I'm told that Sun Tzu's Art of War is required reading at Westpoint and Sandhurst. But can the 2500 year old lessons allegedly written by this Chinese General be of any relevance to FE today?

Perhaps, if we take the basic truths from the Art of War and apply them to our current situation.

For example Sun Tzu is attributed with saying "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge."

Certainly there can be no argument that knowledge of our sector, our customers and our competitors is vital if we are to not only survive but thrive. Indeed it is often said that knowledge is power.

In FE knowledge is power

But how do we attain knowledge?

Sun Tzu would have sent a spy into the enemy camp. Sending a spy into a competitor to ascertain their plans and strategies might be far fetched today. But that isn't to say we cannot obtain knowledge in other ways. Indeed, in the digital age, access to information has never been easier if we know where to look.

For example we have incredible amounts of information in our MIS systems that can be displayed on maps, as graphs and by various segments.

Our websites also provide huge amounts of information if only we know where to find it and how to interpret it. We can even look at our competitors' websites and obtain competitive information from them.

Discovering closely guarded secrets

Only last year a CEO was surprised when I contacted them to ask if he wanted help with a project I knew his college were planning. Apparently their intentions were a closely guarded secret and I was asked how I had found out.

The answer was that three members of his staff had looked at my profile on LinkedIn and two had signed up to my newsletter. As both of the subscribers had actually subscribed from same page on my website I associated this page with potential future action. This was further confirmed by questions one of them asked on a specialist website.

Then one of their suppliers made an off-hand comment about being asked to quote for a piece of software. As it is relevant to the pages on my website the two members of staff had visited I started to draw conclusions.

Of course I knew nothing conclusive; but there were enough coincidences here to hazard a guess.

In essence the actions of college staff had given the game away. Few people realise that their actions can be discovered in this way and their intentions guessed.

Likewise, in my own business, the use of industry standard software tells me when the majority of FE staff open the emails I send them. More importantly I can track the time at which these people engage with my calls to action.

This means I can time the sending of email to a time when they are most receptive to opening them.

So that poses a question. How might you use this sort of information to target sales emails to employees and students? When would they be most receptive to opening your emails and when are they most receptive to taking action; the two might not be consistent.

One way to discover the answer is to use split-testing and commercial software.

Seeing the future

Another form of knowledge can be derived from LMI. The problem is most LMI is historical.

So where can you obtain current knowledge of employers needs or student interest? If you can obtain this, and it isn't so hard to find, there are ways to use this knowledge without initially alerting your competitors of your intentions. Being in a market for a few weeks before your competitor becomes aware can mean you dominate that market for years.

You should advertise surreptitiously

My advice is that when advertising a new course you do so surreptitiously. I know that sounds ludicrous but it is entirely possible. Today we can run adverts that are so tightly targeted that only our target audience will see them.

So if you intend running a new animation or dance course ensure your ads are only initially seen by, say, 15-19 year olds with an interest in animation or dance. This way staff in competitor establishments are unlikely to see your ads on places like Facebook; unless of course a 15-19 year old shows them.

Likewise you can advertise online to employers in such a way that only those people you want to see the adverts will ever see them. There is a time to go public with new courses but there are times when targeting specific groups will yield greater benefits.

This technique can also be used for surreptitiously undertaking market research on things like the title of a new course. Getting the title right can make or break recruitment. I've recently used this technique to test the title of a book I've recently launched.

Having applied Sun Tzu's methodology and thoroughly researched the needs of my target audience, the title I settled on was Creating Business Growth. It seems to have hit the target as the book went to the number on spot on Amazon in no fewer than eight countries.

There are many more lessons I believe can be learnt from the Art of War and I'll possibly write more about them in a later article.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US - visit: www.ProviderMasterMind.com and http://www.creatingbusinessgrowth.com

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