Develop Capacity: Part 3


A paradigm shift challenges every organization to develop the capacity to meet new demands. New paradigm means new rules, new relationships, new patterns and new models of efficiency and effectiveness. The shift to a digital learning ecosystem characterized by open curricula, vast amounts of digital information, ubiquitous interpersonal communications via social networking and fluid global interconnections, challenges every aspect of our current post-secondary models. Demands for accountability for public and personal funds (coupled with a staggering $1 Trillion Student Debt), the persistent emphasis on meaningful formative assessment, and the growing expectations of higher performance learning environments, place extraordinary demands on institutional capacity. As institutions scramble to develop in-house skills, systems and solutions the first question becomes; What guides the process? The development of a prototype plan provides a rapid means of organizing an approach and process for addressing the demands of the paradigm shift. Since the paradigm is new it means assessing the capacity of the institution to address, capitalize on, and/or optimize the features of the new paradigm.

The concept of capacity is multifaceted. Our primary intent is to focus on the capacity of the institution, to plan effectively during a paradigm shift to a global digital learning ecosystem. Capacity refers to institutional capability to meet the demands placed on a contemporary educational institution. The paradigm shift sets the stage for the prototype plan. We use a prototype plan as a pre-planning process because there is much unknown by the organization and its constituents, about what is on the other side of a paradigm shift. Capacity, in the context of a paradigm shift, can refer to:

  • the physical capacity of facilities
  • the technological capacity of the infrastructure
  • the human capacity (knowledge and skills) to perform functions or tasks
  • the capacity of the curriculum to meet societal needs or learner interests or job market demands as they shift with the paradigm
  • the ability to recognize and respond to threats, challenges and opportunities
  • Capacity can mean any or all of these

The function of developing a prototype plan in a planning process is to enable the discovery of what is unknown, encourage review of options that may not be popular or well understood, and take an unbridled view of the future and implications for the organization. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship where required capacity is defined that which is required by a post paradigm shift institution.

Function of a Prototype in Planning

Figure 1 – Function of a Prototype in Planning: The relationship where required capacity is defined that which is required by a post paradigm shift institution.

Responding to or accommodating the magnitude of the change in a paradigm shift requires a formal plan that defines a new reality, and moves beyond the status quo, and the comfort zones of the past. A big challenge to be sure. One of the first questions to emerge is; Do we have the capacity to meet the challenge of a paradigm shift? This question must be addressed twice, once in developing the prototype that guides the future view, and again once the prototype moves forward and begins to refine emerging strategies, goals and objectives in further development of the formal strategic plan and its implementation. Since the paradigm shift establishes the context it must be clearly articulated.

Mandate for Change

The first step in developing the capacity to change, is to declare the need and substantiate the reasons change is required. The mandate for change must be clear and concise. One approach to change is to charge a team with developing a rapid prototype plan. The charge to the team begins to guide and shapes the capacity that needs to be present in both planning process and the organization that the plan creates. A great example of a charge to a group to prototype a plan with a vision is detailed in the Final Report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT, July 28, 2014.

In a letter to the MIT Community on February 6, 2013, President Rafael Reif described the formation of an Institute-wide Task Force. The Charge: So that you may advise me and MIT’s administration, I charge the Task Force to:

  • Propose an “ecosystem” for ongoing research, learning and innovation about the future of education.
  • Recommend a range of possible experiments and pilot projects that will allow us to explore the future of MIT education.
  • On our own campus, in ways that incorporate online learning tools to the fullest extent while maximizing the value of face-to-face learning for both faculty and students.
  • Beyond our campus, through which learners around the world could benefit from important aspects of MIT’s educational content, vision and values
  • Evaluate the future strength and sustainability of MIT’s current financial model in this evolving context and propose alternative or complementary approaches.
  • Develop a roadmap that will describe the work streams and the phases of work necessary to enable this ecosystem and implement these experiments.

Notice the artful characterization of the prototype as a roadmap. Hopefully, in a previous post “Change the Paradigm,” I was clear that a vision is needed in order to get a strategic plan that guides the institution into the future. In the MIT taskforce charge, the future is referenced as an ecosystem. The parameters of a global context and digital learning environment are called out. The concept of sustainability is anchored in MIT’s business model, and the importance is underpinned by service to humanity. Once the mandate for change is clear, and the group is charged the work must be accommodated and that means making time for it.

Remember the task force is just the first round of translating the mandate for change into a roadmap for the future. Subsequent rounds go deeper into the organization and align organizational capacities with future requirements.


We could easily have labeled this one people because having the right people focused on the future is so essential. Time and again, we see in our planning practice, all of the right people are appointed to the process, but that does not mean they have, can or will make the time to invest in it. The first symptom is substitutions at meetings. When that is mitigated by presidential decree, we see behaviors like individuals showing up with routine work to do while they sit in a meeting. Or they ‘revolving door’ the meeting to take calls, or are interrupted by their staff. So even if you have the right people in the process with the intent that they are contributing knowledge, insight and skill in shaping the context; the single biggest obstacle to success may be the failure to make time for the work that is required to meet future needs and challenges. New initiatives clash with beliefs and behaviors where the challenges and needs of the past take the first claim on time.

Make Time for the Work That Matters

by Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, in Harvard Business Review, September 2013

We’ve spent the past three years studying how knowledge workers can become more productive and found that the answer is simple: Eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones. Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. So why do they keep doing them? Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept

The planning process must raise and deal with the issue of making time for the work ahead. Two of the implications emerging from understanding time strategy (there are more) are the issue of complexity and the emergence shorthand references that are not understood (and are afraid to ask).

The first has to do with complexity vs. simplicity. The common expectation is that both solutions and communications be simple and easy to understand. This saves time. But what happens to concepts that are not simple and easy to understand. What happens to deep restructuring and rethinking an enterprise (the kind of planning required in a paradigm shift). In our curricular and  enrollment management work we experience the constant pressure to distill very complex scenarios into sound bites and quick fixes. We often face distracting fairy tales such as ‘branding is a solution to systemic enrollment decline’ or cloning a program of study being misrepresented as innovation. We see getting courses online becomes more important than developing a sustainable digital learning strategy, and we see impatience that leads to bad decisions and wasted academic cycles and institutional budgets.

The second is the use of abbreviated lexicon that is meant to transmit a complete understanding in as few words as possible (presumably this makes it quicker and easier to read). Examples often appear in published plans whose primary feature is a list of Strategies, Goals and Objectives (shorthand for these is the designation SGO’s). The SGO’s or even worse a list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT Analysis) is postured as a strategic plan. They are a basic list, and the expectation is that everyone can read the list and know what needs to get done. They (whoever they are) are then expected to go do it. But in reality does a list mean everyone gets it? Of course not. Will a list change behavior? No.  Can understanding be derived from reading a list of what must be done or is expected? It is unlikely, so we must ask is there a better way?

Evidence in change management indicate lists are insufficient. As a result of this evidence we proposed the development of a Prototype Strategic Plan that can be more than a list of SGO’s or a list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The prototype plan and the process that creates it must bring clarity to the context of the path ahead. So how does one develop clarity of the path ahead?


Clarity begins with establishing a common context for the planning participants. The context is established when data and information are gathered, shared and discussed. Context is established when terms are defined, and timelines framed. Context is established when parameters, relationships, limits, norms, minimums and standards are introduced and understood. Context is established when strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are identified, defined and understood.

Clarity is then advanced when there are discussions and agreements on what the context means to the future of the planning entity (department, school, college, institution). Developing agreement on direction means understanding the concept of intent.

I find Daryl Conner’s Blog on managing intent very approachable for clients and colleagues. His four part series is well worth the read.

In Search of the Missing Link

As a professional change community, we have not always paid sufficient attention to intent. Our focus has often been more on getting people to adapt to a change than on the change itself. What I mean is, sometimes we are so attentive to issues like resistance and commitment that we fail to see that the people involved are lacking a common understanding of what is being asked of them. ♦  What Is Intent? Properly positioned, intent is a complete, concise, understandable, and compelling expression of the expectations for an initiative. — Daryl Conner

Clarity of the context of the future and the options available to the institution enables the development of a vision that provides a synthesized view of the organizations potential future.


Too often the vision is developed as a vision statement and lacks sufficient depth or clarity to guide a plan. Hopefully in “Change the Paradigm,” it was clear that a vision of substance is needed in order to get a strategic plan that guides the institution into the future. In another post, Developing Institutional Strategy, the SRS method MGDA uses to develop and synthesize a future view is introduced.

For a great example of a prototype plan that articulates a vision of the future examine the MIT Final Report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT. For MIT, the headings guide the logic in this report with Laying a Foundation for the Future, then developing the concept of Transforming Pedagogy. The reason is made clear in the next section Extending MIT’s Educational Impact, which then comes back around to Enabling the Future of MIT Education and opening it back up to vision with Imagining the Future of MIT Education. Embedded in the report are sixteen recommendations. Many of the recommendations are about developing capacity.

Summary of Recommendations from the Task Force on the Future of MIT

  • Recommendation 1
    The Task Force recommends that MIT establish an Initiative for Educational Innovation to build on the momentum of the Task Force, enable bold experimentation, and realize the future the Task Force has imagined for education on campus and beyond.
  • Recommendation 2
    The Task Force recommends that the new Initiative for Educational Innovation engage in bold experiments to catalyze ongoing research, learning, and innovation about the future of MIT residential education.
  • Recommendation 3
    The Task Force recommends that MIT build on the success of freshman learning communities and consider future expansions of the cohort-based freshman learning community model.
  • Recommendation 4
    The Task Force recommends that the Institute use online and blended learning to strengthen the teaching of communications.
  • Recommendation 5
    The Task Force recommends that MIT create an Undergraduate Service Opportunities Program (USOP).
  • Recommendation 6
    The Task Force recommends that the Institute explore online and blended learning models to improve graduate curriculum accessibility.
  • Recommendation 7
    The Task Force recommends that this commitment to pedagogical innovation for the residential campus be extended to the world to set the tone for a new generation of learners, teachers, and institutions.
  • Recommendation 8
    The Task Force recommends supporting efforts to create a lasting community and knowledge base for MITx learners.
  • Recommendation 9
    The Task Force recommends that MIT define a K-12 strategy through a special interest group under the auspices of the Initiative for Educational Innovation.
  • Recommendation 10
    The Task Force recommends that the Institute create new opportunities for engagement between the MIT community and the world.
  • Recommendation 11
    The Task Force recommends that MIT move forward to consider the types of certifications that can be supported through MITx and edX, and develop pricing methodologies and revenue-sharing arrangements for agreed-upon certifications.
  • Recommendation 12
    The Task Force recommends that MIT strengthen its commitment to access and affordability.
  • Recommendation 13
    The Task Force recommends that the Institute expand fundraising activities to embrace a broader MIT community.
  • Recommendation 14
    The Task Force recommends that MIT charge an ad-hoc working group to further evaluate revenue opportunities surrounding technology licensing and venture funding.
  • Recommendation 15
    The Task Force recommends that the Institute establish a working group on spaces for future student life and learning to bring together stakeholders from around campus to envision, plan, and create spaces for the future of MIT education.
  • Recommendation 16
    The Task Force recommends that MIT bolster infrastructure for Executive and Professional Education to reduce barriers to offering programs and engage more faculty to broaden program delivery.

The summary above outlines recommendations for MIT moving into the future. It is not a strategic plan but rather a prototype in the form of a report, developed by an extensive task force that deeply examined MIT and developed a future view. Not a perfect view but a glimpse of MIT as the 21st century emerges and a proposed series of recommendations to get there. The next phase (and some of the working groups from MIT extended their work into the next phase) involves determining and analyzing the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to achieve the vision of MIT in the future. Be sure to read the preliminary report included in the MIT Final Report ( Appendix 5 beginning on page 105). The vision permits the development and defining of detailed capacity specifications.

Capacity Requires Knowledge, Skills, and Resources

The new millennium marches on and it is a digital era. Does this mean all face-to-face teaching and learning will disappear, no of course not. But change is flowing through the population as learners are born into and acculturated to a digital reality not analog environments. The digital age is an era where learning is increasingly being disintermediated. We are faced with the issue of the magnitude of change required to meet the challenges presented by a paradigm shift to a global digital learning ecosystem. This is not an era of quick fixes, slap together a strategic plan and everything is ready to go. It is not an era of wait for it all to settle out and then go cherry pick the best ideas and proven strategies. The paradigm shift requires deep sustained planning. Developing the capacity, knowledge, skills and resources for such planning is urgent and in short supply. Acquiring the requisite knowledge, skills and resources of how to manage the paradigm shift and not only survive but flourish defines MGDA’s practice. A little adviceon moving forward.

Path Forward

  • Recognize that the Learning Age requires a new portfolio of knowledge, skills, and capabilities
    • Learner & Learning Centered Strategies
    • Dramatically different curriculum design, planning, delivery
    • A more granular content design curriculum model
    • Embedded formative assessment that informs and enables learning performance
  • Recognize that the Learning Age requires a dramatically different infrastructure
    • New fully integrated administrative and learning management systems
    • New fully integrated assessment systems with learning management systems
  • Recognize that the transition years to new and emerging models are precious to the survival of an institution and should not be wasted
    • Sustained planning and development are required
    • Academic focus is essential
    • Organizational development requires symbiotic evolution of human, systems, and organizational capacities


Capacity is not something that is achieved but rather a process of constantly developing and building. It is a characteristic that degrades when not paid attention to.

  • The future of Higher Education is built on an emerging new level of professionalism and specialized expertise required to conceptualize, design, build, implement and evaluate the academic enterprise of the future. This requires academic leadership to help faculty and academic support to move to a new level of understanding of the future of higher education. This means relentless focus on educating for the future and learning to build capacity. A must is allocating a learning and professional development budget.
  • The Learning Age is an era where reflective practice is driven by relentless assessment, fact finding, and evaluation. These collective insights serve to advance academic strategies and are not simply a collection of interests. This means that the academic enterprise must know where

 In closing

This post outlines the need to pay strategic attention to the issue of organizational capacity beginning with understanding the context of the global shift to a digital learning ecosystem. As one of the four framing strategies in the development of a prototype plan the concept moves the institution forward by  developing the capacity of the organization to understand and meet the challenges of the future.

Focus on Value: Part 2

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