Over the holidays I wrapped up a new book on strategic planning.1 During my research, I had a chance to read dozens of strategic plans and noticed that many of them included a list of distinctive competencies.
I cringe every time I read that phrase for two reasons.
First, distinctive competencies describe what you as an institution care about as an institution. In many cases, these have not been validated by marketplace interest. Second, the idea of being distinctive simply does not carry any weight in today’s marketplace.
Distinctives tend to have more value internally than they do externally. For example, a college may have a distinctive program in geology, but if students are not interested in the program then that distinctiveness has no real market value. Another example is the academic core. While these cores should be a source of great institutional pride, enrollment revenue will determine, in the final analysis, whether they are of great value to the marketplace.
A focus on distinctives suggests a deeper problem: institutional centricity. In other words, strategies and ideas and messages are developed that largely serve the institution rather than the marketplace. This orientation is one part history, one part hope, and one part hubris. The reasoning behind an institutional-centric approach is this simple: If it is important to us, it must be important to others. In most cases this is wrong thinking.
Only two types of institutions can remain institutionally centric in today’s marketplace and there is a high degree of overlap between the two. First, institutions that are receiving enough monetary support from sources other than tuition revenue.2 Second, institutions that have such strong brand value that students will attend (and even pay) because the credential has tremendous currency in the marketplace. Unfortunately, most schools do not fall in either camp.
Rather than distinctive, your goal must be compelling.
Compelling attributes are those qualities and characteristics that are of value to both you and the marketplace. A distinctive academic program that attracts students is an example of something that is compelling. That same distinctive academic program without students is, well, just distinctive.
In most cases, compelling qualities and characteristics can only be identified after both internal introspection and external market research. Internal research is used to identify a set of potential characteristics. External research is then used to see which characteristics have most traction in the marketplace.
Clarifying a tricky issue
I understand that all colleges have distinctive programs and attributes. The goal is to have enough compelling programs and attributes so that you can afford your distinctives. Remember, no mission without margin.
Let me sum up the discussion this way:
Ultimately, the marketplace and your cash flow are the great validators about whether something is distinctive or compelling.
1The book is entitled: Vision-Centric Strategic Planning for Colleges and Universities: A Thoughtful Guide to Strategy Formation and Execution. It is due out March 1 from Strategypublishing.com.
2There are actually nine or 10 different sources of revenue for colleges. The other sources include: annual funds, capital campaigns, planned giving, endowment performance, auxiliary services, grants, enrollment, retention, sponsored research, athletic marketing, and earmarks.