In any market where the means of production and distribution are available to whoever has a mind to use them, success comes down to a combination of focus and differentiation. In other words, strategy.
This is the situation currently in the broader market for lifelong learning and it is spreading into every market niche.
As I pointed out in my previous post, it is now within the means of any entrepreneurial subject matter expert (eSME) to create, promote, and distribute learning products and experiences. The same is true, of course, for anyone else who wants to compete in a particular market. And then, of course, there is the issue of less direct competition in the form of free content from myriad sources.
You can expect each of these forms of competition to crop up wherever there is a viable market, so the natural question is: what’s my strategy when they do?
If you haven’t done so recently, it is worth pulling back and asking, what is the strategic focus of our education business?
I’ve suggested before that most organizations in the education business need to distinguish between a market focus and a product focus. But these aren’t the only choices. You may choose to focus on being the lowest priced provider in your market. (I think this is rarely a good idea, but it is an option nonetheless.) Or you may try to be the most innovative provider in your market, developing new products that the market may not even be aware it wants or needs yet. (As Seth suggests, though, beware of “neophilia.”)
There is no single “right” choice, and you may – indeed, you probably should – shift focus from time to time. It is critical, however, to have a clear point of focus for any given period of time and for everyone in the organization to know what it is. If you find that you can’t name your focus, or that you are focusing in multiple directions at one time, then you have a strategic issue that needs to be addressed.
Why does it matter so much? Because how you focus your efforts will drive how you make decisions about resources and organizational structure as well as about how you position and promote yourself in the market. Strategy is fundamentally a framework for making decisions. If you don’t have a focus, you don’t really have a framework.
Focus is one of the keys to effective strategy. The other is differentiation. Again, pull back and pose a question: How are we different from the competition?
I mean really different.
And I mean all types of competition. Not just other organizations or companies that directly compete in your market. Why, for example, is going with you better than doing nothing? How do your offerings beat just reading a book?
There are many approaches to differentiation – some of which I will explore in future posts – but three key questions to ask initially are:
- How are we unique?
Does our catalog of offerings look like everyone else’s, or are there things we offer that can’t be gotten elsewhere? Do we have access to subject matter expertise or intellectual property that others don’t? Are we building on these strengths and making them clear in our promotions?
- How are we memorable?
What, if anything, do learners remember about their experiences with us? What are some of the stories they tell, examples they cite, knowledge they share based upon participating in our offerings? How might we expand upon and leverage these?
- How are we remarkable?
Literally, what kind of remarks, if any, do people make about our offerings? Are they saying anything at all? Are they saying the types of things we would expect? Are they saying things we wouldn’t expect, but that might actually be valuable for strengthening our position in the market?
You may, of course, have to do some footwork – interviews, surveys, rapid market research, etc. – to get answers to these questions, but it’s well worth the time and effort.
For anyone working in the business of lifelong learning, it is often tempting to think we live in a age of technology. Or, at times, that we live in an age of new (or, at least, newly-appreciated) learning models. But the technologies and the models are, for the most part, available to whoever wants to use them. It is how you use them that will make or break your business.
We live in an age of strategy, and answering fundamental questions about focus and differentiation are key to making strategy work.