logo logo

Survival of the Strategic

Those who can provide true value win.


Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
— Sun Tzu

The Battle In Progress

Sun Tzu, the 6th-century Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher responsible for writing The Art of War may seem a strange inspiration for a discourse on the future online learning. However, if you happen to have a high enough vantage point, a quick survey of the field reveals a major campaign already on the horizon. Large numbers of traditional universities are marshaling their resources and making advances into the digital space.

It’s a sensible move. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen claimed, “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.” While time will ultimately tell, the number of academic institutions closing or merging has indeed been on the rise alongside the staggering cost of tuition. The average cost of college in the United States is now nearly double that of other developed nations. Put that in the context of a US economy carrying its highest ever recorded amount of college debt, $1.5 trillion with as many as 40% of those students predicted to default on their debt by 2023. Today’s students are having an almost impossible time realizing a return on investment in their education.

As more institutions move into the online learning space, programs that can hone their offerings to provide true value to their students will be essential. Those that can’t, may very well end up casualties.

“The Great Recession has made students more discerning consumers. They require more than just a broad assurance. They want concrete data that shows the program will deliver for them and they will reward schools that can provide that evidence.”

Matt Sigelman is the CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a company whose product offering is acute analysis on market trends and in-demand job skills. They help inform education clients on precisely what those customer-valued program deliverables should be.

Matt Sigelman — ”The skills that define jobs are changing rapidly. The obstacle is that traditional university disciplines don’t line up with the job market. Right now most universities — with some notable exceptions — don’t factor this into their strategic planning. They do cutting-edge research, but they don’t necessarily have an early warning system to enable them to anticipate and build and adapt programs for new technologies and skills.”

Which brings us back to Sun Tzu and the need for not just tactics for bringing courses online, but a fundamentally sound strategy to determine the need for and value of the online learning programs and products you create.

Don’t Just Define Your Strategy — Define Strategy!

Strategy is certainly not an unfamiliar term when it comes to creating learning. We dive deeply into learning strategies on the design side, content strategies to support learning on the media side, but how often do organizations align around a master plan, a comprehensive strategy that determines “why” they create the learning programs that they do. What is the real value we are offering our students? This type of plan is even more critical when launching a new product or program into the digital learning space. All too often organizations seeking to transition into online learning put tactics first, they invest heavily in the latest new technology or digital learning approach, but unless those tactics ladder up to a meaningful program or product that delivers clear value to a specific student audience, they risk becoming just so much ‘noise before defeat.’

“Strategy is a synonym for decision making. Your vision is the long term, big picture, for what you want to do, strategy is the plan or picture of how you get there and the critical decisions you need to make along the way. And the decisions you make have to be crystal clear and have to be inextricably tied to clean problem definitions.”

Jason Brown is a strategist who has spent the bulk of his career developing brand identity and product strategies and now works in innovation and new product development.

“A strategist is someone who does a good job scanning the world and bringing back critical insights to consider as you develop your plan.”

So what are some key steps product strategists like Jason use to develop their product strategy? And what does that approach look like for building learning products strategically?

Step One: Know The Problem You Are Trying to Solve

Jason Brown — ”You need to start with a really clear problem definition. Taking on a new product because you think there is an opportunity there isn’t enough, you have to create a really clear articulation of the problem you’re actually solving and then by continuing to come back to it, it’ll keep you on target, on pace, and on direction.”

Doing this means deeply understanding and empathizing with your customer and their needs. In the higher education space, that means understanding why a student is seeking an education and creating a product that can offer them the value and opportunity they are looking for in a way that they need.

Matt Sigelman — ”For example, ask does our curriculum teach the skills that our students need to land jobs? Does our curriculum teach the skills that will differentiate our students?”

In higher education, we don’t have the luxury of solving just one problem. Student needs and dynamics are constantly changing. The best way to understand student needs is to talk to them. Qualitative and quantitative research with your actual customer will help you understand what their needs are and will help you base your strategy on a key problem to solve.

Step Two: Do Your Homework

Jason Brown — ”You should have a really comprehensive understanding of the competitive space, who is out there attempting to solve this problem, is anyone doing it well? And what exists, like in the nearest orbit of what it is that you’re attempting to create.”

Doing your homework is not just about understanding user needs, it’s also about understanding the broader competitive market, changing expectations around technology and accessibility, also understanding the broad market forces at work that may affect your product offering. For example, designing curriculum aimed at giving students competitive job skills means more than understanding the job market in its current state, but researching deeply into how that market may change to ensure what you create will endure.

Matt Sigelman — ”In some occupations, 40% of the job requirements are different today compared to a decade ago. Universities need to leverage data that can help them identify emerging trends so that their programs are designed for where the market is going, not where it has been.”

Step Three: Stand Out From the Crowd

Jason Brown — ”In a space that’s becoming crowded, there needs to be a measure of differentiation, customers need to be able to say why they choose you over the next program.”

From a learning standpoint that means asking yourself what makes your learning experience unique and just right for your student population. Is it flexibility, active-learning, a coaching focus, real-world curriculum, guaranteed job placement support, or something else?

Matt  Sigelman — ”It’s great to build a market-aligned program but most universities lack the job market vocabulary to be able to explain its career value.”

Which means branding and communicating how your program is just right for your student population should also be considered as part of your strategy. Student’s will never know the unique value that your learning product solution offers if you don’t tell them in a way that they understand.

Step Four: Test, Test, Test

Jason Brown — ”Everything we do is a hypothesis until it’s touched by an actual user. So this notion that you’re going to get it right on the first try, like just forget it, throw it out the door, you should be embarrassed by your first offering.”

If strategy is synonymous with decision-making, it’s critical to ensure you are making decisions based on actual data and user feedback rather than just assumptions.

Jason Brown — ”Strategy is also critical as an alignment tool. Because if you don’t have your working team and the internal stakeholders responsible for creating this thing, or running the business, aligned on what they’re doing, then it’s purely a subjective exercise. The loudest person in the room will give the direction. But with a strategy, you make sure that as you go through the process. You’re taking as much of the subjectivity out of it as you possibly can.”

Get Started on Your Strategy!

It’s fair to say creating learning programs and products is not the same as developing a new service app or retail product. Designing a curriculum that meets academic standards as well as customer needs is a nuanced process and typical consumer product strategies may not always apply. But at the very least, embracing a strategic view of the changing educational landscape, analyzing your audience, and developing products in that context will give your organization an edge. And the good news is there are plenty of professionals available with the skills you need to take a more strategic approach to your product offerings.

Bringing on the Right Talent

Before you get started consider the people you have on your team. Do you have the right skills and perspectives? Do you have professionals with experience in market and customer research, branding, data analytics, and product development fields? Contracting with the right professionals or hiring professionals with experience in these areas can provide new insights and perspectives that both help you define the needs, solutions, and create branded, accessible communication.

There is no doubt higher education is undergoing a massive shift. Change is happening fast and the stakes are high. A sound starting strategy and the right people will help institutions launch the right online programs to have the biggest impact on their learners. Which leaves us with another profound thought from Sun Tzu,

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Coming Up

Whatever you determine your strategy to be, there are more experts available to help you test it. In our next article in this series, we will look at the Design and Prototype processes institutions can use to make sure what they make will work.


About the Authors

Sarah Hutt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author. Her writing has made the NY Times Best Seller list and she is a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Reviewed author of nonfiction works for children and young adults.  She has brought storytelling to the online courseroom and classroom for educational clients like Girls Who Code, McGraw-Hill, Focus Curriculum, and is a founding team member of SEI Studios, Strategic Education Inc’s in-house production studio and story lab. Sarah is the owner of Cave Productions, offering design thinking workshops, content strategy, creation, and story consulting services.

Ashley Lonie is the Founder of Teamed, a staffing agency and talent marketplace for the online learning and development industry. She is an experienced educator, learning designer, and leader in online learning design and development.

Need to hire learning professionals?

Instructional Designer | Learning Technologist | Multimedia Developer
 Assessment Writer | Project | LMS Administrator | Faculty Trainer | And more!


Teamed Newsletter

Get the latest blogs, job openings, and candidates emailed to you every month.