The state of the higher education sector is marked by intensifying competition, scarce resources (including talent), and growing skepticism about the value of a degree.
In an operational context requiring greater agility, traditional methods for priority-setting and long-term planning fall short. In my role, I work with leadership teams to help them build a culture of dynamic strategy focused on rigorous scenario planning, differentiation around evolving student expectations, and the ability to revise priorities and reallocate resources in a quickly changing market.
Why The Old Methods Don’t Work
To understand why institutions need to embrace a more dynamic approach to strategy, I want to first address how traditional strategic planning tends to fall short of shared aspirations.
- Strategic plans are very episodic. Major strategic planning efforts typically occur every 5 to 10 years, which does not allow for consideration of rapidly shifting environments in the interim, like a global pandemic or political and social unrest. The shelf life of the resulting documents shortens with every academic term.
- Plans tend to be very high-level. Strategic plans often hinge on broad topics or operational categories like student success, sustainability, or diversity, and on predictable approaches to self-improvement within these categories. That’s important work but rarely encourages the innovation, prioritization, or specificity that a true shift in competitive strategy would require.
- They are inwardly focused. Most strategic plans derive from historical precedent and extensive internal consultation, rather than a clear assessment of the external market conditions.
- Strategies tend to be highly representational. As leadership prioritizes featuring every consulted constituency in the final document, single ideas become difficult to focus on, producing an unprioritized, unfunded wish list.
- They are focused on the ends – not the means. Plans describe vision without detailing costs, organizational changes, or process changes. This leads to an exhausted staff and valid skepticism that any one idea will progress from initiative to execution in the following years.
Given these shortcomings, institutions often settle for a relatively generic final document that serves well as a “statement of values,” but poorly as either a strategic or operational plan.
Creating a Dynamic Strategy
Founded in the economic logic used in the business sector and applied to the higher education industry, dynamic strategy helps institutions to pinpoint and seize opportunities for large-scale change.
Strategy formation and competitive differentiation is the first, and most challenging step, in creating a dynamic strategy. This initial stage begins by grounding the leadership team in an up-to-date assessment of trends, threats, and opportunities in the sector and an honest appraisal of the institution’s position and performance relative to the environment. Then, institutions develop a differentiated value proposition for their major constituents (beginning with the largest student segments but including donors, policymakers, and employees as well), and identify a handful of manageable and achievable targets to improve their position in the next 3-5 years.
The second stage asks the question—why should we believe the institution will achieve the targets set in the strategy formation phase? How will its leaders follow rhetorical inspiration with the financial, operational, cultural, and managerial discipline required to drive change on thorny topics? The most successful teams ensure that the annual budgeting process aligns strategically with the priorities outlined in their plan and that stakeholders have the time and resources required to divert energy toward those priorities. They also require individual units (whether academic or administrative) to explicitly tie unit-level metrics and goals to institutional priorities and regularly measure progress against those goals in a transparent, institution-wide forum.
Of all the questions and challenges outlined above, I spend most of my time with cabinets and boards on the quest to differentiate from other institutions. Unlike other competitive sectors in which companies must set a simple product or service apart from a somewhat short list of available brands, many colleges and universities seek to stand out in a crowd of nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions (in the US), all offering an accredited degree, and managing a long list of “product attributes,” from housing and dining to athletics and social networking (not to mention academic coursework).
Universities tend to use many identical claims in their marketing language that are appealing but assumed (such as student-centricity, caring and attentive faculty, a beautiful and vibrant campus, a lengthy list of majors, minors, and student clubs, etc.). Marketing may feature unique institutional attributes, like R1 status or lengthy biographies of their founder(s), that do not appeal to the interests of graduating high school students. To meaningfully differentiate from similarly positioned peers, institutions need to translate their accolades to the practical hopes, goals, and concerns of the current generation.
The differentiation sweet spot is found at the intersection of audience needs and institutional capabilities—and importantly, in a space that’s difficult for competitors to copy. Leaders should identify a brief list of demonstrable value proposition claims that fall within this space and gather and promote measurable evidence that proves those claims to skeptical students and parents. Strategies that pass muster in this model aren’t likely to live at the highest conceptual altitude (i.e., “Our students become model leaders and citizens”); rather, they promise a more concrete and provable proposition (“Because of our hands-on programs in workforce-relevant fields, our graduates have the highest average 5-year earnings of any public institution in our state in health care, tech, and education.”)
By pursuing a dynamic strategy approach, institutions can overcome the biggest issues plaguing the sector, like students opting out of higher education and the rising proliferation of “ultra-winners” in talent, enrollment, and university research activities. The flexible thinking and planning enabled by dynamic strategy allows leaders to quickly analyze challenges and see productive change. To learn more about using dynamic strategy to set institutional goals, watch the full webinar on the dynamic strategy imperative or reach out to request more information about how EAB can help with your institutional goals.
Ready to find out more?
Discover how higher ed leaders tackled campus challenges in EAB's fellowship.