Published on 2015/08/06
The EvoLLLution | Lessons From a For-Profit: SWOT Analyses
SWOT analyses can support decision making across the institution but its success relies on leaders asking the right questions.

In this series we’re exploring the lessons that traditional institutions and successful for-profit institutions can share with each other. I’ve had a few requests to take a closer look at a common tool called a SWOT, to see how it can be used in higher education. So here we go.

Commonly referred to as a strategy tool, a SWOT analysis is a structured means of evaluating pretty much anything that you can imagine. A new program offering, a new program delivery methodology, a new hire. As you’ll see, a SWOT can provide valuable input into most if not all decisions. Think of it as putting the old pros and cons lists on steroids. Simply put, when we conduct a SWOT we are gathering together empirical and anecdotal data in four areas related to the decision that we face: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  Naturally, the old GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) applies, so the better the quality of the data the more helpful the tool will be in informing our decision.

There are at least one hundred articles and books on this topic, so I am going to briefly cover the elements of a SWOT and send you off to research more deeply if needed. We’ll start with the four elements of a SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, which we often lay out in a two by two table (although a narrative or bulleted list or any other format will do).

Strengths are internal to our organization, so they are characteristics of our institutions or organization that give us an advantage over competitors. In the world of higher education the ability to provide access to Title IV funding is a strength of most institutions (and envied by start-ups all over the country). Weaknesses, then, are also internal and are those characteristics that place us at a disadvantage over others. In a previous article in this series we spoke of Nimbility™, and if your institution lacks Nimbility that would be considered a weakness.

External factors are covered in the Opportunities and Threats, and it’s pretty much as you might imagine. Opportunities are factors or situations that our institution could exploit to gain an advantage, and Threats are factors or situations that could disrupt our progress or stop us altogether. An Opportunity in the US today is high demand for bachelor-prepared nurses, and if your institution has the Strength of an RN to BSN program you know what you should be doing. However, if you are surrounded by schools who also have this program you now have a Threat to address.

And that’s pretty much how a SWOT analysis is done. First, we gather information, and if I’m involved in the process we’re going to gather that input from everyone who might have a useful perspective. Faculty, staff, administrators, students, board members. Anybody and everybody. And we want all sorts of data too. Historical numbers, projections, observations. Every piece of data has value in this process.

Next comes the analysis, and when you’re dealing with a lot of diverse data this can get very interesting. But organizing the data into themes will yield a manageable window into the decision that you face, and I have yet to find a decision that couldn’t benefit from a SWOT analysis.

The key to using a SWOT analysis effectively is asking the right question! Conducting a SWOT on whether we should grant curricular autonomy to our Continuing Education division when the president and board have no interest in changing faculty governance is not going to be helpful. And conducting a SWOT on the efficacy of an online RN to BSN program is a great use of the tool. Just be sure to ask the right question.

If this is a new concept I hope this has been helpful. The next installment in the series will look at going online, and while that’s a huge topic, I know that we can boil it down to a manageable conversation. Who knows? Maybe we’ll conduct a SWOT analysis on the topic.

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Readers Comments

Victor K. 2015/08/06 at 11:45 am

I think people underestimate the value of these simple methods of weighing options when it comes to big decisions or big changes. Regardless of the categories, the simple process of slowing down to consider data from multiple angles and giving yourself permission to thoroughly consider every pieces can really illuminate things.

Richard Choi 2015/08/07 at 11:01 am

Yet more evidence that data collection and analysis is really the future of decision making in higher ed. The information is there, and despite the urge we often have to just “go with our gut” we’re seeing again and again how much we learn by listening to the data instead.

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