Not Everything Should Be a Differentiator

Today I read this really interesting piece from David Jones titled, “Homogeneity: the inevitable result of a strategic approach?”  It’s short and worth the read.  The basic premise is that defining the work we do based on a strategic approach yields a non-differentiated result (my words, not his).  That is to say, every institution starts to look kind of the same. As I said, interesting.

As I was reading my initial thought was that the solution to this is to ensure your organization has time and resources to work on things that aren’t strategic (or at least don’t seem that way).  Basically some time to play at things that might seem irrelevant or even useless.  The output here isn’t meant to be measured, there’s no metric for success.  There’s just doing.  And every once in awhile something extraordinary will come out of this – something that helps differentiate your institution.

And I think that is in some ways the solution David proposed, but I found myself shaking my head and the example he used to make that point.  His example (from an outside source) suggests that schools should develop their ERP as an ad hoc collection of tinkers and hacks that are unique to the institution, that leverage what is different about the institution.  And that’s 100% not what I think institutions should do, not with the ERP anyway.  A school’s ERP isn’t and shouldn’t try to be a differentiator.  It’s not my sense we need a differentiated way for students to pay their bills, or track expenses, or most of the other things at which the ERP is good.  Whatever differentiation you happen to bring will be lost in the resources you will forever consume trying to integrate with other systems or teach new staff the oddities of all your hacks and tinkers. The ERP needs to be as standardized as you can make it so that you can apply normalized and best business practices to gain efficiencies.  Then you take the resources you saved by doing that and explore the things that are differentiators.

So yes, develop a culture of whimsey and exploration in your organization, and don’t worry if it’s strategic.  But at the same time try and encourage the exploration where it may build or discover useful differentiation.  For most schools that will be somewhere on the academic side of the house, not administrative systems.

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2 Responses

  1. David Jones says:

    G’day Kyle,

    I agree with your summary. To use my words, not everything should be bricolage. There needs to be some “strategic” (or perhaps enterprise) work, but there needs to be space for bricolage. That’s the conclusion of the paper that most explicitly engages with this argument.

    And then there’s this bit of bricolage that I’ve implemented which seems to illustrate the type of tinkering you’re talking about. It’s based on data from the ERP (couldn’t happen without the ERP), but does something with the data that the ERP would never do.


    • Kyle Johnson says:


      Mahalo for your comment. What you’re doing makes much more sense than what I thought you were saying. ‘-) Institutions (and IT groups) need to provide space and “support” for interesting new uses of the data in the ERP. With a reasonable API and the right set of permissions that addresses regulatory concerns (mostly FERPA), I think that can be possible.

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