Merely Distinctive or Truly Competitive?


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On my desk is a brand new strategic plan for a four-year private in Texas. They are very proud of it.

On page three is a list of more than a dozen distinctive competencies. The president told me, with great enthusiasm, that this is what sets her college apart from its competitors.

I shake my head in wonder.

It’s another example of an inward-facing college that is bent on trying to convince the marketplace that what it does is important.

This school’s 60+ discount rate suggests that they are having trouble making the case. Even as their net tuition revenue falls and graduation rates flatline, they remain committed to these distinctive competencies. I think they have a tough road ahead.

I wonder, as I often do when I read strategic plans, why colleges focus on distinctive competencies instead of developing competitive advantages. In other words, why don’t more colleges emphasize those qualities and attributes that 1) the marketplace values and 2) competitors don’t do/offer?

Perhaps it is hubris.

Or a lack of understanding.

Or maybe they don’t have anything that is truly compelling.

Or perhaps a bit of all three.

By way of explanation, a competitive advantage is something you do that is of clear value to the marketplace and is not done/offered by your competitors. This value is demonstrated by their willingness to pay for it and the number of students who list you as first choice. On the flip side, this value is demonstrated by the number of donors and foundations that seek you out.

We know that one or more competitive advantages:

  • Increase organizational certainty
  • Allow you to focus resources for maximum return on investment (ROI)
  • Add constancy to your revenue streams
  • Help you achieve organizational momentum
  • Reduce unnecessary marketing and recruiting expenditures
  • Help you become a magnet for:
    • Talent
    • Brand alliances
    • Issue-focused investors (donors, foundations)

On June 15, Joshua Kim published a post on Inside Higher Education entitled, “What Higher Ed Can Learn From Gateway 2000.” At the close of his article he writes, “We should figure out our comparative advantages (our best departments, programs, and faculty), and find the discipline and courage to invest heavily in our areas of strength. (The courage comes not in investing in our strengths, but in being willing to let go of areas that we are weak.).”

Swap out the word “comparative” with “competitive” and his advice is dead bang on.

Don’t settle for distinctive competencies. In the long run they will not serve you well. Strive instead to develop competitive advantages and face your future with confidence.

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