Using the Generalized Differentiation Strategy Model to Guide a College's Actions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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This series has covered a lot of ground and included many details. The last two installments have been particularly demanding. In this model we wrap up the discussion of the Generalized Differentiation Strategy model.

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is entry #7 of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

The following figure lists some of the main questions raised by the Generalized Differentiation model.

Figure: Questions for defining a Generalized Differentiation strategy
  • Features: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the organization?
    • Satisficed: Is the organization strong enough in these features so that it won’t be eliminated from consideration by prospects in the target market because of them? If not, how can it become stronger in them?
    • Maximized: How can the organization get stronger in these features? What is its comparative position in the market on each of these features? Which ones should it focus on?
    • Mix: What is the relative emphasis among the features that form the organization’s differentiation?
  • Target market: What group of prospects is the organization addressing?
    • Features: On what features does a typical prospect compare different organizations? Which ones are more or less important?
      • Satisficed: Which features just have to be “good enough” to make an acceptable program? At what level is “good enough” reached?
      • Maximized: Which features are so important that they increase in value as they increase in quality?
  • Marketing: The organization must focus on marketing itself
    • Competition: Who is the organization competing against? What is their value proposition? How does the organization win against them?
    • Knowledge: Are target prospects aware of the features of the organization? Do they understand how the organization’s maximized features compare with the competition? Do they understand that the organization’s satisficed features are good enough?
    • Message: How will the organization’s differentiation strategy (i.e., mix of features) be conveyed to target prospects?

The following three descriptions summarize the model at different levels of detail:

  • Capsule summary: All strategies are differentiation strategies aimed at some particular target market. (This is the basic insight that led to the name of the model.)
  • Basic summary: Given a deep understanding of its target prospects, an institution should design a program, competitive with other programs in the market, so that it provides superior quality in those features that those prospects value the most, and then design and execute a marketing strategy such that it emphasizes those features to those prospects.
  • Expanded summary: An institution should choose its target market (i.e., the target cluster of prospects) based upon the potential of maximizing the total profit contribution of the targeting program (by maximizing revenue relative to the cost of implementing and marketing the program). Upon choosing the target market, the institution can know (or can determine via market research) the value profiles of prospects within that cluster and the decision rule those prospects use to choose a program (i.e., which features are the required features). The institution should design and invest in the program so that it matches the value profile of the target cluster; that is, the program should be differentiated in response to what is known about the target market. The go-to-market strategy and marketing execution should be designed so as to increase the knowledge of prospects within the target cluster of high-value features of the program.

I have now refined Porter's foundational strategy model with a new formulation of my Generalized Differentiation model. These are useful tools for focusing discussion at the early stages to drive agreement among institutional leaders regarding direction. However, as I have stated above, these are not complete strategy definitions. A fully specified strategy and its components are described in the following section.


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. Write a summary statement that captures the insights that are highlighted by the GD Strategy model. Use either the basic or expanded summary of the GD model as your guide in putting this statement together. 
  2. Disseminate this statement to other people in your organization. Get their feedback and start a discussion with them about how you might, together, make it more accurate and more useful. 
  3. One effect of COVID-19 was to get colleges to move online en masse. However, the results have been more remote teaching than online learning; I describe the difference between the two in this post. Is teaching quality or classroom learning experience one of your features by which prospects choose your program? If so, should it be a maximized feature or a satisficed feature? Is it something that you market? Is it well understood by prospects why the experience in your program would be better...or would it? Is it just like everyone else's?

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.

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