Published on 2016/06/21
The EvoLLLution | Four Ways Business Schools Can Differentiate Themselves
By consciously leveraging curriculum, programming and culture, business schools can stand out as destinations for prospective students in what is an incredibly competitive marketplace.

A recent exercise in reviewing mission and vision statements of universities revealed to me that many schools are obligated to include research, world class teaching, second-to-none experience and a student focus as elements of their identity. It is easy to replace one school name with another and find that the mission and vision statements are still equally fitting.

The challenge in differentiation is to articulate how we are living up to our educational mission (a common thread) while providing a unique value proposition to potential students and employers.

The focus of this article will be on four (of many possible) ways that business schools can work to stand out in the market and attract the attention of potential students through curriculum, programming and culture. In combination, these three factors are what enable us to live out our mission to educate while also garnering long-term commitment and support from our students as they become alumni and potential employers.

1. Refresh and Infuse

My observation of business school curricular change is that schools pick up trends or themes (such as ethics, big data, global business, energy) and then hold on for dear life. I can understand that tendency. Curriculum change can take years: years of committee review, approval, faculty senate review and approval, and then accreditation review and approval. In some instances two or more years are required before a school can even offer a program, concentration or theme (i.e. global/international business, ethics, big data, energy, response to world crisis/news). Once in place, a faculty member or members must be assigned, and the program becomes their product.

Many of these themes, when new, are important as stand-alone themes, programs, majors or concentrations. Often, the rest of the business world starts to adopt these themes as standard operating principles and it is important that business schools know when to do the same.

Refresh when the market is hot and then work to have a plan for infusing the theme into your overall curriculum as time goes by.

2. Be Aware

There are some members of our teams who are hyper aware—they read the news, they talk to colleagues outside the university, they engage in social media activity with regards to their discipline area; they are connected outside the walls of academe. These people can be incredible assets when it comes time to refreshing and infusing curriculum and programing. I have seen changes in curriculum and proposed programs because some students inquired or an influential employer made the recommendation. Large investments have been made in programs that were not sustainable or fell out of vogue after a short time.

Being aware on a global scale and using data to support decisions about curricular innovations (or infusing something that was programmatic as a theme throughout our curriculum) will enable a business school to use their capabilities to better hone in on their brand. We’ve found this to be very effective at the Carson College of Business.

3. Institutionalize Your Best Capabilities

What exists in your portfolio that is so much a part of an individual that if they leave, the school will no longer have capability to offer it? The best traditions and programs are those that were started by a person who cared tremendously and took ownership, then, invited others into the space and ensured sustainability.

I have observed a number of wonderful programs, services and clubs depart—never to be replaced again—because they were attached to their creator. In some instances, the person creating it wasn’t empowered to involve others, in others, they were not resourced to involve others, and sadly, in some cases, the idea of holding that little nugget all to themselves was rewarded over inclusion.

If something is going great you need to make it a part of your story. These are the things others will want to do but will never be able to replicate because you did it best, first, and in combination with your culture and other differentiators, and they cannot be you.

4. Maybe the Best Differentiator Isn’t Something You Do…

My best success stories aren’t things I did. My students started them, or my staff started something that stuck. It’s possible that the students or staff before us did something so great that it’s only been our job to carry the torch.

Cultural traditions matter and become a differentiator over time. We have a robust online student community. We were seriously investigating how to create one, what platform to use, what consultant to bring in, how to “run” the community and how to fund the project. Before we could get past a proposal, we were contacted by university communications asking us to “take down” a social media page that had the university name and logo. We reviewed their request and found that a group of students organically built a space in which they could connect, and had invited others to participate. Instead of “taking it down,” we advocated for the space, made it private, and invited all students and alumni. Six years later, it is a thriving community of faculty, staff, students and alumni.

It is difficult to bottle “University Spirit” and articulate that in a brand statement. We can differentiate by promising a connection in an environment that is supportive and delivers on world class academic content, committed, caring faculty, and traditions that tie our students to our institutions.

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