What makes a business school stand out from the crowd?



By Justin Shaw, Managing Director, Communications Management

Can business schools truly be distinctive? What makes one business school stand out from another? These are the challenges posed to participants of the Creating Differentiation workshop run by the Chartered ABS recently. Thirteen UK business schools took part to explore what makes one business school different from another.

My own experience – having worked in and with business schools for 25 years now – is that true differentiation is hard to come by. You can only be truly distinctive if you decide to drop certain aspects of your portfolio, deliver things in an entirely novel way, or to focus on certain markets. The OU Business School is one such shining example to me!

However, business schools are often reluctant to take the risk of ‘focus’ – because this could mean turning their back on valuable income-generating streams or offending certain communities externally (and internally) because you will no longer service a particular set of needs.

What we are left with is a broader approach to differentiation: drawing on a combination of qualities and attributes that others may certainly have, but that, when combined, certainly imply a distinctive feel.

During our day-long exploration with the Chartered ABS we heard individual business schools suggesting a whole range of ingredients for their own differentiation: most commonly themes that are associated with the School’s location, physical environment, way of working, and with their external connections.

Issues related to employability, driving entrepreneurship, accessing external business contacts and providing students with a personal experience for professional development were among the most cited features. My view: employability is over-rated as a leading message – it’s an expectation by students and by employers that this is being naturally addressed in business schools anyway (because that’s what they are “there for”). It will be interesting to see how the impending changes to the formal measurement of employability (using graduates’ tax records rather than the traditional DLHE survey data) will affect the use of this as a theme in the future.

Another particular concern raised during the workshop is the tendency for business schools to produce rather grandiose mission statements or accreditation submissions highlighting distinctive strengths in an overly formal way and simply repeat the claims of others. Encapsulating the human side, the emotion, the passion – the reasons ‘why’ you are special - are often neglected in trying to articulate differentiation.

In my session at the workshop - on our work with Sheffield Business School (to help inform their distinctive narrative) - I referred to this tendency for ‘same-ness’ as the King Lear factor: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say!”. The trend is to follow the crowd and to say “that’ll do” because it’s what we ought to be saying as others are saying too!

So – my conclusion – from my professional experience and from this workshop is that we all need to work much harder to seek out differentiation. In any situation where people make choices – they need help to be steered in why they should select one (provider) above another and, with competition between business schools now so fierce, we need to work harder on the signals we give off to steer those making these choices.

If the new HE Bill does go progress any further (any bets?) then choice and competition (at the heart of this Government policy) - along with the role of a new Office for Students to guard the interests of students, employers and taxpayers – will certainly mean our business schools having to pay even more attention to differentiation.


Justin Shaw is Managing Director of Communications Management, a consultancy that works with business schools to explore, address and promote reputation, positioning and communications.
Contact: justin@communicationsmanagement.co.uk or visit www.communicationsmanagement.co.uk