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Daniel Rasmus on The Science of Scenarios

University Business, December 2012

UBTech 2012 and 2013 presenter Daniel Rasmus is a strategist who helps clients put their future in context. Rasmus uses scenarios to analyze trends in society, technology, economics, the environment, and politics to discover implications used to develop and refine products, services and experiences. Previously, Rasmus was the director of business insights at Microsoft, where he helped the company envision how people will work in the future. He managed the Center for Information Work, an immersive experience that helped Microsoft’s customers experience the future of work first-hand. He is the author of over 200 trade journal articles and four books, including Listening to the Future: Why It’s Everybody’s Business (Wiley, 2008). In this essay, he discusses how higher education can benefit from scenario planning.

Institutions of higher education tend to plan in a very linear way, driven by accreditation processes better prepared to test an organization’s historical ability to deliver value, than by their future ability to compete and remain relevant. Organizations that want to remain relevant need not only encourage strategic thinking that positions them in a competitive framework, but they need to apply scenario planning to grapple with the multiple uncertainties that often force them to adapt rapidly to the changing world around them.

What Are Scenarios?       

Scenario planning augments strategic planning by creating multiple stories about the future that allow organizations to more fully explore uncertainty, discover emergent opportunities, and recognize threats more effectively. Because scenarios compel people to confront uncertainty in a very visceral way, it helps them plan and act more strategically.

Scenario stories start with the most important and critical uncertainties facing an organization or industry, eventually converging on a matrix or set of storylines that use different values for those uncertainties that drive the plots. Funding, for instance, in some futures, may be significantly worse than it is today, with near disconnection of public schools from public funding. In other futures, funding may come from other sources, as large companies or not-for-profits step in to shore up a lagging public-sector education system they rely on for a well-trained workforce. Just those two extremes suggest implications, large and small, for public institutions. For the grey areas in between, there are even more possibilities.

Only plausible futures need apply. Scenarios have no room for magic or miracles. Scenarios extrapolate the future using narrative logic, stretching the narrative through the interplay of the uncertainties. This may generate plausible actions, concepts, or inventions that don’t yet exist, but these remain grounded in physics, economics and other systems that create the world’s operational rules. These rules, however, only go so far. Any time an existing system can be construed as wholly man-made, it can be reengineered within the scenario narrative.

Education at the Crossroads: Existential Threats and Uncertainty

Scenarios start with uncertainty. Education is facing a wide range of uncertainties, far too many to explore here. The following list provides an overview of a few of the most critical and uncertain forces at play.

  • Funding. For private institutions, funding is a matter of allocation. For public institutions, however, education has seemingly become the balancing account for state and local budgets. Funding models and sources of revenue remain highly uncertain for public institutions. For-profit institutions also face uncertainty about their funding models as the U.S. Congress seeks to hold them more accountable.
  • The Student Loan Bubble. As the U.S. government sought to shore up a deteriorating economy, it bolstered loans to students and parents, with little more scrutiny than sub-prime lenders. No one knows how far this bubble will extend, or how a future collection of elected officials will deal with the potential for increased defaults and social security garnishments. Perhaps the economy will recover with a new wave of innovation and the student loan bubble will slowly wheeze to collapse rather than burst.
  • Trust issues arise from two different directions. The first is the trust of educational institutions clouded by the scandals of for-profit institution recruiting practices, unaccredited institutions publishing degrees and student safety issues. The loss of trust in educational institutions also comes from the inability of many institutions to offer a compelling return-on-investment—to justify rising costs and few, lower-paying job opportunities for the average student. Some speculate that another trust vector comes from loans made to unqualified students who force cash-strapped colleges and universities to make choices between quality and cash.

The loss of trust in educational institutions also comes from the inability of many institutions to offer a compelling ROI.

  • Pedagogy. How we teach has come under fire. From the preciousness of “sage on the stage” to co-created teaching experiences, how best to engage students in meaningful learning continues to be uncertain. This lack of clear direction is exacerbated by the inconsistent and uneven application of new learning about learning.
  • Source of content and curriculum. Western Governors University, a successful not-for-profit online university, buys all of its curriculum, or accumulates it from the open source community. Teachers do not write books for their classes and they do not develop curriculum. They deliver curriculum. How pervasive this approach becomes is uncertain. Flipped classrooms encourage the continued development of free and open content that students can study. The adoption of open sourced content creates a common repository from which to build educational experiences. That algebra can be standardized is of little dispute. Whether educational institutions can converge on a set of algebra assets that can be “mashed up” for student consumption remains to be seen.

These are just a few of the uncertainties that will affect global educational instructions in the future, regardless of their business model.

Why Scenarios Help

Scenarios help organizations navigate the future by putting a name on uncertainty. It cannot be stated too emphatically that people easily ignore what can’t be known, or apply a biased value and pretend they know what the future will bring. Scenario planning forces organizations to confront what they can’t know, put a name on it, and then think about the implications for their institution.

One of the most disabling issues in public higher education at the moment is the inability for public institutions to imagine a future of increased funding and operational surpluses. Plans are curtailed by mental models focused on cost reductions, revenue enhancements, personnel layoffs, operational efficiencies, and program eliminations. Scenario planning can help provide the freedom to imagine a more positive future, unleash creative forces, and explore alternative entry points for activating new ideas. More specifically, scenarios help organizations:

  • Create a consensus reality. If you don’t put a name on uncertainty, people will have their own lists that cast doubt and foster misunderstanding. By making uncertainty explicit, organizations can make better decisions because they share a well-documented, and common view of the world and the forces at play in it.
  • Discover emergent ideas. As the uncertainties play off against each other, new ideas will emerge, and new perspectives will help existing ideas become richer and more resilient.
  • Anticipate the future. Scenarios facilitate the development of implications that, combined with monitoring, provide a framework for rapidly identifying and mitigating risk, or leveraging new opportunities more competitively.
  • Avoid surprises. Scenarios offer a kind of mental practice for the future. If you only have one future and don’t understand the uncertainties that underlie it, any deviation from your forecast becomes a surprise.

Scenarios also help organizations couch their visions in more realistic tones. Rather than setting a single stake in the ground, they let organizations actively see the bubble of uncertainty that surrounds their vision.

As the future unfolds, internal decisions and external factors eliminate certainty in one area, while unleashing new uncertainties. Elements of the vision, therefore, may be drawn out or brought in.

Vision is not a fixed thing against a fixed point in time, but a dynamic reflection of what the organization wants to be in the future, reflected in the very real path of moving into the future. And like the strategy, the vision should be more detailed than a single phrase or idea—it should consist of a set of elements, each of which holds its own aspiration date. Those dates can be easily modified to reflect the organization’s current perspective on that particular element, in light of its current priorities.

See Daniel Rasmus’ UBTech 2012 presentation here.

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