A SWOT - which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats - is a useful technique for understanding your internal strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying external opportunities and threats your organisation faces.
You can use a SWOT for projects big and small, for example:
- Developing and enhancing your strategic plan
- Identifying new opportunities
- Making the most of new programmes or offerings
- Improving your marketing
- Identifying areas where you need to improve
- Managing current or future threats
- Assessing changes in the wider international education environment
- Strengthening your position in relation to your international market/s.
Developing a high quality SWOT analysis requires robust self-reflection and strong critical analysis. SWOT analyses are often best done as a group exercise, with the input from a number of stakeholders who have different perspectives and insights to share.
Benefits of a SWOT
What makes SWOT particularly powerful is that, with a little thought, it can help you uncover opportunities that you are well-placed to exploit. And by understanding your weaknesses, you can manage and eliminate threats that would otherwise catch you unawares.
More than this, by looking at yourself and your competitors using the SWOT framework, you can start to craft a strategy that helps you distinguish yourself from your competitors, so that you can compete successfully in your market/s.
The SWOT framework
The SWOT structure may be familiar to many of us, and is a valuable tool to undertake a structured analysis of a project or strategy.
The S and W boxes are your internal focus
The strengths and weaknesses aspect of the SWOT are your internal focus.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation, project or the topic you’re focusing on? Make sure that you get a good range of thinking around the table for this part of the exercise, and some external viewpoints. Think in terms of things you can leverage (your strengths) and things that might be holding you back (the weaknesses).
Get them all out on the table, even if you don’t have solutions to them.
Use the O and T boxes to look externally
The opportunities and threats aspect of the SWOT are your external focus.
This is where you can look at what’s happening outside your organisation and draw out any threats, or potential threats. It’s also where you can identify current or potential opportunities. Again, an external viewpoint can be useful to include in this part of the task.
When brainstorming opportunities and threats, you can start to incorporate the intelligence you’ve been gathering. Highlighting the local, regional and global trends you are seeing will help ensure you’re responding effectively to them.
How big is the task of doing a SWOT?
SWOTs can be anything from a quick and dirty analysis to get you going with a project or task, right through to an ordered way to map out key things to think about in your strategic planning. They can often highlight areas you may not be aware of. You might want to do one as a quick brainstorm over lunch for an hour, or turn it into a more formal exercise and give yourself more time.
QUICK TIP: BRAIN-WRITE BEFORE YOU BRAIN-STORM
Research shows that if you brainstorm something in a group, the first few suggestions colour the rest of the suggestions the group makes. To avoid group think, start by undertaking a quick “brain writing” exercise. Get your participants to spend a minute or two silently writing their ideas on post-it notes. Then collate those notes onto a whiteboard and add to them with additional brainstorm discussion. This approach will likely see you get a broader range of perspectives than if you just undertook a brainstorm process.
Exercise - Assess your own strengths and weaknesses
Start doing a SWOT analysis for your organisation. Why would a student or parent choose to study with you instead of your competitors? Why would an agent wish to represent you over others? Look at areas where you have an advantage, or where you might need to put more focus.
Ask your colleagues to contribute to your SWOT analysis to help you identify strengths and resolve or minimise weaknesses. Don’t forget to get advice and reflections from your students and parents, past and present. They’re your best source of first-hand feedback on what’s working, and what might need some enhancement. Reasons why they chose you over your competition will be information gold.
QUICK TIP: SWOT YOUR STUDENTS
Get your existing international students to brainstorm your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses (without you there). This is a great way to identify actual and perceived strengths and weaknesses with your programme from the people whose opinion most matters.
Look through all the key factors that make you unique, or give you an advantage over the competition and make you attractive to study with. Some of these you may already leverage with your marketing. You may identify other areas that you’re not utilising to best advantage, or may have taken for granted.
It’s important to get external advice on what makes you attractive and unique; this will ensure you’re covering everything and that you’re staying true to the facts. We may think our offering is unique, that we provide outstanding service to our students, or whatever else we consider a strength, but this must be established objectively. It’s no good sitting around in isolation, self congratulating ourselves on how awesome we are. On the flip side, it’s easy to carry on with business as usual and take some of our most attractive qualities for granted. Your strengths have to be confirmed externally to you.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- What is unique about your programme - what do you do that no one else does?
- Can you offer a unique New Zealand cultural experience?
- Is your particular location attractive?
- Is there something unique or innovative in your style of teaching - maybe it’s your class sizes, your outdoor programmes, your links with a particular industry
- Do you offer outstanding pastoral care, above and beyond others? Maybe you have some outstanding homestay parents
- Do you have a great alumni base?
- Do you have an excellent website and social media platforms?
- What pathways do you offer?
- How do your price points compare to the competition?
- Do you have robust processes and systems?
- What is your reputation in your markets?
- What resources do you have?
- Do you have strong links to local and regional providers and other organisations?
- Do you have good relationships with local businesses that you could leverage for work experience?
Quick tip: Write down your characteristics
If you're having trouble identifying your strengths, try writing down a list of your characteristics. Some of these will hopefully be strengths!
Here you need to draw out factors that need attention. Some weaknesses may be out of your control for the moment, but drawing them out and assessing them will help you navigate around them.
Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Do you lack market recognition?
- Do you lack credibility or have a less than stella track record in some aspect of your offering or delivery?
- Is your pricing putting people off? (this could be too high or too low)
- Do you have strong competition?
- Do you lack qualified staff or other resources?
- Are you short of funding?
- Do you feel like you’re at the mercy of changing trends / fashion in education?
- Are you sensitive to changes in the economy, politics, weather or environment?
- Do you lack IT support?
- Do you have a lack of market demand / knowledge?
- Do you have issues with agents, or others who are marketing for you?
Remember: It's best to be realistic now, and face any unpleasant truths as soon as possible. Don’t forget to get external perspectives on your actual (or perceived) weaknesses; identifying these is essential if you want to grow your business.
Now it’s time to look externally at the opportunities. Like the previous exercises, brainstorm everything you can think of. What good opportunities can you spot? What interesting trends are you aware of? When you think about opportunities, consider the intelligence you are picking up from your website, students, agents and international education colleagues.
Useful opportunities can come from such things as:
- Changes in technology and markets on both a broad and narrow scale
- Changes in government policy
- Changes in social patterns, population profiles, lifestyle changes, and so on
- Events, perhaps locally or in your market/s.
Here you’ll look at the external threats you face. What kind of obstacles are in your way? What issues might be around the corner?
Some threats could include:
- What are your competitors doing?
- Are quality standards for education services or offerings changing?
- Is changing technology threatening your ability to market effectively?
- Are there any changes in policies that could be a threat?
Now you’ve completed your SWOT analysis, it’s time to address your key weaknesses, ward off your key threats, harness your opportunities, and/or make your strengths shine.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to do; instead pick one to three key issues to focus on and start there. You may want to start with your key weakness, on the basis that addressing this will provide the greatest potential for improvement. Or you might aim to post credibility-boosting student feedback as quickly as possible on your website; formalise your pathway opportunities; or upskill staff to fill knowledge gaps.
You can either develop a plan of action to resolve the issues and opportunities identified in your SWOT, or you can embed it into your existing business and other plans.
You don’t need to do too much. Choose a few key aspects that would be easy to implement right away. They could just be simple changes - but even simple changes can make a big impact.