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

BY Jeff Cobb

Blue Ocean - Complementary Products

For readers who have missed it (or simply want to review), I have done three prior posts on the six paths framework that is a fundamental component of Blue Ocean Strategy (covered in detail in Chapter 3 of the book: “Reconstruct Market Boundaries”).

In this post I consider the fourth path discussed by Kim and Mauborgne: looking across complementary products and services. 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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Assessing and leveraging complementary products and services

In nearly every field or industry, businesses tend to focus narrowly on a core set of products and services and competition generally occurs within commonly understood boundaries for those products and services. Significant value, however, is often “hidden in complementary products and services.” To discover this value, Kim and Mauborgne suggest a series of questions:

What is the context in which your product or service is used? What happens before, during, and after? Can you identify the pain points? How can you eliminate these pain points through a complementary product or service offering?

Think, for example, of the market for athletic shoes. The focus has traditionally been on the shoes themselves. Makers strive to offer a range of models and styles and to emphasize performance-oriented features like lightness or ruggedness. Nike, however, has recognized that the shoe is only part of the customer’s total experience. Many customers – particularly those willing to pay the premium associated with Nike products – are serious about physical activity and improving their performance over time. This recognition led Nike to partner with Apple around a special version of the Apple Watch, one that is likely to have strong appeal for Nike’s fitness-oriented audience. (I mention this particular example to highlight the fact that partnerships can often be a good way to tap into the opportunities represented by complementary products and services.)

In education markets, the focus tends to be on the particular body of content or time that defines a formal education experience: a course, a conference, a Webinar. A great deal of emphasis is put on determining titles, identifying subject matter experts, and – particularly in recent history – trying to improve the quality of what happens within the prescribed space of the formal experiences. We tend not to pay enough attention to the fact that any single educational experience is only one of many that will factor into an individual’s ongoing learning process.

Consider what happens before an individual engages in a learning experience. I routinely have clients tell me, for example, that their staff members spend a good bit of time by phone or e-mail helping members find and understand the available choices for continuing education. This is not just a matter of a Web site with usability issues (though, alas, that often is an issue): it’s a reflection of the complexity of the world we now live in, and of a desire – at least among a certain segment customers – to maximize the value of their educational investments. Similarly, in my consulting work, I have actually had clients pay me to map out how they might get the most out of a particular conference.

These examples suggest possible opportunities for engaging customers with complementary services before the formal education experience. There may also be other good opportunities after a formal educational experience. For example, coaching services – whether on an individual or group basis – could be a powerful way to help learners retain, apply, and improve upon what they learn from formal educational experiences like courses or conferences.

As with the examples offered in other parts of the series, these may or may not be ideas that jibe with your education business. But, in general, it is worth remembering that a particular conference session, seminar, or online course is rarely the “total solution” a customer seeks. Lifelong learners want to grow and develop over time in ways that increase their professional competence and confidence (the two go hand in hand), provide personal satisfaction, and enhance their overall value in the employment market. If you step back and take a look at your offerings from this perspective, you will almost certainly see ways in which you can unlock new value.


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

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