6 Paths for Leading Your Education Business to Blue Ocean, Part I

BY Jeff Cobb

Blue Ocean - Look Across Alternative Industries

Are you looking for ways to separate your education business from the pack and stop competing on price?

Would you welcome innovations that help you raise the value you deliver while also lowering your cost structure?

With this post I’m kicking off an exploration of some “Blue Ocean” strategy tools that can help you achieve these very goals. Specifically, I’m going to discuss the Blue Ocean strategy six paths. If you would like a convenient PDF with all six parts of this series, just click the button below. Otherwise, read on.

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So What’s Blue Ocean Strategy?

Blue Ocean strategy – in case you have not come across the concept before – is based on the idea that most organizations within any field or industry compete on the same basic factors. Price and features, for example, tend to be common ones. As a result, everyone tends to look the same over time, and everyone competes fiercely to bite off their piece of the market, thus creating a bloody “red ocean.”

Organizations that embrace Blue Ocean strategy, on the other hand, “reconstruct” their markets and find wide open waters where the sailing is smooth and competitors are nowhere to be seen.

But how do they do this?

There are a range of tools that can be used in formulating Blue Ocean strategy, all of which are laid out in the mega-bestselling book Blue Ocean Strategy: How To Create Uncontested Market Space And Make The Competition Irrelevant by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. Over my years of working with clients on strategy formulation I’ve frequently used Kim and Mauborgne’s “strategy canvas” as a powerful tool for helping organizations better understand their market position. In this series, though, I will focus on another set of powerful tools: the six paths.

What Are the Blue Ocean Strategy Six Paths?

Kim and Mauborgne argue that most organizations tend to look only within their specific industry and customer base when developing strategy – a practice that is not likely to lead to breakthroughs. A more productive approach is to look across. Specifically, Kim and Mauborgne suggest six ways to look:

I’ll consider all of these in the next few posts, but for this first post I will focus on looking across alternative industries.

Looking Across Alternative Industries

Typically, organizations look to other organizations within their own industry or field to benchmark and formulate strategy. A key problem with this approach is that it leads to a focus on “best practices.” I’ve highlighted some of the issues with best practices before, but the main one to note here is that the pursuit of best practices by all of the players across an industry results in everyone looking pretty much the same. Differentiation – the core of effective strategy – essentially disappears.

One way to find potential sources of differentiation is to look across industries where your customers commonly seek (whether consciously or not) alternatives to your offerings. Southwest Airlines, for example, was able to disrupt the airline industry not by focusing on other airlines, but by by looking at the car rental industry and the trade offs that travelers were making between flying and renting a car.

Keep in mind that alternatives is a broader category than substitutes. A substitute product or service will take a different form from the original choice, but provide much the same functionality. So, switching from one airline to another represents a change in form, but not really a change in functionality. This switch would represent a substitution.

Switching to a rental car, on the other hand, represents both a change in form and functionality ( a car, after all, can’t fly – yet!). Still, a rental car can serve the same purpose as a plane for many travelers – getting to a desired destination – and is thus an alternative.

A Common Alternative to Educational Events

A common alternative to attending a formal educational event, for example, is simply to read a book. Clearly, a book is different in both form and function from a seminar or a conference, but it can serve the same purpose as these events for many prospective learners: to acquire new knowledge on a timely basis.

So, it’s worth considering what the trade offs are between a book and a seminar or conference and then asking if there are ways you can address these trade-offs that might provide additional value for your customers, lower costs, or ideally, both.

On the upside books are relatively inexpensive, highly portable, not constrained by time or place, and easy to review again and again over time. The best of them also tend to come from highly-regarded experts in any given field or industry and are well-edited to feature the highest-value information and insights that person has to offer.  For the education provider, the fact that many books that are relevant to your audience already exist can also help make sourcing content significantly easier.

On the downside, books may offer content that is too generic or broad, generally don’t provide immediate access to an expert or peers for questions and practical guidance, often don’t provide any opportunity for earning continuing education credit, and are usually structured well for delivering information, but not necessarily for effective learning. (Of course, this last downside is often true of conference sessions and seminars, too, in my experience.)

While a conference session or seminar may – at least in theory – address most or all of the downsides, they tend to be significantly more expensive than books and they usually require travel, thus reducing their convenience greatly. Additionally, the level of expertise available at any given seminar or event can vary widely. Finally, while advances in technology have made the recording distribution of conference sessions and seminars much more common, I’d argue these recordings are still nowhere near as flexible and usable as the good ‘ol book.

If these trade offs can be addressed cost effectively, there may be tremendous strategic potential for developing an offering that blends the best qualities of books and traditional educational events. There are, of course, any number of moves you could make. A model for the new offering might be something like the following:

  • Establish one or more books as the core content for an educational event
    This gives you the ability to feature some of the best content available, and you can allow for an appropriate amount of time for learners to read and absorb a significant amount of content rather than delivering a limited subset of the content in a the one-shot, time-constrained environment of a classroom session. (Keep in mind, too, that you do not have to stick to full-fledged books: articles may serve the purpose just fine.)
  • Provide supplemental content to help tie book content to the specific challenges of your field or industry
    This might take the form of brief articles, case studies, or short video/audio clips featuring interviews with expert or example organizations. Don’t overthink it or assume you have to shoot for high production value. There are probably already good supplemntal materials available, and capturing video or audio interviews with a smart phone and simple software is well within the capabilities of most organizations.
  • Provide expert and/or peer facilitation to help guide learners and answer questions
    This can be done in real-time through Web conferencing or asynchronously through an existing listserv or private discussion area on LinkedIn or Facebook. I’d also recommend looking at communities like GoodReads to see examples of how community and discussion can form around a book. Keep in mind that, by supporting this functionality online, you have a great deal of latitude with the timeline. Your event may take place on a single day, multiple days, or over a number of weeks. Also keep in mind that you may be able to feature the actual book author as one the experts – most authors are continually looking for ways to create more exposure for their books.
  • Provide assessments that offer the opportunity for continuing education credit
    While this practice could present challenges with accrediting bodies in some fields, it is already common with journal-based CE in a number of professions.

There are many other possibilities, of course. You will need to determine what makes sense with your audience and then experiment to see what clicks. The above approach has the advantage of dramatically lowering the costs associated with a traditional face-to-face learning event while elevating the value of a book to a level on par with a learning event.

Of course, depending on where you are coming from you may say “But isn’t this basically the same model as online college courses?” and in many ways you would be right. That said, I don’t need one hand to count up the number of times I have seen trade and professional associations – the main audience on this Web site – re-conceptualize their events in this way. The power of this strategic move lies in treating the offering not simply as a course in an online catalog but in positioning it as a new form of educational event. It’s a simple move, but most Blue Ocean moves are.

A Broader Look at Publishing as an Alternative Industry

It’s also worth examining the publishing industry more broadly and asking whether any key trends or practices there could impact your educational initiatives. The move to eBooks is an obvious one. Somewhat less obvious might be the boom in self-publishing – representing a new avenue for both your organization and its subject matter experts to affordably produce and distribute (in both print and eBook versions) content that could serve as the basis for learning experiences.

You might also want to take a further jump with self-publishing over into the world of self-publishing eLearning platforms. Look, for example, at Udemy or Skillshare. What if you were to provide a similar platform for your subject matter experts – perhaps by partnering with a company of this sort? Or, by embracing the Market Maker business model.

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So, those are just a few examples of where looking at books and the publishing industry might take you. The point is not that creating some sort of book-based offering is the answer to your strategic challenges – maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. What’s important is that this sort of thinking process – of looking across – can help stimulate ideas and put you more in touch with the trade offs your customers and members make all the time.

I like this particular example because we often tend to under value or dismiss options like the old-fashioned book in our efforts to embrace the latest and greatest. Books still offers plenty of opportunities, however, particularly with the rise of self publishing and eBooks.

Do you see other ways that looking at the publishing industry could help you rethink your strategy? Or, what other alternative industries might be a source of inspiration? Please comment and share your thoughts.


P.S. – Here are links to all six parts of this series:

  1. Tracy Sparks says:

    Your examples for looking across alternative industries brings the concept to executable strategy. I found reading over and over Blue Strategy without a how to belabored for no reason. The example of BOOK is kinda a META for my own experience! Thanks for your efforts.

  2. Ilinca C. says:

    Great article! ad useful, too. The Blue Ocean strategy provides business owners a lot of good insights. Helps them take their business to another level, far away from dangerous competition. Leads them to achieve high impact on the market with low cost and maximum profit. We’ve pull some nuggets that visually underline the main ideas about Blue Ocean Strategy http://www.getnugget.co/the-blue-ocean-strategy-step-out-from-the-fishbowl-swim-up-to-success/

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