Building reputation through quality management of accreditations and ranking

Many business schools would testify that before they entered the world of accreditations and rankings, they gave less attention to analysing and strategising stakeholder perceptions and public conversations about their school; Daniel Kahn, Björn Kjellander, and Benjamin Stévenin ask why.

National accreditations provide business schools with best practice factors and base thresholds, but for most schools, the road toward reputation management really begins during the business school’s accreditation journey, where through the accreditation standards, it is prompted to take a careful look at what it aspires to achieve (mission), how it differs from other business schools in terms of vision and values, and how it systematically and strategically intends to contribute to positive change.

The accreditor club

Becoming part of an accreditor community can be likened to gaining access to a membership club, where invitations are selective, to help you differentiate yourself from competitors outside the accreditor community. How schools want to appear in the eyes of others is really the first step in any reputation management process, and schools are encouraged in accreditation standards to calibrate this self-image against stakeholder views. In addition to differentiation, the club membership also helps business schools benchmark the quality of their activities against other club members. These benchmarks can help the business school understand who it is (DNA), where it is coming from (history), where it is going (strategy), and what it wants to achieve (transformation).

The VIP room

It does not usually take long for a business school to realise that there are inner circles among the accredited comprising schools that have decided to take further steps to becoming better and more visible – schools that have entered the world of rankings. What could be described as a room of VIPs is similar to the club member area in the sense that they show a vision of the institution to the external world, facilitating the acquisition of new students, and increasing international exposure. However, you cannot normally be ranked unless you are first accredited. In addition, although neither of them is compulsory they have become essential for visibility.

Rankings can be effective in influencing stakeholder perceptions and public conversations about the business school and its brands as it is naturally outward-looking and lends itself more easily to proactively seizing opportunities to boost reputation. In comparison, accreditation leans more heavily on the back-office of the school as it has a greater focus on maintaining quality management for regular inspection and audit.

Reputational management

The proactive stance of reputation management, to influence the perception of the brand, is one of several components of reputation management, which also includes the enhancement and monitoring of the brand reputation. As many schools discover, accreditation and rankings are not the end of a journey but the beginning of a systemised and coherent way of life – regularly audited by accreditors and annually benchmarked by ranking institutes.

For schools in initial accreditation or with less mature quality assurance systems, accreditations and rankings oscillate in terms of organisation time management, where troughs of management inaction are followed by peaks of activity, with the main focus being on compliance with accreditation standard guidelines and specifications. Schools with mature Quality Assurance Systems or that are involved in multiple accreditations/rankings have systemic cycles of quality processes with dedicated roles, responsibilities, and teams.

But accreditation processes can also be integrated with a school’s overall quality assurance policies, procedures, processes, and people. It then becomes less important who is knocking at your organisation’s door and what data they require. This can potentially also give the organisation time to use accreditations as drivers for building and sustaining an informed reputation and proactively seizing opportunities to boost reputation.

Rankings and accreditations are often separated both physically and from an organisational point of view at business schools. This is often because accreditation is seen as synonymous with quality assurance, and so involves different people and departments. Accreditation also combines self-evaluation reports and physical peer visits. It also involves broader and deeper spectra of the organisation. Unlike accreditations, rankings are usually annual and can involve a smaller part of the organisation.

Whereas it is more difficult to use quality assurance as brand management, rankings are naturally outward-looking as they are, in essence, compiled for the students. This is also reflected in the assessment criteria of the ranking institutes and the annual reporting cycles. This means that brand reputation can be boosted/impaired at regular intervals. Rankings are also more accessible to the general public than accreditations.

Conclusions

Before achieving accreditation, many higher education institutes find few reasons for pinpointing what attracts students and faculty to their campuses. The accreditation process allows the school entry into a club of schools that have been assessed against the same accreditation assessment criteria and have been deemed as good enough to enter, irrespective of origin. This enables schools to get access to better partners, alliances, and collaborations than would have been possible prior to entry. They also diminish the risk of having their partner contracts terminated, when on occasion accreditors encourage schools to reduce the number of their exchange school partners. If a school is not accredited or ranked, there are less evident reasons for retaining it during a partner school spring clean.

The increased visibility that comes with international accreditations and rankings helps the school to get on the international map and benchmark itself on best practice when it comes to factors such as innovation, responsible management, sustainability, national and international growth, etc.. There is the risk that schools with less mature quality assurance systems and brand management find themselves resembling any other business school; focusing on compliance only and not on brand differentiation risk modelling, and the school is shaped into a watered-down version of itself.

And so, reputation management presents itself as both an opportunity and also a change agent/potential threat to the internal self-images nurtured. Yes, accreditations and rankings can be used as a comparison tool but in the light of the changing accreditation market, with new accreditation agencies and types surfacing where rankings such as The Economist and Forbes are disappearing, it becomes increasingly important to use the means available, be it rankings or accreditations, to hone your brand reputation with a firm footing on where you’re coming from, where you’re at, and where you’re going.

To sum up, here is some quick guidance on the dos of reputational management, cheekily phrased as the ten commandments of reputational management.

  1. Thou shall know why
    Define what your reasons are for going through a reputational management process.
  2. Thou shall join an accreditation community
    Be part of a larger community of schools that aspire to the same level of quality and reputation.
  3. Thou shall choose your accreditation or ranking wisely
    Find the accreditation or ranking process which is most suitable and does not require a revamp of your school.
  4. Thou shall aspire to further increase your visibility and brand impact
    By joining an accreditation community of similar schools, you will find that accredited schools that are also ranked will walk the extra mile when it comes to brand management.
  5. Thou shall not lie to yourself
    Everyone wants to be number one… although the chances of being so are unlikely. So, focus on where you are coming from, where you are at, and where you are going.
  6. Thou shall not confuse accreditation and rankings
    Keep your house in order for audits and inspections regarding accreditations, and ground everything firmly in your quality management and quality assurance processes. Roof the house with rankings to maximise international exposure and visibility.
  7. Thou shall organise well
    Create proper processes and organisation in your school, serving a universal purpose and which have not just been created for accreditation or ranking purposes.
  8. Thou shall understand data
    Get an understanding of the data of your school and use your data for multiple purposes and to create strategic reporting.
  9. Thou shall stay true to thou mission
    Don’t let accreditation and rankings get in the way of your mission. Follow what your school and ecosystem ask of you and the rest will come.
  10. Thou shall protect the brand
    Anchor the brand firmly in the mission and the strategy of the institution.

building reputation through quality management of accreditations and rankings

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