Strategy session in a box – Part one

In a great 2013 article, “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs”, Professor Patrick J Deneen from the University of Notre Dame in the United States pointed out how so many higher education institutions are susceptible to becoming obsolete as MOOCs – massive open online courses – take hold.

He argued that US higher education was becoming increasingly monocultural as a result of geographic and market expansion while student bodies were becoming more homogenous due to standardised tests.

He said: “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 organisation well for the future or whether it is more of a paper strategy unlikely to enable it to compete with more nimble, focused organisations.

Here is a checklist to get you started:
  • Plan well – and well in advance: Who should be in attendance? How should the session run?

    Make sure that you have a diverse group of constituents from across the organisation – particularly those who have views different from 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 a 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 artefacts from the organisation’s past and definitely food.

  • Consider the lenses: Through what frameworks will you look at and interpret the data? And 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 with them.

  • Look outward: What publicly 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 (for instance, demographics, MOOCs, the competitive landscape, new programmes and formats, etc). Also bring this data 'closer to home' and look at close competitors and what they’re doing, new programmes 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, enrolments 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 (for example, students, alumni, companies) perceive your university and its offerings – and needs.

  • Draw collective insight from the data: What interesting insights do you find? What assumptions are no longer valid? How can the organisation 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 organisation is to appeal to everyone, it’s unlikely to matter much to anyone. Choose to be extraordinary; stand for something.

  • Prioritise and execute: What are the top priorities? Who is responsible? What is the timeframe? How will you know when the organisation 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.
Margaret Andrews is a seasoned academic leader with over 20 years of experience in higher education, executive development, business and consulting. She has held leadership positions at MIT, Harvard university and Hult International Business School and has a track record of creating and launching successful programmes and turning around underperforming programmes and units. She teaches a variety of leadership and strategy courses at Harvard's Division of Continuing Education or DCE, and is also president of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at