There is mounting evidence that the condition of higher education grows more ominous. (Higher Education: Apocalypse Now?) One thing has become crystal clear — no more business or planning as usual. (I considered titling this post “Sins of Omission: 10 urgent things you should do now, but probably will delay, and deeply regret it.”)
Strategic plans developed under a 20th century paradigm and context do not adequately prepare institutions for the realities of the emerging global digital learning ecosystem. As competition for enrollment increases, yield decreases, budgets tighten, and the outlook for higher education grows more perilous.
Higher Education generally appears to be languishing in a static, moribund routine, perpetuating the past while a few focus upon inventing the future. The current fiscal/enrollment malaise is not just a cyclical downturn in students and funding driven by demographics and economic bad times (although these are certainly the case), but rather a permanent shift to learning in a new paradigm.
Excuses and approaches bounce back and fourth between needing quick easy to implement ideas to stimulate enrollment, to firing people for not achieving enrollment, to being too busy to engineer a solid strategy and persist in its implementation, to just being too busy to do anything different. Failing approaches are generally myopic, underfunded, launched too late, or just ill conceived opinions of something that someone in authority believes should work.
While we need not fly into oblivion on autopilot, I fear some will, based upon all too often refrains such as: “we can’t do that-politics-you know,” “show me a strategy guaranteed to work and I am all in,” “that is too complex, I need simple solutions that require no time, no budget, and no talent,” “we have decided to wait until the future is clearer so we are not on the bleeding edge.” For more see 50 Losing SEM Strategies. One always has the option of just sitting by and waiting for the tide of the future to wash them away. If that is not the chosen option, then we must move beyond the debilitating, nagging, internal dialog resisting the forces that are shaping the future and get on with it.
Here are ten critical initiatives required to prepare for the future and acheive fiscal and enrollment sustainability.
- Future Proof your Strategic Plan
- Revitalize the Academic Master Plan
- Engage Academic SEM Integrated Planning
- Develop and Implement Academic Program SEM Initiatives
- Revitalize CORE/GE Curriculum
- Refocus and enhance Strategic Position Strategies
- Optimize Resources
- Develop Capacity
- Solidify an Institutional Effectiveness System to Inculcate an Integrated IE Quality Culture
- Accelerate action, make room for the work
Let’s examine each of these in a little more detail.
Future Proofing your Strategic Plan
Many strategic plans fulfill the need for a plan but focus on a paradigm that is rapidly being overtaken by a digital reality. Such a strategic plan, built upon the old paradigm, can completely miss the entire point of having one. A strategic plan is an opportunity to visualize the future of the academic enterprise and set it on a course toward what will be. For this reason, we suggest a curriculum-centered strategic plan designed to inculcate a learner-centered curriculum. Looking to the future requires that a plan set a strategic course that recognizes and optimizes the paradigm shift to a global digital learning ecosystem. The new paradigm connects the curriculum to the learner rather than requiring the learner to come to the curriculum. This fundamental change in strategic relationships establishes new competitive rules, alters the scale of enrollments achievable in a course or program, eliminates geographic boundaries, and creates global markets. A strategic plan must deal with increased competition for students and resources, and the pressure to reduce the cost of a credential. It must advance strategies for institutional effectiveness as well as reference market awareness and alignment. These are huge challenges made more complex by campus politics and distracting calls to return to the last millennium and the ‘rules’ of that playing field. The plain fact is that higher education has never received adequate public funding and the shift in burden has been steadily to the learner. Some call that approach the house that student debt built, racking up a whopping $1.2 Trillion in students loans. So above all, a future proofed strategic plan must chart a course toward sustainability. The first step is to frame a prototype Learning Age Strategic Plan that helps visualize the pathway forward and articulate the various options.
One option is to develop a rapid prototype strategic plan designed specifically for the 21st century as a preparatory and learning step to developing your strategic plan. The following graphic depicts a development model for constructing a prototype, much of which will form the strategic plan that follows.
Figure 1: A Model Prototype Strategic Plan
Recalibration of an academic culture of the magnitude required to align with the emerging global digital learning ecosystem, takes time. Time at this stage is in short supply and demands are growing more intense. A rapid prototype provides a means to rapidly run through scenarios that help remove the scariness from the future and get a sketch of what a future focused strategic plan looks like. Further, multiple scenarios can generate more than one prototype so various entities can follow their logic and ideas to a complete concept articulated in their prototype. A Prototype is just that and not a final plan so participants focus upon the scenario and not politics first. The result can be one or several competing prototypes that articulate different approaches and interpretations of the forces through an institutional lens. The graphic above depicts an approach we developed to illicit a framed prototype providing more detail of an approach. A great example of a pre strategic planning preparatory and learning process is captured in the Future of MIT report. Another great resource is The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) 21st Century Commission’s report, Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future. As you examine these resources be aware the entire process is anchored in Mission and Vision.
Revitalizing the Academic Master Plan (AMP)
In order to future proof a strategic plan, serious attention must be given to academic strategies and that means the Academic Master Plan or as some prefer the Master Academic Plan. A revitalized AMP examines the scope of the curriculum, as well as program of study design models and emerging options for curriculum. The AMP should articulate a forward looking curriculum architecture that enables the institution to embrace the emerging global digital learning ecosystem, such as the seven tier proficiency based model. A future focused planning process assesses different curricula generas such as, scholar practitioner, community of practice, proficiency/competency/outcomes based, optimized core/GE, and all the permutations they engender. The AMP must provide meaningful assurance through curriculum, learning, and learner assessments. The assessment processes and the use of what is learned from them must be embedded in both the curriculum review/revision process and learner engagement strategies. Above all, the AMP must be developed as a holistic approach to the new learning paradigm. This means tempering politics with reason and a restoration of civility as academic options and approaches are identified, reviewed, discussed, adopted or rejected, adapted and implemented. In the end, it is the curriculum that determines sustainability.
Engaging in Academic SEM Integrated Planning
Even the best Academic Master Plan will under yield if the jagged rift between Academic Culture and Strategic Enrollment Management is not eliminated and a vibrant Academic SEM culture nurtured. That means that a quality curriculum must be informed by market realities and aligned with the tenets of academic excellence, public good and learner needs. Academic quality and demonstrable value are essential. The concept of perceived and real value must be understood, examined, and developed as a tool of recruitment and retention. New programmatic design models must be embraced as they emerge in a new paradigm. Academic programs and initiatives must connect inspirationally to the prospect’s decisions and choices. Deeper more connected programmatic narratives must emerge to undergird and advance institutional strategic position. In the process, the concept of geographic reach and service area must be reexamined and interpreted through a new, more global academic lens. Academics and SEM professionals must explore and optimize the social media tools and methods to engage potential enrollees. Academic SEM is, in fact, an approach that nurtures a community of scholars and practitioners engaged in extending institutional reach, strategic position and enrollment health. Understanding the complex cycles, interdependent timelines, integrated operational realities and managing them is an essential element of future proofing a strategic plan.
Figure 2: Academic SEM Cycles and Processes
Developing and Implementing Academic Program SEM Initiatives
Academic SEM initiatives are fed by two factors, academic program development/revitalization, and strategic positioning strategies. Planning is essential but it is fruitless without tangible Academic SEM initiatives. These two sometimes dispirit communities come together most tangibly in a recruitment campaign (paradoxically often the most under designed aspect of a recruitment program). This means that campaigns must translate academic value into terms that can be understood, that are inspirational, that connect to campus visits, and that illustrate student engagement and reveal outcomes. Campaigns must provoke interest, capture imagination, open a dialog, intrigue the viewer and engage the curious. New program launches are not just an academic triumph but a significant SEM campaign challenge that requires expert timing, careful preplanning, and meticulous attention to detail. Existing programs must also be positioned and that does not mean just marketing and promotion it means the systematic development of competitive narrative that compels interest and drives enrollment. Every aspect of the curriculum and academic life must be examined and considered for use in achieving a competitive position in the enrollment marketplace.
Revitalizing CORE/GE Curriculum
Virtually every institution must take a critical look at their core/GE curriculum strategy. Given that it consumes 30% to 40% of the courses in an undergraduate program of study and accounts for 30% to 40% of the cost of an undergraduate credential, it must deliver value that is understood by students and their families. Contention is needless since the evidence is strong of the long term value but few tell the story well and even fewer optimize the design of their Core/GE for market value. Regardless of approach, core curriculum or distribution requirements, the basic tenets naturally align with core employability skills. One only need review What Work Requires of Schools (aka the SCAN Skills Report) commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of Labor to see the relationship between employability outcomes and those of foundational programs such as Core/GE curricula, co-curricular and first year experience programs. Design must enhance a narrative about the curriculum’s value. The narrative must describe and explain the value and the curriculum must deliver the outcomes required.
Refocusing and enhancing Strategic Position Strategies
Strategic Position is defined as the sum of the competitive characteristics an institution or program possesses when compared to other institutions or programs in the global learning ecosystem or specific market segments. The concept comprises both marketing and branding and extends the efforts of competitiveness to a holistic, proactive, cohesive process defining, developing and implementing a strategy of sustainability. The roots of strategic positioning lie in the academic master plan and the academic culture and curriculum it defines, builds and sustains. The most effective enrollment management strategies are designed to build and sustain strategic market position. The process begins with institutional strategy emanating from mission and vision.
Strategic position is the term we use to sum the competitive position an academic entity has in a defined learning market. Strategic positioning requires a deep understanding of the emerging competitive market dynamics and institutional strengths and weaknesses with respect to attracting, enrolling, and retaining students. Strategic position is not branding, marketing, advertising or public relations, although all of these are tools used to help develop and sustain a strategic position. The impact of strategic positioning strategies are the result of research, analysis, campaign design and implementation efforts along six interrelated dimensions. Enhancing strategic position requires assessing where an institution is with respect to what prospective students are looking for in an educational opportunity and what other providers in its competitive sphere offer. The assessment of strategic position is informed through at least six lenses.
- The demographics lens examines enrollment strategy and performance against geographic scope, reach and yield. Scope assesses and defines target populations, reach details tactics to engage target populations and yield measures enrollment performance.
- The learning outcomes lens examines the metrics and perceptions of the benefit and value added through the learning experience.
- The academic programs lens examines the scope and focus of the academic program mix requiring an evaluation of saturation and opportunity against market dynamics.
- The research and scholarship lens examines the comparative scholarly performance of the institution against competitors.
- The employment domains and discipline spheres lens examine the requirements of employers, contemporary realities in academic communities and the performance and success of alums.
- The community of practice lens examines academic strategies tied to emerging trans-disciplinary communities of practice that require a collaborative academic background to join.
Figure 3: Six Dimensions of Strategic Position
Optimizing resources means aligning the allocation of time, money, and human capital with the evolving challenges facing higher education. It means building capacity and managing strategic effort, and the creative development of resources to support the initiatives necessary to achieve the desired strategic position. Before one can optimize a resource one must first have it. This means the first step in optimizing requires assessing one’s strategic assets against future needs and challenges. The guiding principle in the process is found in the prototype strategic plan strategy (above) ‘Make Everything Count,’ toward the ultimate goal of sustainability. Inevitably this means making tradeoffs and it is here that many efforts fail. Success in optimizing resources means developing a keen sense of keeping things on the critical path forward and not letting artifact processes of the status quo derail the move forward.
Capacity is defined by the resources available that align with and support the initiatives necessary to achieve the desired strategic position. Capacity includes knowledge, skills, systems, methods, organizational strengths, and time. Time means room in appropriate work plans, schedules and projects. Knowledge, skills and methods means we must invest in people and recognize that apprenticing in the old paradigm and acculturating to old memes is insufficient to meet the demands of the future. For example, after helping a client get budget approval for a social networking person we were disappointed to learn a road warrior had been hired instead crippling the social networking strategy.
Developing capacity also means getting the most out of institutional systems. We have experienced decades of implementing sub optimized systems. Choosing to install or engage only the minimum required to get a system to work, leaving till later the realization of a system’s true potential. We have seen this sub optimized approach in every institution we have evaluated. Well, it’s later, and time to bite the bullet and drive toward true systems optimization. It is time to demand full systems implementation and full utilization of systems performance. Time to rectify bad decisions of the past and get on with getting the most out of the institution’s systems infrastructure. This does not mean just start implementing old or antiquated systems that were never optimized. It means take a fresh look, determine where optimization contributes to the critical path toward sustainability and move forward.
Solidify an Institutional Effectiveness System to Inculcate an Integrated IE Quality Culture
Yes, a system and it must integrate with the management culture and operations, planning, and decision making. Too often these elements are ad-hoc and not connected. A checklist of words are evaluated to determine we have that and that. But in fact, they are just isolated elements that do not contribute to decisions and operations. When key elements are isolated and fragmented they give the illusion that the bases are covered, when in fact, they are not. Time to close the loop and make sure that the assessments that are conducted inform the decisions of the future.
Accelerate action, make room for the work
Finally, comes the accelerating the processes and pace of work. Work is a combination of effective asset and resource management, optimizing tools and systems and removing what gets in the way. I am frequently reminded by clients that a meetings culture in their institution gets in the way of their work. Attention to the amount of time administrators and staff spend in meetings is valuable discipline. Where it exists, a very serious effort must be made to restrain runaway meeting syndrome and reign in the unrestricted claim on work time allocated to meetings that do not contribute to sustainability. A colleague describes a meeting subculture in higher education that has led to individuals defining their role by the meetings they call, attend, and require with little or no attention to the unintended cost in unrealized goals.
One of the biggest barriers to strategic planning success is that nothing happens because the plan or critical parts of it are not implemented. Room for the work must be carved out of the business as usual routine. Leaders who just keep heaping on items and expecting the human system to just continue to absorb the new demands have crippled many institutions. If willingness, ability, or understanding of the work to performed is the issue then that must be dealt with as well. This is a management function and in our experience poor management is an Achilles heal for higher education. Specifically, attention needs to be paid to strategic plan implementation. It requires more disciplined calendaring, time management, project management, resource allocation, and monitoring.
Future proofing your Strategic Plan is not just a box to tick during accreditation review processes or a chore to be done because the Board of Trustees requires one. It is an essential element in making enrollment goals and achieving a sustainable position in an increasingly global, highly competitive, enrollment marketplace. A strategic plan is not just a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) Analysis, nor is it just a table of SGO’s (strategies, goals, and objectives). A strategic plan, if done well, articulates the pathway to sustainability. If it does not then it needs to be ‘Future Proofed.’