Most organizations claim to have either distinctions or distinctiveness (or both). Most have neither.
A distinction is some aspect of the organization – typically a program or service – which has received special recognition. The recognition usually highlights quality and is proffered by an unbiased third party. Winning a national award for excellence for your first year university curriculum would be an example.
A distinctive, on the other hand, is some aspect of the organization – typically a program or service – which is highlighted by the organization as being different from (and better than) its competitors. A specialized, after-visit patient care program at a hospital would be an example.
More often than not, organizations talk about distinction when the evidence is soft at best. For instance, higher education institutions regularly highlight their “programs of distinction” with little to back up the claim (save their own beliefs).
Instead, most organizations should focus on creating distinctiveness. Distinctiveness draws a sharp, discerning line in the mind of your constituents between you and your competition. Distinctiveness calls on members of your organization to summon their entrepreneurial and creative spirit which benefits both organization and constituent. Distinctiveness, usually, can be achieved easier than distinction.
The trick with creating distinctiveness is to identify aspects of your enterprise which enhance constituent satisfaction. If you create a distinctive new basket-weaving program which utilizes start of the art computer technology at your two-year college, but no students wish to enroll, it doesn’t much matter that you have this distinctive program.
Your organization can be distinctive if there is capable leadership and execution. Your organization can have distinction if someone else says so. Both are wonderful characteristics – but if I had to, I’d choose distinctiveness every day.