually fits the community as opposed to finding a community that fits our solutions, even things like at the onset we worked with a team from the impact evaluation firm called FSG to understand what our impact metrics could be. You know, it’s easy to use workforce development as a proxy for what our impact could be, but we know that if we just move the workforce development needle and don’t scratch that bigger question of learning, that we’re going to be missing the mark in terms of what our goals are.

Cohen: Yeah, so let’s maybe dive into that a little bit. What does success look like? Have you kind of tackled that? I mean, it sounds like that was the beginning of that with FSG. And, by the way, for those listeners, you may recall FSG is—we had a guest, Hayling Price from FSG who was on one of earlier episodes. I believe it was four or five. So you can check that out if you want to learn a little bit more about FSG. But to go back to that question, what does success look like in the end for this project?

Dennis: Yeah, so FSG was excellent. They’re an amazing organization to work with. And kind of how we’ve broken it down is into outputs, which are kind of like the immediately measurable results of our work, so time spent on the platform, how many people are upscaling through the platform, things like that that you can see and feel and touch. But then they also laid out this kind of beautiful arrangement of short and long-term outcomes, and, you know, some of the short-term outcomes that have to do with getting new job opportunities and employment opportunities. Things like that are definitely showing up, but especially in our longer-term outcomes there is a bigger focus on the concept of resilience, individual resilience, community resilience, even resilience at the employer level, you know, connectedness with your community.

Cohen: Oh, sure.

Dennis: And so, you know, it’s a blend of kind of the workforce development aspect, but our bigger aim has to do with this concept of resilience.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s actually a really, really important one. And I think I’ve mentioned this book that I recently read, Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, which talks about social infrastructure, and libraries are the canonical example he uses of just kind of being this connection point for everyone in the community. And I can see why that’s an important place to be.

Dennis: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s interesting because I often catch myself and I think we all do as it relates to Bendable, catch ourselves saying that we want to empower people through learning. “If you can learn you’ll be more resilient,” etcetera, etcetera. And one of the biggest things that we found through our community engagement work was that people don’t want us to empower them; people want to empower themselves. If they have the opportunity and the tools to do so, they will empower themselves.

To circle back to the social infrastructure in the library, I mean, if we can help the library kind of continue to be relevant in this digital age that we’re going into, then we can give people that opportunity and the tools to empower themselves, so, yeah. Social infrastructure is something that I didn’t really think much about before starting this work, but it’s—you know, I wanted to actually go to the library to have this chat with you, but it didn’t open until 10:00, so I couldn’t get in there yet.

Cohen: [LAUGHS] That’s great. I love it. I love it. So I’m curious. I mean, obviously you mentioned economic mobility and so forth. And I’m curious the connection between economic mobility and actual physical mobility. So, you know, obviously one of the benefits of your platform will be that it will allow for learning even if you can’t make it to the library, but I’m sure in some of the conversation that you had over the course of the last year some of the challenge related with mobility came up.

Dennis: In South Bend the two biggest barriers to employment that come up time and time again are actually childcare and transportation.

Cohen: Hmm.

Dennis: And I think those two are kind of foundational needs, that if they’re not met it puts you in constant danger of going on this downward spiral when you’re living in or close to poverty. One report that refer to quite often is called the ALICE Report. It’s put out by the United Way, but ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. And this is basically making the point that just because you’re a little bit above the poverty line you’re not thriving.

Cohen: Yeah.

Dennis: And in a lot of cases you’re not surviving. And, you know, people within that ALICE range a spending 15% or more of their bottom line on transportation, and they’re spending 20% on childcare or more, 20% on healthcare. And so when you start to look at these kind of basic needs being met—I didn’t mention rent, or I didn’t mention some of the other kind of core, survival, budget type of stuff. So when you start to think about how small the margin for error is—if your car breaks down or you miss the bus, you know, you are in jeopardy of going straight back down into poverty.

And so this is something that we think about and talk about a lot. You know, we’re not trying to solve poverty, but what we would like to do is if possible begin to furnish the system with resources that will help people to address their needs. One thing that we’re seriously investigating is called Aunt Bertha. I would love to give them a shout-out. I think they’re a wonderful platform. But basically it’s an online two-on-one [ph][20:38]. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that—

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Dennis: —but it’s kind of like a directory of resources that can be accessed on demand. It’s constantly updated. They have a team of 30 in Texas updating, but they also scrape Google and Facebook and have user-reported serviced. And so they have this kind of cocoon of updates going constantly around these central services. And one of the things that we want to do is try to get that resource into the hands of as many people as possible.

So, yeah, I guess that was a long answer to say that all of these kind of barriers to employment or empowerment or to taking that next step in your journey are all interrelated, and if one falls off it can really jeopardize your entire stability equation. So it’s a tough thing to address, and we’re trying to bring as much resource to bear as we can.

Cohen: Definitely. Definitely. So what are the next milestones as it relates to this project? I know you’ve been listening for a year or so. What comes next?

Dennis: Yeah, absolutely. So basically the calendar year 2018 was our big deep-dive into the community. Listening tour isn’t the exact phrasing I should use, but I’m going to let it stand for now. That was our listening tour year. And then at the actually start of 2019 we began the design, which actually included a lot more listening and then a lot more—and a lot of user testing as well.

Cohen: Sure.

Dennis: We worked with the organization called IDEO to do our user interface design. That design phase ended towards the middle of the summer around July, and we began the development of the platform.

Cohen: Got it.

Dennis: So we are in the middle of development. Speaking of learning, I’ve been learning the agile development process, which is an interesting case study for anybody to read if you’re interested in that sort of thing. But so looking forward, you know, we’re in the middle of development now. Looking forward, we’re trying to launch in June of 2020. There is actually an event in South Bend called the Best. Week. Ever. [ph][22:52], which is a week-long event put on by the Venue Parks & Arts department. So we’re looking to launch then and come out of the gate hopefully signing up a bunch of people to continue their learning journey.

Cohen: Wow. That’s exciting. And that’s a great name the Best. Week. Ever. I like that.

Dennis: Yeah.

Cohen: Marketing is everything.

Dennis: Yeah, it’s good.

Cohen: Well, good. Lex, where can folks find out more information about the work you’re doing with the Drucker Institute and Bendable there in South Bend?

Dennis: The Drucker Institute’s website is We also have a landing page up on It doesn’t have actual access to the platform quite yet, but it is a good resource for information about our work. Also on the Drucker Institute website there are a couple videos and explainer documents there that paint a bigger picture, including a four-minute sizzle reel of Pete Buttigieg talking on our behalf. That’s probably my favorite video.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. And obviously a lot more information on the Drucker Institute webpage about Peter Drucker and the work the Drucker Institute is doing to improve communities and improve society. Lex, thank you so much for taking the time to share a little bit more about the work you’re doing there in South Bend with Bendable and lifelong learning, and appreciate you stopping by The Movement.

Dennis: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at


For more on finding the right solution for your community, check out this blog post on how officials in Johnson County, Kansas, tailored microtransit to fit the unique needs of their community.