How can business schools create sustainable competitive advantage?

By Dr. Mark Cusiter, Deputy Dean - Faculty Business and Law, University of Northampton

We know that there is a particular pressure on business schools to generate income surpluses to sustain other less profitable activities. How then might we seek to create sustainable competitive advantage?  Whilst there is no blueprint for success, I hope that the following thoughts will offer a useful reminder of some key themes that may help us to thrive in the increasingly complex, turbulent and competitive environment in which we operate.

1.  Consciously invest in your brand

Whether your brand is well established or 'under construction', it needs to be nurtured and actively managed. Work to create a sustainable and defensible identity - be known for something that is relevant across your stakeholder community. Consistently reinforce this identity through your decisions and actions. Invest in esteem measures that support your brand. Use your brand to provide a unifying message for engaging your staff, and to support differentiation across your portfolio of activities.

2. Actively manage your programme portfolio

Keep your portfolio fresh - both the range of programmes but also their content and delivery approach. Recognise the value of having both 'me-too' and distinctive offers in your portfolio. Be deliberate in your efforts to decommoditise, whether through curriculum design and content, through professional accreditations and exemptions, or through distinctive learning experiences. Use your portfolio to capitalise on differentiation based on locational advantage - think maritime / cultural heritage / sport / logistics / engineering / service industries / motorsport - programmes that can utilise local expertise, industry relationships, locational identity / brand. Emphasise unique attributes that are difficult for your competitors to emulate. Ensure all staff are able to articulate your points of differentiation. Remember that portfolio management is also about what NOT to offer - beware niche programmes that may be perceived as lacking in credibility, and avoid being drawn into specialist disciplines that may introduce service continuity risk unless you are willing to invest in them.

3. Seek a balanced portfolio

Balance your portfolio by engaging multiple markets to mitigate risk and benefit from emerging opportunities. Work to build a portfolio that operates throughout the calendar year to fully exploit your fixed cost assets. Consider a mix of disciplines, levels, delivery modes and location, some of which support a higher level of resource utilisation. Pursue income streams beyond learning and teaching. But avoid over-complicating, and being drawn into markets and activities you aren't willing to invest in. Develop your portfolio strategically, not based on individual interests or short term trends.

4. Blueprint your student and alumni journey

Your students and alumni are your best advocates, so the relationship you build with them should last a lifetime. Deliberately design an enduring, immersive experience. Use student insight along with feedback and complaints to understand their expectations. Engage your students at each stage to validate your ideas, and involve all staff in the design process - they have to own the experience to be equipped to deliver it with energy and passion. Get the basics right every time, and be planned and deliberate in your choice of enhancement experiences. Ensure effective integration of academic and non-academic aspects of the student experience, making sure all staff understand their contribution. Work to develop high quality communication with your students - every letter, email, notice, VLE announcement, telephone call and conversation counts. Consider developing a 'service manual' to articulate a shared understanding of service standards.

5. Recruit, retain and invest in high quality staff

Outstanding people deliver an outstanding service. Put wellbeing at the heart of your business, and make your staff feel proud to work for you. Appoint staff that share your values, invest in them, support their aspirations and enable them to be outstanding. Organise workloads smartly - use the right people for the right activities, challenge existing distributions of responsibility, and ensure workloads are manageable in both volume and complexity. Actively manage staff resource requirements, project future needs regularly, and embed contingency plans for service continuity. Engage staff in maintaining a positive working environment, and design out stressors and frustrators. Be proactive in identifying staff development needs that reflect individual and collective priorities, deliver on these needs, and evaluate impact. Recognise and reward high performance.

6. Work to enhance your agility

Challenge inertia, inefficient and ineffective ways of working that stifle innovation, slow down progress and frustrate staff. Design smart processes that improve responsiveness and reduce time to market both for new programmes and for updates. Reduce bureaucracy, meetings and documentation to focus time and effort on adding value.

7. Make smart use of technology

Your markets have expectations of service delivery that are shaped by their experiences with commercial organisations - response times, service continuity, availability and quality of information, system integration, ease of use and visual appeal. Use technologies to enhance the quality of delivery - both of curriculum and customer service - to manage the student and alumni journey, to work smarter and more efficiently, and to maximise transparency. In learning and teaching, use technologies to enable differentiated delivery, to personalise learning and support, and to maximise student engagement and performance. Ensure systems are integrated to enhance data integrity, to reduce duplication of effort and to enhance user experience for both staff and students.

8. Make intelligent use of data

Interrogate internal and external data to inform decisions in marketing, portfolio management, learning and teaching practice, and other investment decisions. Engage in proactive environment scanning to identify market and other opportunities.

10. Embrace collaboration

Build global multi-sector networks and use these for mutual benefit. Collaborate with other HE providers in the UK and internationally to support market access, curriculum delivery, student recruitment, student and staff mobility, joint scholarship and to access funding.  Work with industry and professional bodies to support alignment with professional standards and employer expectations, to inform curriculum design and delivery, and to create student opportunity.

Partner with service providers to enable service delivery enhancements. Engage others in the education 'supply chain' to understand the educational experiences your students arrive with, the expectations these create, and to develop seamless transitions into HE. Collaborate internally, challenging organisational boundaries to make effective use of resources and expertise, and to offer an integrated service to your stakeholders. Partner with your students, engaging them in the design and delivery of their experience. Value all of your partnerships, nurture them, invest in them.

11. Exercise effective budgetary control

Allocate budgets based on proposed spend rather than historical patterns. Devolve budgets to support collective ownership of spending decisions. Make considered spending decisions in both pay and non-pay to focus investment on strategic priorities. Challenge waste and minimise spend that doesn’t add value.