Happy Holidays from ISA

ISA wishes you the very best of the holiday season.  In an effort to afford ourselves the opportunity to refresh and reflect, ISA will be closed from December 16th through January 2nd.  During this time, ISA staff members will be checking email, voicemail, and our Basecamp collaboration feeds only periodically.  We wish you a safe and enjoyable holiday season and look forward to our work together in the New Year!

East Bay Association of Independent Schools Selects ISA

East Bay Association of Independent Schools has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates to complete strategic planning for the organization during the winter and spring 2017.  EBISA (East Bay Independent Schools Association) is an alliance of over 40 independent K-8 schools located in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay region. Dedicated to academic excellence, the association represents a wide range of educational choices. Common to all is the commitment to establishing and maintaining a diverse population of families and students, including differences in race, nationality, culture, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, family structure, physical abilities and modes of learning. EBISA schools do not tolerate discriminatory behavior toward any children, families, faculty or staff. Their shared goal for children is that they develop a passion for education along with a strong sense of self-esteem and value of diversity.

Putting Stakes in the Ground

Anyone who has spent a weekend camping in a tent understands the importance of putting stakes in the ground.  The stakes placed in the ground promote a firm foundation for the stability of the tent, giving it structure and sustainability.  And, second only to selecting the campsite, it is one of the first things that must be done to set up camp. 

The same is true with creating strategy.  At the outset, an organization has to determine where it is starting from and what strategies will drive it forward.  I often find myself providing counsel to organizations that have a hard time separating tactic from strategy.  Strategies are the small collection of drivers that move an organization forward.  They are the "what" of a solution and they must be created first prior to any action planning.  Tactics are simply the chronological and operational steps that need to be undertaken to support and accomplish the strategies.  They are the "how" of a solution. 

It turns out that most people would rather debate "how" the organization should respond to future needs than "what" strategies will drive it forward.  Putting stakes in the ground is a visible reminder that you can't move forward without the tent firmly in place.  Focus on the "what" and the "how" will become obvious. 

Next up?  "Why" did we go camping in the first place?

Use Intelligent Design to Solve for "X"

I just watched a recent TED Talk featuring the founder of AirBNB.  The talk was inspirational, as always, but focused upon the importance of using design to solve a problem.  Normally, when we hear or read the word "design", many of us think of creative communication or architectural elements.  In this context, however, was the notion of using intelligent product design to overcome a problem.  

It turns out that AirBNB had to overcome an enormous obstacle: trust.  We have been taught not to let strangers into our homes since childhood.  Many of us have used the words "stranger danger" in our own parenting.  How could it be that we could see a thriving industry based upon complete strangers sharing their personal homes?

Intelligent design - using the right amount of information, personal reciprocity of data, and open exchange of information - overcame this obstacle.  A thoughtfully designed and well engineered system of information flow and coordinated communication between parties allowed trust to be built and credibility to be gained.  AirBNB quickly learned that credibility was the quickest solution to overcoming trust issues.

We all need to use intelligent design in our work.  But, the question to ponder is "what problem are you trying to solve?"  Great design only begins with understanding what we are seeking to solve. 

Position Opportunity > Francis Parker School (San Diego)

Francis Parker School in San Diego seeks a Director of Marketing and Communications.  The Director of Marketing and Communications is responsible for the planning, development and implementation of all of the School’s marketing strategies, communications, and public relations activities, both external and internal. The Director coordinates with the admissions, advancement, and the academic offices on the editorial direction, design, production and distribution of all School’s publications and messaging at both the strategic and tactical level.

Francis Parker School is a coeducational independent day school in San Diego, California with 1235 students in grades JK-12. Founded in 1912, two separate campuses serve students in Lower School – junior kindergarten through 5th grade; Middle School – 6th grade through 8th grade and Upper School – 9th grade through 12th grade. As a college preparatory school Parker offers a comprehensive program that includes twenty-five advanced placement courses as well as a rich palette of electives – all designed to meet the individual needs of students.

For more information, please visit the Francis Parker School website at http://www.francisparker.org.

Ian to Speak on the Future of Education at ISANNE

What do thought leaders across the world identify as the top trends facing education today? Join ed-activist, researcher and consultant Ian Symmonds as he gives a not-so-typical, 30,000 foot view of future trends facing private education today with a decidedly business application twist. Ian will present a fresh and provocative look at what thought leaders are saying about the future of education from a business strategy standpoint. His talk will be a featured talk at the Independent Schools Association of Northern New England Business Officers Conference in Portland, Maine on January 11, 2017.  Business officers attending will get critical takeaways and practical applications for their work and school planning.   For more information or to register for the conference, visit www.isanne.org. 

Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart Selects ISA

Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha, Nebraska has selected Ian Symmonds & Associates for strategic planning services.  We welcome the school to the ISA client family.  We are also excited to work with another school in the Sacred Heart Network, complimenting our prior work in Bellevue and New Orleans, among others. 

Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart is an independent, Catholic, college-preparatory high school for girls in grades 9 through 12.  The school was established in Omaha in 1881 and is one of 24 Network of Sacred Heart Schools in the United States and Canada.  Ducesne Academy is also a Blue Ribon School of Excellence.  

We will commence our work with research and analysis this winter and expect to complete the strategic planning process in the early fall of 2017.  We are excited to welcome the Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart to our client family. 

Research is Working with Fact

We throw around the concept of research to make informed decision making in our strategic discussions all the time. But, what do we really mean when we use the word research? It is a concept that is discussed widely and broadly but sometimes it is a science that is misunderstood. Let's pull it apart.

There are four phases to research that we believe are really important. The final phase is the most important to formulating strategy.  They are:

Raw or native information gathered for purposes of analysis is called data. 

Data that has been organized into meaningful sets is called information. 

Information that has been properly analyzed can reveal insight.

Actionable Insight
The nirvana of research is actionable insight, where meaningful insight turns into a strategy or direction.

Research rarely jumps off the page and tells you where to go or what to do. But, actionable insight can provide the needed lens to use research to move forward. Data, information, and even analysis can be useful, but only when they produce actionable insight can you move an organization forward through thoughtful strategies.

Strategy is the Art of Choice and Sacrifice

Strategy is the art of choice and sacrifice.  In other words, if everything is important, then really nothing is important.  But, how do you make sound strategic choices?  And, what factors should you use?  There are actually four essential factors that a non-profit might use to make choice among a series of strategic initiatives.  It is all about sound strategic rationale and criteria.

So, why should one priority show up in your strategic plan, while another was pushed aside by the steering committee?  Creating the proper rationale for doing anything strategic is something that many schools and colleges struggle with during planning processes.  As a result, we have found that focusing on at least one or more critical parameters that a strategic priority must address can help focus your plan on the most important goals.  Here they are in no particular order.

Missional Mandate
A strategic goal must be in the plan because your mission mandates it, regardless of marketplace or revenue opportunities. 

Competitive Imperative
The competitive environment dictates this priority if your school or college wishes to remain competitive.

Revenue Driver
Our school or college can make revenue in this venture.

Element of Distinction
Adding a specific strategic goal will make your school or college more distinctive in the marketplace of sameness.  

Make sure your priorities are grounded in at least one, if not more, than each of these parameters.  Balance is also important.  It is not helpful to have a handful of initiatives that all meet missional mandates, or only a set of initiatives that drive revenue.  Balance across these four priorities helps keep a strategic plan balanced.  

Education Matters

On a regular basis, I write and speak about trends and forces in the education industry.  I spend a great deal of time scanning the environment to identify, understand, and place in context different cultural inflection points and their relationship to education.  I bone up on the changing educational landscape and how the great innovators and thought leaders are approaching their work.  But, I've never taken the time to articulate in a blog post why education matters to me, and should matter to all of us.  Today, I thought I would step back from the day to day of our industry and place my work - all of our work - in context.

Time and time again, education has demonstrated to us that it is the gold standard of investment.  From an economic standpoint, there is no better investment.  Whether it is pulling people out of a life of poverty or inspiring new job earnings, education performs like no other investment.  Consider these facts:

Median Earnings of College Graduates Are Nearly Double High School Graduates. The median weekly earning of a person holding a Bachelor's degree is roughly is roughly $1100, compared to just $600 for high school graduates.  And, weekly earnings drop to just over $400 for non high school graduates. 
Unemployment is Nearly Double for Non-College Graduates. The unemployment rate nearly doubles - from 4.2% to 8.3% - for people not earning at least a four year degree.  And, it increases to over 12% for those not graduating from high school.
A Four Year College Degree More Than Doubles Average Lifetime Earnings. A college graduate can expect to earn just over $1 million in a lifetime of employment, while high school graduates can expect to earn roughly $450K.  
Education is a Better Investment Than Stocks, Gold, or Housing. The rate of return on a college investment over a lifetime is roughly 15%, compared to 7% in the stock market, 3% in gold, or 2% in housing. 
The Rate of Poverty Dramatically Increases Without a College Degree.  The percentage of Americans living in poverty without a college degree is roughly 18%.  For college graduates, only 4% live in poverty.

The economic implications of education are undeniable.  No currency or investment has performed as well as education over time.  Education is the gold standard from an economic standpoint. 

But, what is the primary purpose of education?  This is the age old question.  Is the primary purpose of education for us to earn a living?  Or, is it to live a life?  Better yet, is it to change lives?  I'm not a fan of dualistic or exclusive thinking and tend to support the idea that it is all of these purposes, from economic, to identity, to transformation of the human race.  Education advances our understanding of ourselves within the context of our community.  It places front and center the age old common life questions of "who am I, why am I here, and what do I have to contribute" and demands us to grapple with these issues.  

What I know to be true is simple and straightforward. There are only two things in my life that I cannot lose.  They are my education and faith.  Collectively, they shape who I am, how I see the world, and how I function within it.  No one can take those two things away from me.  In an increasingly dangerous world of uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear, I can lose everything - my family, house, job, or investments.  But, you can't take away the way I see the world.  My story is unique to me.  It reflects my experiences, orientation, and understanding. And, education and faith are not just central, but they are singular in defining who I am in the world.  With those two sound investments, I can remain competitive and confident in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world.

That's why education matters.  And, that's why I pour my life into it.  Education matters - in any brand, in any delivery mode, in any context.  

Culture, Context, Change: The Critical Three C's

While I am not a big fan of alliteration, nor silly memory devices, I have found some are very useful to keeping core principles in mind as we think strategically about organizations.  Where would we be without Peter Drucker's Four P's of Marketing, right?  As I think about strategic planning for schools, colleges, universities, and non-profits, my experience tells me that there are three "levers" or controls that are key to the planning process. Understanding and reading them right is everything.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as Drucker said.  And, he was right.  Understanding the good, bad, and otherwise of an organization's culture is everything.  This is getting down deep on the "inside" of a school or college and finding out why it behaves the way it does, and what it's underlying issues reveal.  "Getting the culture" is key, and you can only do it by immersing yourself in it.

Reading the tea leaves of the outside world is really as important as anything else in the planning process. While schools and colleges love to "navel gaze" in their deeply satisfying ways through accreditation self-studies, the outside world is moving at warp speed and industry is innovating and changing.  Reading the context of any school or college gives us an understanding of their relevancy to the future.

Ah, the dreaded "change" word.  At the end of the day, all great organizations understand the answer to two critical questions:  how much do we need to change to be successful, and what is our capacity to enact that level of change?  Getting the change quotient right is both art and science and can make or break a process.  Read it wrong and you are out of business.

Culture. Context. Change.  
These are the three most important levers to optimize when planning.  Using good data and research that informs the answer to all three is the best best to make sure that you are hitting them head on.  And, making sure that you have sorted all of the issues out with all three ensures that you are balanced in your approach to planning. Try it on for size and see if this recipe sticks in your head.  It might not be the Four P's, but helpful nonetheless. 

The Seven X-Factors of Market Sustainability

As we brave our way through economic uncertainty, a rapidly shifting education industry, and changing consumer mindsets, I have been thinking a lot lately about the characteristics of the most successful private schools and and colleges. In our work with clients throughout the na- tion, what are the attributes of the institutions that are thriving? While there are numerous ex- planations for success, there are seven characteristics that set these schools apart. I'm calling them the Seven X-Factors for Market Sustainability. Use them as a checklist for your school, college, or university and see how you stack up.

Clear Value Proposition 
Sustainable schools and colleges have a clear value proposition. They are client-centered, understanding their students and parents, what they want, and how they define success. They have identified a small number of important consumer benefits that differentiate them from their competitors, focus on them in their program development, and communicate them relentlessly to the consumers.

Strategic Enrollment Management and Marketing
Sustainable schools have learned how to ef- fectively integrate the best practices of recruitment, retention, financial aid, information management, research, and marketing. They have identified funding sources - from the right fit audiences and proper programs - and they know the strategic relationship between price, aid, and their consumer. They are disciplined, hire excellent staff, and have a strategic enrollment and marketing plan in place. They take the guesswork out of enrollment and have effectively leveraged this area of the institution, funding it properly and self-organizing accordingly.

Clear and Established Identity
Sustainable schools and colleges have an institutional identity that is both remarkable and memorable. They understand who they are - and who they are not - and they long ago stopped trying to be all things to all people. They have short, memorable mission, vision, and core values statements, a mature and effective educational philosophy, and they infuse them into their promotional materials. In fact, their promotion is at best merely revelation, not quirky tag lines that sound like other schools.

Distinctive Culture
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Sustainable schools and colleges have developed a culture that attracts people. They have a "secret sauce" and have learned how to bottle it. They emote a palpable feeling to visitors, demonstrating that there is something different and authentic about them. Visitors can feel that there is something special about the place, and they share that feeling with others.

Excellent Product
Sustainable schools and colleges have an excellent academic program. Whether it is a small collection of flagship or signature programs, a distinctive setting for learning, a best in class educational philosophy, or an unusually gifted faculty, they attract students from further distances and with higher capacity to afford them because they perceive the product is superior. And, it is.

Strategically Oriented
Sustainable schools and colleges are always strategically poised, operating with a three to five year strategic plan in place, but revisiting it year to year. They are culturally agile and externally oriented, reading the tea leaves of culture, and constantly challenging their assumptions about the future. They have set a strategic course of direction, but are nimble enough annually to make adjustments. And, they only focus on five or fewer strategic priorities at any given time. They are focused.

Call it the ultimate X-Factor, but sustainable schools and colleges have some luck. Something external to them is working in their favor. Perhaps it is a booming city, a stunning setting, or deteriorating alternative choices in their market. They have identified this market opportunity or gap and have exploited it.

While there are many other elements of great schools and colleges, these are the characteristics that we see most often. Use it as a checklist and ask yourself and your colleagues how your institution stacks up. And, share it with others.

The Intersection Between Mission & Market

Strategic planning - or essentially the art of making good plans with clear strategy - is about finding the intersection between mission and market. And, to understand mission and market, you have to first understand that mission is internal to the organization and market generally is external. It is the old SWOT analysis in practice, as the SW of a SWOT stands for strengths and weaknesses (internal) and the OT stands for opportunities and threats (external).

For most of our educational clients, understanding the mission side of the address is easy because they have a solid understanding of internal mission, culture, and the values of the school or college. It is not hard for them to make plans that address concerns of internal stakeholders because they have researched them, asked them questions, and generally have a good idea on how to be responsive to their issues and concerns. Our experience is that most colleges and schools have a real handle on how to create plans that are aligned with mission.

Here is the challenge, though. Most schools and colleges are less adept at reading the tea leaves of the external environment. They are not adept at understanding demographic trends, competitive forces, and large shifts in delivery or business models. These leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the trends and forces that are likely to shape their industry. As a result, they tend not to be responsive to external trends and forces.

Our experience tells us that the biggest ideas, opportunities, and resulting strategies generally come from the outside. Creating plans that align with mission are important, but if most ideas in the strategic plan generally pander to internal needs rather than external forces, the resulting strategic plan is incremental at best, usually absent of a big idea. More importantly, it fails to find the right intersection between mission and market because external trends were less important in the data collection and planning process.

Finding the intersection is a tough balancing act, because at the end of the day it means managing change and tension between what internal stakeholders believe is sacred to an organization and what the market wants or needs. Our experience tells us that the best plans possess an equal measure of internal and external data and reality, and those research inputs must be carefully synthesized and applied to the unique circumstances of the school or college. And, perhaps most important, best practices would tell us that it is important to revisit the external trends side annually, because that is generally where the dynamic shifts occur.

Great strategy finds the intersection between mission and market. Mission changes little over time, but market opportunity is shifting constantly. The best schools and colleges are constantly challenging their assumptions and reading the external environment to find the right address.

NCAIS Strategic Enrollment Management Summits a Success

We had a great two days of Strategic Enrollment Management Summits this past week in North Carolina.  The events were part of a professional development series for the North Carolina Association for Independent Schools.  On Tuesday, Ravenscroft School hosted nearly 70 professionals in admission, financial aid, finance, marketing communications, and senior leadership roles to listen and participate in the summit.  On Wednesday, Charlotte Christian School hosted 60 professionals in similar roles.  On both days, Ian spoke on the essential elements of strategic enrollment management, strategy, and demographic trends.  Special thanks goes out to Linda Nelson and her team for organizing the event. 

Sharing as a New Economy

Lately, we have been outlining emerging new economies in both North America and global systems.  We discussed the Simplification Economy, as the next generation does more with less and focuses on downsizing.  We also identified the Experience Economy, where young adults are interested in premium experiences over luxury retail goods.  Cleary, there is a new consumer mindset emerging from each of these examples.


The most interesting of the new economies, though, is the Sharing Economy.  Have you noticed how young consumers are more than interested in sharing resources?  Whether it be transportation, living quarters, or workspaces, a new generation of consumer appears more comfortable with sharing over owning.  Interestingly, the outcome of sharing is often a more communal approach to living and working, collaborating with others more closely and reducing expenses at the same time.  

Where did this economy originate?  Our best guess is that the Sharing Economy must have been birthed through technology, and specifically though social media.  Milleniels and their counterparts may have adopted a learned behavior toward sharing content and resources via the internet and social media.  This adoption may have fed their inner need for communalism - my current best guess - which then led to more sharing of what would be otherwise seen as fixed resources.  Since all economies are based upon transactions, the sharing economy is a new paradigm, since sharing is the currency of the transaction.

What are the implications for the education industry?  At this time, I am not sure, but I am guess that it will lend an impact.  I am curious if you see sharing as a new economy and in what ways?  Feel free to share this article with others as a start.  As for me, I am going to go get an Uber to my client, but I am not up for Uber Pool just yet!

Chasing or Creating Markets?

If the number of associations providing professional development and the number of consultants providing services in enrollment management is a sign of the times, then independent schools will continue to struggle in the new normal.  Nearly every independent school in America is experiencing a softening of demand, challenges to attrition, and a refocusing of their brand.  Sure, the enrollment numbers at many of the more stalwart schools still look fine, but there are signs on the horizon that signal a new normal in strategic enrollment management.  And, for sure, one industry response is to become more sophisticated in how we chase markets. 


But, is that really the question?  Is the best solution for independent school long term sustainability to merely to find better ways to chase the same market?  Is it simply about finding more full pay families that want what we have at our schools? I have been on countless campus visits where the client simply wants to better penetrate the existing well educated, suburban, over $150K gross household income family market that seek a safe and rigorous environment.  Sure, that is one way to skin the cat, but I think we are missing the point. 

I just got done reading "Shoe Dog" by Phil Knight.  Yes, I live in the land of Nike in Portland and would admit that my thinking has been influenced positively by their approach.  But, remember, Nike first invented the industry of "running for health" before they invented the shoe to fill the market.  Running for health and recreation did not exist in the mid 1960's to mid 1970s' until Nike got ahold of it.  Nike created a market then filled it with product.  Now, that is strategic. 

The independent school sector needs to start creating new markets rather than chase the old ones.  The old ones are drying up for a reason.  Independent schools need to create new markets with new products, services, pricing systems, and means of delivery.  Independent colleges and universities already discovered this over a decade or so ago.  We need to start thinking innovatively about our independence and how we can leverage that into creating new customer categories.