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Why Higher Education Needs Scenarios

From sources of funding to student engagement models, from the use of mobile technology to social media, multiple disruptive forces create surprises for administrators, frustrations for academics and bewilderment for students. Uncertainty threatens to incapacitate institutions as they choose for change to be thrust upon them, or attempt to avoid or ignore the strategic importance of the changes taking place around them. 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 their future ability to compete and remain relevant. Organizations wanting to remain relevant need not only to encourage strategic thinking that positions them in a competitive framework, but they also 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. The technique, originally devised to help military planners explore uncertainty associated with Cold War actors, now helps planners in industry and government agencies consider their futures in a more robust way. Because scenarios compel people to confront uncertainty in a very visceral way, it helps them not only to plan more strategically, but also to 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 story lines that use different values for those uncertainties driving 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, The grey areas in between, 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 manmade, it can be reengineered within the scenario narrative.

Scenarios develop ultimately as myths about the future that give people permission to shrug off the assumptions imposed on them by society, agencies or associations, or by themselves, so that they are free to imagine what could be, both good and bad, in futures operating under different social, technological, economic, environment, and political landscapes.

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 some of the most critical and uncertain forces at play in education.

  • 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 offers possibilities that mimic the housing crisis. 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, with 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.
  • Pedagogy. How we teach has come under fire. From the preciousness of “sage of the stage” to co-created teaching experiences, how best to engage students in meaningful learning experiences continues to be uncertain. This uncertainty 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. If 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 five of the dozens of uncertainties that will affect global educational instructions in the future, regardless of their business model. Scenarios use these uncertainties as input for the stories they tell.

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 difficult and 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. That means that plans, and imaginations, are curtailed by a mental model 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. Scenario planning may lead to radical rethinking of state or national governance and funding, as well as changes to the regulatory environment, but unless colleges and universities actively engage in co-creating their futures, they remain at mercy of the forces that buffet them. Scenarios identify those forces, and offer options. If a public institution, for instance, sees the need for more degrees of freedom within its regulatory environment, advocating for that position becomes part of its strategic action.

If an organization cannot recognize what it doesn’t know, it can’t explore potential values for uncertainty, nor can it navigate the boundaries of the uncertainty. 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. Anticipating 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. Using scenarios, the range of stories makes change appear mundane. Rather than experiencing the shock of change and the rapid investment in hours and dollars to react to it, scenarios let organizations calmly revisit actions already teed-up if such a future unfolds. You won’t be completely covered, but you will be much more rational and responsive than those who only thought about, and planned for, one future.

Accreditation, Strategy and Vision

Accrediting commissions are not, by design, strategic. They have a very clear goal of assessing an institution’s capability to deliver a quality education, and to receive government-sponsored financial aid. Accreditation standards fragments and obfuscates traditional strategic planning processes. Mission statements lead most standards or criterion, but items like competitive assessment of the environment, or assessment of the mission statement, do not exist. Accreditation accumulates a body of comparative evidence over time for certain areas, for instance, ensuring that all institutions have a library, but they have no qualification for what a good strategic planning process looks like, or how effectively strategic thinking and innovation are incorporated into the governance, decision making, and funding model of the institution.

There is a myth that strategy and vision should start with a bright direction forward, a North Star, and a set of steps to get to that future. Strategy should be examined at each major junction, and reflected in every minor task. Rarely are strategies integrated into near-term operational thinking, and even more rarely are they reviewed and consulted when deliberating on a major decision. If an investment cannot be seen as a way to further the strategic goals of the institution, then its merits should be questioned. If the query returns an affirmative, yet still falls outside of the strategic plan, then the strategic plan should be updated. Strategic plans should pin dates to strategies, but not be dated themselves, as they should be constantly evolving to reflect the current thinking of the organization, not sitting on a shelf until the next two-day offsite completely replaces them.

Scenarios become a major part of that strategic thinking framework. When a major decision needs to be made, not only should the strategy be consulted, but the scenarios should be invoked as a way to test the idea against potential future changes. By conducting this “wind tunneling” exercise, organizations can better explore how a current decision might play out in the future under different social, economic, environmental, political, and technical circumstances. That exercise may also help make the idea better. As it is tested against the different futures, new ways of seeing the problem will emerge, as will new approaches to solutions.

Scenarios also help organizations couch their visions in more realistic tones. Rather than setting a single stake in the ground, scenarios 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.

Accreditation should not drive strategy, but rather be a reflection of strategy. All organizations undergoing accreditation review should think about strategy first, as they own strategy, and their strategic decisions shape the institution that falls under the scrutiny of accrediting bodies. Accreditation at one level becomes a packaging exercise for the outcomes of strategic governance. Scenarios provide a proof-point for the robustness of the strategic governance practice.

Preparing to Encounter the Future

The academic side of colleges and universities often ignore the competitive nature of education, something their athletic departments understand at a fundamental level. Even for open enrollment public institutions, students have a choice and the schools an obligation. The choice creates competition. Colleges and universities that offer well-articulated, differentiated value propositions will be better able to recruit students and attract additional funding. Colleges and universities also have the obligation to educate students for the world they will emerge into, and if those schools do not offer programs that provide contemporary skills and perspectives, then they will be graduating students ill-equipped to integrate into the workforce.

Scenario planning can help organizations develop a more critical view of themselves and the environment they operate in, and provide a basis for innovation and adaptation. Accreditation asks organizations to prove that they deliver quality programs within the confines of their mission statements. Scenario planning and the ability to integrate strategic thinking into operational and academic planning will help ensure that the mission and its requisite strategies offer good guidance, and support good governance, as the future unfolds.

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