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How Does Higher Education Correct Its Marketing Myopia?



In his classic Harvard Business Review article (July-August 1960), Theodore Leavitt asked the question, “What business are you really in?” His idea was that enterprises do better if they focus on meeting their customers’ needs instead of concentrating on selling the products, services, and experiences they currently produce. To illustrate, Leavitt pointed to railroads, arguing that railroad executives had missed this central premise. “The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads got in trouble not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, and even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business.” Since 1960, this idea has been revisited on a regular basis in the Harvard Business Review, most recently by Gallo (August 2016) and is seen as having great relevance in the business world today.


In this blog, we argue that higher education is currently in a position analogous to the railroads. It sees itself as principally serving high school graduates and delivering that education face-to-face. It does not have a broader view of itself as a higher education organization providing learners the academic programs and credentials they need throughout life in curricula that last as much as 60 years and which will be offered in learning modes and at times and places best suited to the learners’ needs. We believe that the institutions that can overcome their myopic view of their markets and transform to meet their customers’ growing learning needs will see significant increases in enrollments and revenues in the years ahead.


In our book, Transforming for Turbulent Times, we describe this 60-year curriculum. In a nutshell, a Knowledge and Learning Ecosystem, portrayed below, is emerging. In this ecosystem, colleges and universities are part of rapidly growing and competitive system. The good news is that there is significant opportunity for them in this new ecosystem. The bad news is that there will be a lot of competition. Learning enterprises that can successfully transform to match the actual needs of the learners they choose to serve will flourish in the coming decade.


What steps should an institution take to define a role for itself in this new ecosystem and to execute the key strategies necessary to realize that role?


· A successful strategic transformation campaign begins with a no-holds-barred situational analysis--one that takes this information and defines a hopeful and compelling institutional vision for the future. In most cases, this vision will need to be more expansive than the visions of the past, actively contemplating a future that includes new programs driven by the needs current learners and new market segments that could be served by an institution with a less myopic vision of itself. Virtually every member of the community needs to be meaningfully involved in these deliberations and have their views heard.


· The situational analysis should both leap forward ten years or so and also describe the current state of collective trauma that exists in most colleges and universities today. A compelling vision of the future, with the promise of hope and growth for individuals and the enterprise, will be necessary to overcome the current state of myopic malaise.

· The institutional community should also understand that transformation will require significant change in processes and personnel that capitalizes on the potential of process reinvention and the new capacities made possible by technology.

· Virtually all institutions will need to partner with a variety of providers, knowledge marketplace facilitators, and employers to provide programming in areas where they do not have capacity but need to serve their students adequately. Many institutions will find that they will need help at first developing partnerships that work both for them and the providers.

· Most institutions will also have to invest in the support and development of their faculty and staff. Transformation on the scale needed will require new infusions of talent and the active development and support of current personnel.

· Institutional leaders will have to spend more time on the orchestration of transformation, ensuring strong execution, necessary changes to the organizational culture, and the human resource support development needed to get the job done.


Institutions that take this less myopic tack to transformation will be radically different than most institutions of higher education today. They will be laser-focused on meeting their students’ learning needs throughout their lives and at times and places that meet their learning requirements no matter where they are located.


Institutions that manage to do this will be hopeful and successful places.