Seth got us thinking. Last week we listened to Seth Godin give a keynote speech at the Ad World conference in which, quite typically, he flew in the face of conventional "wisdom". His message to those who have something to offer the world was simple: go and find your tribe, no matter how small, just do what you do and do it well. Focusing only on massive scaling often ends up, he said, by "selling average things to average people". Be extraordinary, be passionate, be authentic, and the rest will come.
The market for university courses in certain sectors is very mature. Business, leadership, marketing, food and drink, hospitality, and the rest. Anyone starting out now with an MBA in Global Leadership is really going to struggle to differentiate from the rest. Now is the time, for those who can, to launch niche university courses.
The VRIO matrix which helps us figure out how sustainable (if at all!) our competitive advantage is, asks the key questions "Is it rare? Is it expensive/easy to imitate?". For so many of today's degrees, they are ubiquitous, and online learning providers are doing a pretty good job at replicating the content for a fraction of the cost. Employers care more these days about the skills you've developed and are happy to provide their own training to make sure it fits their needs. That means universities, to stay relevant, must answer the question "is it worth it?". They must be able to provide what cannot easily be obtained elsewhere, and that means evolving their offer and finding a niche to call their own.
Harvard Business Review tells us that finding a niche means actually creating it, and that often comes from identifying a subgroup within an existing market that are underserved, and meeting that need. The interesting thing here is that this niche often cuts across demographics, and so you get a whole new scenario. Universities who are trying to offer everything to everyone will always be serving most in a less than perfect way, and this offers an opportunity to the outlier who says- this is my tribe right here. So who is doing this, and how?
We know what you're going to say. This isn't niche! This is the opposite of niche. An undergraduate degree that focuses on the problems you want to solve in the world, and equips you with the transferable skills to do so. This is focusing on anything.
The niche here, however, is the learning approach. There is nothing else like it out there; at least nothing that is yet making much noise. This degree is, in our view, a clever and future-proof offer that will influence other institutions to follow suit.
As they say on the website, "it is no longer enough to graduate with a 2:1 degree. You need to graduate with the skills employers are looking for". You can see why we included this example here- it is exciting to see something like this on offer, and it is largely unique. Students focus on a problem they want to solve, and are given a grounding in a wide variety of fields from sociology to mathematics, research methods to communication skills, innovation methodologies to problem solving and collaboration skills. The focus here is not on knowledge with the skills as a by-product, but rather on the skills themselves. This is a project-based degree and though LIS are the niche creators, they will certainly be sharing the space sometime soon. As our trusty competitive advantage framework shows, the big risk to your niche position is in the ease of imitation.
You take one look at the website, and you can see how focused this course is immediately. The dark red colour of the site immediately evokes the best of Burgundy wine, and it is clear that the complex nature of the wine trade is dealt with in-depth and detail with embedded collaboration from industry experts. The curriculum is not diluted with generic courses cannibalized from other masters degrees.
The Burgundy School of Business answers that all-important question upfront: Why should I study here? Universities do not exist on islands, cut off from their environment. They are an ecosystem, and the best institutions keep their walls permeable to allow the flow of ideas and insights both ways with surrounding business and community groups. The Burgundy region not only has the provenance of a centuries-old wine trade, but also showcases strong links with the industry. That the faculty are wine masters, winegrowers, or distribution experts is to be expected in a competitive MBA, but the scale of the guest speaker programme and the learning visits not only to production centres but an international distribution centre in New York shows that the focus is not only local but extends along the supply chain. For us, the key detail that made this offer stand out as a strong niche offer is the on-site innovation and tasting facility. It is always a concern that universities teach what is already known and what has already happened, without being part of what is changing and what is to come. The live link between innovation, academia and industry is a positive statement of relevance and adaptable evolution to market trends.
Global food systems are changing. The UN has made it clear that plant-based diets "offer major opportunities to address climate change". Animal agriculture and the resulting deforestation and incursion into pristine wildlife habitats increases the risk of further pandemics, as well as the risk of antibiotic resistance among humans. The whole global food chain is a time bomb.
Such issues are a focal point for Generation Alpha and Generation Z fears climate change over everything else. Solution-oriented courses of study with a practical focus on impact, are clearly set to grow. While master's degrees in sustainability and ethical supply chain management abound, some universities are getting quite a lot more niche.
Ethnobotany at the University of Kent is the interdisciplinary study of "plants and their ecology in the context of their cultural, social and economic significance". This is laser-focused on the solution of a global supply chain that must take into account complex factors across a number of disciplines. What food can be grown where, and why? How can the land be managed for sustainability and to support biodiversity? How does this connect with tradition and local practice, and if we are to introduce new practices, how would this work best?
This niche is clearly appealing to a generation of students who want to get to the heart of the problem. A master's degree will often give students a solid grounding in the areas of focus, but the application is up to them. In this course, problem-based learning is at the core, and so the resulting knowledge and skills are an integral and organic part of the solution. These skills and knowledge areas will be in huge demand by the end of this decade.
Kodawari is the Japanese art of taking small things and embellishing them with the beauty of detail until they are perfect; not to everyone perhaps, but to a core of people who will dedicate their lives to such things.
In an age where universities have to show direct professional relevance and compete with more informal online learning offers and qualifications/courses offered directly from companies, getting specific and specialized is a good idea. The VUCA (volatile, complex, uncertain, ambiguous) world ahead does not only mean a more fluid approach for students and companies but universities too.
We need to see course offers that evolve every year with industry trends (and not at the 5-yearly course content meeting). Offers that serve a specific need and stand out from the sea of broader and more generic courses that seem adaptable but are really just trying to be all things to all people.
In the world of tomorrow, the problems we face will need deep dive specialists and not jacks-of-all trades. We will need learning experiences that evolve with the industry, and not static courses. Lastly, we will need learners equipped with transferable skills and real-world savvy. It is the time of niche focus to face big problems.