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:

Distinctive Compelling
  • Of keen interest to the institution
  • Creates noise
  • Distracting; generates a false sense of security
  • No economic value
  • Of keen interest to the marketplace and the institution
  • Generates buzz
  • Attracts resources
  • Great and enduring economic value

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.

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  1. Jeremy Fern

    Bob, well put my friend. For the longest time, we’ve focused so hard on distinctives and much of that was probably well placed intention. Because the buzz word in years past has been making our colleges “distinctive” in a way that elevates our school’s likeability or position above competitors. But as you said so well, the failure was in the motive behind being distinctive. The motive in most cases was to differentiate our academic programs or campus culture from others. And furthermore, it was hard for colleges to swallow that the marketplace just might not want our amazingly distinctive programs.

    Maybe colleges should stop asking what programs they can afford to keep and start asking what programs they can’t afford to lose. If funding and support are poured into “distinctive” majors and programs with declining marketplace interest, then less is being invested in the programs that are in demand and serving regional or national needs.

    I think your article serves as a great reminder that this is not a one-sided situation. What the marketplace wants and needs is as important to consider as the programs that the institution wants to promote and call distinctive.

    • It really is all about balance. You need to listen to the marketplace. You need to consider competitors. And you need to listen to the campus community. Thanks, Bob

  2. Ed Huckeby

    Hi, Bob. Very interesting and accurate perspective. Although I am now retired from higher ed and primarily involved in arts consulting, I find your comments to be pertinent to many environments, including the arts. We too often limit our focus to those “distinctives” which are important to us, rather than seeking a more global perspective. Well done…I will watch for the book. Please say Hi to Brenda Harms for me.

    Dr. Ed Huckeby, Consultant
    Southwestern Christian University, President (retired)

  3. Robert Lippert

    Bob – From a business perspective, you are right on. Focusing on what the institution wants and values, as opposed to what our customers (students, parents…) want and value is a recipe for obsolescence. At the same time, I appreciate your recognition of the distinctives, and that we really have an “and” situation here – we need both. Your article also makes clear though, that while compelling without distinctives will survive, the reverse is not true. Thanks for the wake-up call!

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