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There was a great article, “We’re All To Blame For MOOCs,” in the Chronicle Review awhile back – pointing out how so many institutions of higher education are struggling and susceptible to becoming obsolete.  From the article:


For decades, nearly all of America's colleges and universities have moved away from the cultures and intellectual traditions within which they were founded. . . Higher education is becoming increasingly monocultural as demands for geographic (and market) expansiveness take precedence. . . . Meanwhile, student bodies are becoming more homogeneous, claims of "diversity" notwithstanding, as they are shaped by standardized high-school curricula and nationalized testing regimens. Universities look to one another for prevailing norms and settle on a standardless standardization: the universal commitment to the amorphous goal of "excellence." . . . The result? Higher education is more monocultural than ever before. . . As any botanist knows, a monoculture is highly susceptible to a single pathogen. . . A great shakeout is under way, and MOOCs are the logical outgrowth of this push for interchangeable educational delivery. Curricula, faculty, and students are overwhelmingly indistinct, and MOOCs are simply the cheapest way to combine those elements in our economically constrained times.”


So what is a college or university to do?  Dig deep, look at real data, be brutally honest, uncover the sweet spot, and execute well.  In other words, gather the team and have a look at your strategy – the explicit one as well as the implicit one – to see whether it’s likely to position the organization well for the future or whether it’s more of a Staples strategy (“Yeah, we’ve got that.”) destined to make it difficult to compete with more nimble, focused organizations.  Here is a checklist to get you started:


  • Plan Well – And Well In AdvanceWho should be in attendance?  How should the session run?  Make sure that you have a diverse group of constituents from across the organizations – particularly those that have views different than yours so they can be part of the solution, rather than a blocker of progress.  Consider inviting an outside expert and/or facilitator for the session to make sure you have fresh perspective injected into the process and that someone can moderate the power dynamics.  And make it interesting and fun by including new information, interesting artifacts from the organization’s past, and definitely food.      


  • Consider the LensesThrough what frameworks will you look at and interpret the data?  Make decisions?  Make sure that everyone in the meeting is up-to-speed with whatever tools and frameworks you are planning to use, whether it is Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation, Porter’s Five Forces, Blue Ocean Strategy, The Business Model Canvas, SWOT Analysis, or any other tools and techniques.  Consider assigning some pre-reading on these frameworks to make sure everyone is familiar.     


  • Look Outward: What publically-available data will help inform the strategy?  What do current market trends mean for your institution?  Consider looking at key trends and forces impacting the overall higher education market (e.g., demographics, MOOCs, the competitive landscape, new programs and formats, etc.)  Also bring this data “closer to home” and look at close competitors and what they’re doing, new programs in your market, etc.  


  • Look Inward: Who founded your institution?  For what purpose?  What made the institution successful in the early years?  How is your institution different from key competitors and how and why is this valuable to a certain market segment?   Rather than a relentless focus on what competitors and “the market” are doing, look internally too.  Each institution has a unique fingerprint – its own combination of values, history, capabilities, resources, environment and aspirations – that can be used as a foundation for future success.


  • Do The Research: What data do you have that can be mined for insight?  What external (or internal) research should you perform?  From an internal standpoint, look at the hard data on admissions, enrollments and graduation trends, faculty hiring and promotion, research funding, individual and corporate giving, and student satisfaction data, among other items.  Externally, conduct research on market perceptions – how current and potential clientele (e.g., students, alumni, companies) perceive your school and its offerings – and needs.


  • Draw Collective Insight From The DataWhat interesting insights do you find?  What assumptions are no longer valid?  How can the organization combine its capabilities, resources and values to offer something unique and valuable in the marketplace?  Distribute any data in advance of the session so that everyone can come prepared. Make sure everyone contributes insights and discusses alternatives, so the team can collaboratively chart the future by combining hard data with values-based discussion and new ideas with traditional ideals – and understand the inherent trade-offs.  If the goal of the organization is to appeal to everyone, it’s unlikely to matter much to anyone.  Choose to be extraordinary; stand for something. 


  • Prioritize and ExecuteWhat are the top priorities?  Who is responsible?  What is the timeframe?  How will you know when the organization has achieved success (or whether it is on track to goal)?  A solid strategy will be unsuccessful without effective leadership – and leadership in the new era of higher education will be different from the stewardship of the past.  This is where you come in.    



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