Identifying and Developing X Factors: Game Changers for Branding of Educational Institutions

The dictionary defines X Factor as a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome. The best of Branded Colleges already have so many X factors in them. How can others identify and developing their needed X factors? What is the desired process? This article is an attempt at seeking some answers to this question.


Since X factors are variables in any given situation, it becomes imperative to identify the most important X factors that can facilitate the branding of educational institutions. I had recently completed a series of articles on the branded colleges of Anna University in Chennai. The branded college was identified and defined as an institution that had a good Faculty Team, a good research focus, quality of focus on getting the best quality students, and a record of placements. Since we are now discussing the branding of any educational institution in a much broader context, it becomes imperative to identify the other variables as well. These could also include the wide reach to the larger society, action research that concerns products or services with a profound influence on society, the quality of the institution's website, and a serious intent at continuous improvement. In fact this last-mentioned quality should be widely seen as a passion.

In any given situation, the process of identifying and developing the correct and most desirable X factor for success involves a) Bench-marking the educational institution against the best in class b) Serious analysis of every activity c) Identifying answers to "where do we want to go?" d) Getting the act right on whatever needs to be done and e) Continuously improving the quality of any X factor daily.

Bench-marking the educational institution against the best in class

Any educational institution has to compare itself against the best. This process should be continuous. Nothing comes free in life. Everything happens so well in some educational institutions only because someone up there thought about doing something unique.

Let us take one example, which any reader can easily understand. Given a big land parcel of 99 acres in the then sleepy town of Vellore, Mr Vishwanathan, the founder of the prestigious Vellore Institute of Technology had two choices. He already had a good college called Vellore Engineering College. He could have made the college one of the best colleges of Anna University. The second choice was to look far beyond the confines of the college and build a brand. He kept reinvesting his funds to build a solid infrastructure and build a great Faculty Team. The college emerged as a college of choice for thousands of students. When the Government of India wanted to grant the Deemed to be University status to educational institutions, Vellore Engineering College easily scored so high. The rest, as they say, is history.

The founder signed agreements with so many foreign institutions. It is the abode of choice for thousands of African students. The VIT today competes with the IITs and there are many professors from the NITs. The research record of the college is simply world-class. The salary that is paid to the best of VIT students is among the highest in India and the placement is one hundred percent, year on year. The likes of Google come for campus placements.

Now, what are the lessons that any Engineering College Management, can learn from the VIT experience? At least five of them are visible. These are the X factors. The first of these pertains to the intent to reinvest the money for the long-term and never think of short-term gains. Secondly, the focus should be to recruit and retain the best Faculty Team and this should not be just a one-off exercise or limited to just one department like information Technology. Hence, the intent in the first lesson, becomes the variable, the X factor. In the second lesson, the intent is the variable and is once again the X factor. Thirdly, the untiring focus should be to build skills and competencies in students from day one. I have seen several colleges where this is done with such a narrow focus. Or the momentum loses steam within a few months. The students will not be industry-ready at all. Some colleges follow the easy route of just bringing the BPO or KPO companies for campus recruitment. This is a purely short-sighted policy that never works. Fourthly, the focus not only has to be on high-quality research but also continuous improvement as a way of life. Even if a not-so-great engineering college were to seriously start today, it will take a full sixty months to address these gaps and reach up to a fifty per cent effectiveness level of today's VIT.

Benchmark institutions have other terrific X factors. In a town known for chronic water shortage, VIT reuses every bit of used water, treats it, and gets its fabulous green space watered every day. This green campus can envy the best of engineering colleges abroad and even a Rajnikant movie "Enthiran" was shot on the VIT campus. It is not so easy to play the catch-up game here, on this X factor.

Serious analysis of every activity

In a particular Coimbatore-based engineering college where I worked as Placement Head for a few months and quit in disgust, the college had an external "expert" from some coaching agency, who would come and illustrate how the engineering student should answer the multiple-choice aptitude tests conducted on campus. When I objected that this is a merely short-sighted approach and the Management should compulsorily conduct practice tests so often, none listened to such sane advice. The students did not take these sessions seriously. This is exactly what I would refer to as a serious analysis of every activity. For example, do students visit the library during the library hour? Why is this not taken seriously at all? This the spirit of inquiry that will form such a big X factor. There are no short-cuts here.

It is impossible to have the best X factors if serious-minded introspection is not followed up with the best of activities, done seriously with the best of intent and seriousness. All useless activities should be ruthlessly eliminated.

Identifying answers to the question "where do we want to go?"

Quite obviously, every situation in every college is different. It is impossible to chase very ambitious goals as X factors. It is fine to be ambitious, but one should also be realistic. If the present resource position is not good, some sort of networking with similar institutions to strengthen Faculty competence through Joint Faculty Development Programs will be a good action plan. Hence, a five-year plan should also have good goalposts towards which the institution should progress. The X factors that can make a big difference will start showing up after at least three years of hard work.

Getting the act right on whatever needs to be done

If one looks around, there will be somewhere good examples of some college or the other that goes on identifying the X factors with limited resources and doing whatever is possible to get things done. While this may be true of any engineering college elsewhere, let us take the example of the Tiruchirapalli-based Saranathan College of Engineering. This college has systematically recruited the retired managers from BHEL Tiruchirapalli and has used them as Faculty Members. This has enabled the utilization of scarce resources. Today, Saranathan College of Engineering is the second preferred college after all students of Tiruchirapalli and surrounding districts exhaust the first option-- admission to SASTRA University a Deemed University of repute, around forty kilometres from Trichirapalli, near another big town called Tanjore, but connected by hundreds of buses.

Continuously improving the quality of any X factor on a daily basis

The world-famous Loyola College Chennai uses the brilliant actor Kamal Hassan to teach it's B.Sc(Visual Communication) students. This was introduced in the early eighties and this college is still number one in India; the graduates dominate most of the electronic media in South India. There are several famous Film Directors who also teach in this college. Similarly, the Chennai-based MOP Vaishnav College for Women wisely gave maximum importance to personality development and competency building of all its undergraduate students, without competing with other standard colleges in Chennai. This Blue Ocean Strategy of creating a market-space of its own, also called Blue Ocean in the Strategic Management language, is different from the Red Ocean, which is nothing but the existing market to attract the best students. When the college became branded, it emerged as the best Chennai-based college.

This Blue Ocean Strategy was reportedly formulated by its former Visionary Principal, Ms Nirmala Prasad, who created so many X factors with clockwise precision. Hence, the creation of the X factor should be done on an everyday basis. Strengthening the quality of existing X factors has to necessarily proceed alongside the creation of new ones. In other words, it should become an everyday activity. This is reportedly what happens in the best of institutions. At the world-class Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi every student is at liberty to present his or her dissenting opinion. At the world-class Delhi School of Economics, the quality of research done on Development Economics is reported to be the foundation for such economics and research in most parts of the developing world and even in the London School of Economics.


Given the fact that every educational institution is at a crucial period of its existence, making it imperative for it to do different things and also give it a big fillip daily, thereby creating as many X factors as possible, it becomes obvious that such a process should engage the best of minds to do whatever is possible in any given situation. It is quite true several educational institutions in India can become the best of institutions in terms of being best-in-class; the trick is to understand the Chemistry of working of such institutions and get to do whatever needs to be done, in as effective a manner as possible.


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