“The new abnormal” in K-12: Tactics are more important than ever

“Strategy” has become such a common term in business, many folks forget that it originated in war.  “Strategos” is the ancient Greek word for “general.”  So strategy really means the art of generalship: how the top commander directs resources against an enemy to achieve policy goals.

“Tactics,” also a military term, is often misused as if it meant the same thing on a smaller scale: how subordinate commanders direct their forces to win individual battles.  But in modern military theory – “modern” meaning since WWI or maybe even the Civil War – that’s really “operations.”  Tactics, strictly speaking, gets down to an even lower level: how individual units behave in the hour-to-hour, often minute-to-minute, manuvers and interactions in various battlefield situations.

To any pacifists reading this blog, apologies for the bellicose references.  But if we’re going to use terms we might as well understand what they mean.  Loose talk about the importance of “strategy” often overlooks two points:

  • “Strategy” differs from “business model” or “corporate vision” in one key respect: it’s about manuvering against competition.
  • Good strategy is important but good tactics is critical.  Determined, well-trained troops on the field have succeeded despite flawed strategy since the days of Julius Caesar, but if tactics fail, everything fails.

So what in the world does this have to do with marketing to K-12 schools?

The “battlefield” we all compete on has never been more rugged, and it’s not getting better soon – see my previous posts  about state financial conditions and overall school funding.  People talk about adjusting to “the new normal” but I think “the new abnormal” better describes the dislocated decision-making process that the national (and global) financial crisis has caused.  Funding crises force schools and districts into short-term thinking, often short-circuiting the usual months-long process of lead generation and closing educational marketers usually employ.  Money is still there but it’s often hidden,  moved around, reallocated at the last minute.  Local influences have suddenly rocketed up the scale of importance.

An illustration of this trend came in June from an unlikely source: the Census Bureau’s annual Public Education Finances report.  This voluminous, state-by-state report on the amounts and sources of funding was summed up by the Pew Charitable Trusts this way:

For the first time in 16 years, local governments picked up a higher share of the education bill than the states…Declining state revenues increased the distance between the haves and the have-nots…

So if we’re going to heed the classic advice “follow the money,” we need close contact at the local level – district and school.  Because both the money and the need for our products may have disappeared in one locality but abound right down the road.

This may be one more reason why despite cutbacks in other areas, many ed marketers have been expanding their salesforces.  Whether field or phone, it’s the “ground forces” who develop the grassroots knowledge of what’s happening where, who needs what, and how to deploy a company’s always-limited resources to connect the schools’ needs with your solutions.

The great German general and strategic theorist Helmuth von Moltke is often quoted as saying “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  (He didn’t say it exactly that way but close enough.)  We might paraphrase it this way: “No educational marketing plan survives first contact with the schools.”  Moltke didn’t mean don’t plan, and neither do I.  I do mean to invest in plans and resources at the grassroots level at least as much as you do higher up, and stay flexible and mobile, to survive this “new abnormal.”

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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