What Higher Education Needs Is A More Powerful, Blue Ocean Strategy®

A perfect storm of disconnect: higher education and changing times

At SAMC, we do a good deal of work with higher education institutions. Why? Because we’re all about culture change and helping organizations find their Blue Ocean Strategy so they can adapt to what’s coming (or in many cases, what’s already here). And what we’re finding is that today’s colleges and universities desperately need both — culture change and Blue Ocean Strategy.

Case in point: If you look at classrooms from the years 1900, 1950 and today, you might be surprised, or dismayed, to see that they are all very much the same. Take a look:

higher ed classrooms

While this antiquated educational system still hasn’t changed much, the world outside is changing faster than ever before. What to do?

Higher education needs to re-think its entire approach

The first step in revamping America’s educational system is to rethink the “job” these institutions are supposed to be performing, and for whom.

To do that, we as anthropologists suggest that colleges need to look beyond themselves and their campuses. Their strategies were designed for another time when society was moving much more slowly, and the education you received prepared you for existing jobs in the marketplace and the lifestyle you were going to pursue.

To understand what a new strategy could achieve for the entire higher educational system, let’s look first at the current challenges that higher education is facing and how a Blue Ocean Strategy might help address them.

Problem #1: Higher Education institutions are not adapting to changing times

While higher education institutions know that they need to prepare their students for a fast-changing technological world, they have only scratched the surface to adapt their own teaching methods and expand their scope of educational services. They need to accept their role in this great transformation and harness the power of technology to apply it to their educational practices. 

Problem #2: Split from the job market

Another critical issue for higher education is its misalignment with the current job market. Collaborating with business is a good way to improve an institution’s curriculum and open its eyes to the necessity of teaching students the required skills — both the hard skills and the soft skills — they will need to get hired and stay employed.

Problem #3: Disconnect with students

The long-held belief that going to college and getting a degree guarantees you a job in your field of study is no longer true. Students who don’t relate to the typical university curriculum are instead choosing certification courses, free online programs or other formal and informal channels.

How can Blue Ocean Strategy help academia?

Today, massive changes taking place in our culture require a new strategy. At SAMC, we strongly recommend that higher education institutions consider a Blue Ocean Strategy, an innovative approach to establishing market leadership developed by Professors Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne and described in their award-winning book, Blue Ocean Strategy.”

The fundamental idea of Blue Ocean Strategy is for marketers (or in this case, universities) to overcome a competitor-driven, saturated market (red ocean) by moving to a new and uncontested market which is focused on adding more value to consumers at a lesser cost (blue ocean.)

The foundation of the approach is based on how our brains hate to change. Therefore, to open your mind to a blue ocean, you need to:

  1. First, use the tools of the Blue Ocean strategic canvas to have a “Visual Awakening.” When you do a strategic canvas, you realize that your current strategy is keeping you stuck in the same red ocean where all the competition is swimming. Conversely, creating a strategic canvas enables you to see things that you could do to add value in innovative ways, and by doing so, open a new unoccupied market space where you’re the first, the best and the only (at least until someone else comes along).
  2. Second, once you have your Visual Awakening, you need to go “Visually Exploring.” To do that, you can find some tools here. Out of those consumer pain points come big ideas that can become your new market space, your blue ocean of opportunities.
  3. Third, as you and your team begin to pull together your abundance of ideas, see how they converge into different strategic options. Post these ideas as alternative strategic canvases and discuss, debate and design the one that could really become the best new strategic opportunity for you and your organization.
  4. Finally, draw a lot of pictures to conceptualize the new “you” the organization is going to become. This visualization is very important. Your brain needs to “see” what you imagine, not just hear the factoids you are promising. Your staff needs to see it as well if you and they are going to make it come together.

The key is to focus on unmet needs and non-users, and in this way, open a new market space. This is the shift in mindset that makes Blue Ocean Strategies really work.

Can a Blue Ocean Strategy work for you and your organization?

By shifting their focus to innovative ways to change their structure and culture, today’s colleges and universities can achieve their central goal: to better prepare students for the next chapter in their lives — their future careers. And in our view, Blue Ocean Strategy is the best way to do this.

For a deeper dive, read our white paper 

We’ve written a very informative white paper on how Blue Ocean Strategy could help higher education institutions see the current educational landscape with fresh eyes, navigate a new way forward and better serve their students. We also include several case studies which illustrate Blue Ocean Strategy in action. Access the white paper here. 

Want to know more?

Read all about this topic on our blog and in our book,On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.

At Simon Associates Management Consultants, we help organizations use Blue Ocean Strategy to adapt to change and then align their processes and culture with their new strategy and goals. We invite you to contact us to brainstorm ideas on how we could work together to create custom solutions to overcome the challenges your business or higher education institution is facing. If you already have something in mind, contact us about that too. We’d love to hear about it! 

From Observation to Innovation,





Andy and Andi Simon
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants

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