A Fully-Specified Strategy for an Institution of Higher Education

Estimated time to read: minutes

It is not enough to understand the implications of an institution’s Generalized Differentiation (GD) model. Establishing an institution’s fully specified competitive strategy requires answers to several additional sets of questions. Answering those questions will prepare an institution to undertake the tactical decision-making surrounding the implementation of courses and technologies related to a specific program.

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is entry #9 of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

The process of analyzing with the GD model can be a good way to engage the appropriate set of leaders from faculty and staff without overwhelming them with details. However, that doesn’t address the need to define a more fully fleshed-out strategy. Recall from the previous section that the discussion applies to all levels of an institution, from the top level to colleges, departments, and programs (online or not). For the most part, the following discussion focuses on program-level strategy with the assumption that the new program will be delivered online, but all of the insights can apply to any level of the institution and any type of program. Let’s get on to the process of fully defining competitive strategy. 

In 2001, professors Donald Hambrick and James Fredrickson introduced the “strategy diamond,” a model for analyzing, integrating, summarizing, and communicating strategy at all levels, allowing decision-makers to accumulate and consider all the pieces of a strategy in combination rather than in isolation. Their framework is more of a checklist than a model, suggesting that good strategies begin by answering a series of related questions spanning several domains. Their concept was formulated for business, but here I’ve modified it for use in the realm of higher education.

To reiterate: Understanding a program’s Generalized Differentiation approach to success provides the foundation for fully specifying an institution’s strategy. According to Hambrick and Fredrickson’s framework, in order to fully specify its strategy, an institution also needs to answer the questions in the following figure.

Figure: Questions for the five dimensions of the Hambrick & Fredrickson strategy model
  • Arenas: Where will the institution be active, and what is the relative importance of each area? Answers here can be specific degree or non-degree programs (or related groups of the same), target clusters, geographical areas, underlying technologies, and pedagogies or learning experiences.
  • Vehicles: How will the institution get there? Will it be through online program managers (OPMs), internal development, fee-for-service external vendors, joint ventures, licensing, or acquisition?
  • Differentiators: How will the institution win? Will it be by image, customization, price, specific learning pedagogies, technologies (or combinations of technologies) that uniquely support the institution, community building, career services, etc.?
  • Staging: What will be the speed and sequence of moves? Which programs will be built, and in what order? Will non-degree certificate programs roll out after the degree programs? What will be the rate of these moves? Will the focus be on one school at a time or rotate among several?
  • Economic logic: Why and how will the institution obtain sufficient returns to undertake this effort? Will it be through scale advantages (either per program or investments that pay back across multiple programs) that are going to lead to lower costs? Will it be through premium prices due to a difficult-to-match learning experience (via technology, pedagogical approaches, community building, student service provision, etc.)? Will it be through superior marketing strategy and insights (and appropriate execution) that allow the institution to significantly affect the value profiles of prospects?

The underlying reasons for putting together such a strategy were described in part #1 of this series, but here’s a recap:

  • Direction and priorities: A strategy provides a statement of an institution’s direction and priorities.
  • Alignment across the organization: A strategy can guide the decision-making of people throughout the institution.
  • Continuity across leaders: A strategy can create stability and continuity across leaders over time.
  • Communication: A strategy can communicate priorities to people inside and outside of the institution.
  • Simplify decision-making: A strategy limits the choices available to an institutional leader at any level of the organization, thereby speeding up and simplifying the decision-making process.

Each of the next five parts of this series will focus on one of the points in the figure above.


For this series, I am posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. Look through the factors listed in the figure. You should have some preliminary answers (from the work in this series, if nothing else) for arenas, differentiators, and possibly economic logic. Capture your thoughts on each of these.
  2. Has your program thought about the vehicle you will use to compete online? What decisions have been made, and what are still up-in-the-air?
  3. Has leadership made decisions about the staging of your moves online? Again, what decisions have been made, and what decisions are still undetermined?

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Let us teach you about learning.

We'll send you an occasional email with resources from our team of learning experts.

Subscribe to Updates