Blue Ocean Strategy® Can Really Work for Higher Education

Students at Johnson C. Smith University

We are working with higher education organizations that are ready for a new Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS). They are each trying to adjust their strategies to the new student, the new business environment, the challenges to their roles particularly in the Liberal Arts and the opportunities to apply new technologies. Some have been early adapters getting into online education, for example, or going after adult students coming back into the work force. Others are just realizing that their traditional focus and core capabilities, those things they held onto as their unique difference, are no longer valuable to their students or to the markets they are providing students for.

I went searching to see what other colleges might be doing with Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS) ? Here is one that Renée Mauborgne is working with. Their story is an excellent one to share. We will have others as we do our research about how to best apply BOS to new educational settings.

Johnson C. Smith University and Blue Ocean Strategy

Johnson C. Smith University is working on retaining students and helping them to graduate. They are using Blue Ocean Strategy to help them. They are working through a White House initiative to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities “have the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.” Serving more than 300,000 students across 105 HBCU campuses, HBCUs represent a significant force that can help the nation reach President Obama’s goal of having the U.S. produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by year 2020. There are four major areas on which they are focused:

  1. Using BOS to figure out a way to convince people that the cost of the education will be a worthwhile investment
  2. How to support students academically to help them stay the course and graduate
  3. How to teach students how to persist and use grit when challenged
  4. Helping student with financial aid and the ability to pay for their education

In addition, Johnson C. Smith University is a unique university. It is deeply rooted in the Charlotte region. Students believe it has a meaningful experience and they are sought after by employers and graduate programs.

From our perspective we were delighted to see how they shared their processes. First they went through a visual awakening. Then they conducted the visual exploration phase out of which over 100 fresh ideas emerged. They began to coalesce into three key areas that I share here from their news report:

  1. “Making a significant step change to improve all practices and processes to evolve to an ever higher- functioning academic institution with great service to students and their families: this would put JCSU at the forefront of the four year college experience. One strategic option seeks to make a step change in developing critical thinking and data-driven skills which could make JCSU graduates more employable than those from other campuses in the evolving 21st century career market.
  2. “Other strategies broadly look at a closer integration of skills and training desired by employers into the JCSU experience. These models look beyond traditional internships at how JCSU can leverage its location in a vibrant and diverse job market and produce graduates with the skills that are in demand in every career. In addition, developing opportunities in the JCSU experience that really prepare students to start their own businesses and to be able to grow these rapidly and successfully.
  3. “Taking advantage of technology and online capabilities that provide the flexibility of learning at your own pace and to develop a competency based learning system and perhaps even allow graduation in three years rather than four.”

These are substantial in their value + innovation approach. The links to the employers beyond internships could open up significant new markets in innovative ways. The opportunity for online options and new mobile solutions are also potentially “big ideas.” To read more click here.

What is Blue Ocean Strategy?

And why should i know more about it? Developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS)  is based on research among 150 companies over 100 years. The theory, method and tools of BOS came out of this research as the authors were searching for what successful companies did to adapt to changes in their markets, to find new markets, and to re-imagine and redesign their own business to thrive. Key to BOS are these core beliefs:

  • Search for non-users — not for more of the same, cheaper.
  • Listen for unmet needs even among your own markets — be they students or donors or others.
  • Make the competition irrelevant — stop competing. Become a Market Creator.
  • Add Value in Innovative ways — not just incrementalism.
  • Create demand. Don’t expect it to be coming to you. 

If these sound like the reverse of your classic strategy, they probably are. But they are a way of “seeing, feeling and thinking” that can open a new market for you.

Try a Workshop.

We have conducted over 350 workshops and client engagements on how to find nonusers, meet unmet needs and open new, Blue Ocean market space.  

What you learn in a workshop are the basics of BOS and how you, too, can chang your strategy and the execution you will need to achieve it. 

Try one. Just contact us and we can tell you more.

From Observation to Innovation,



Andrea Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants