Published on 2016/10/20
The EvoLLLution | An Emerging Dimension of Strategy
Moving from a reactive to a proactive mindset, higher education leaders need to think through some key questions to position their institutions for the future.

After several years of adapting to the post-recession environment, higher education institutions are turning to next-generation strategies. In the first few years, efforts focused on cutting expenses, streamlining, raising money, creating more market-aware and online programs, innovating, and marketing the institution. This managerial approach came in different flavors and combinations, often inspired by hearing about what other institutions were doing. Some of the strategies worked, some may yet work, and others did not. Some must become part of institutional DNA, and all remain viable strategic options going forward.

Recently it seems that a number of institutions are also recognizing that resource-scarce environments require deeper awareness of why they should continue to exist, who they are and how they work. They are more aware of human factors at all levels. They are more willing to begin addressing new realities such as the extraordinary, multi-dimensional diversity of today’s students and their needs. They are increasingly interested in achieving institutional vitality by driving hard to fulfill their fundamental altruistic purposes, while still keenly aware of opportunities for savings and revenues. They are committed to increasing the value they deliver to students and society.

Margin may be essential for mission, but the reverse is even more true. Outstanding mission achievement, where mission is defined as the valued benefits provided to constituencies, is increasingly essential for margin. The appeal of national rankings or “higher” Carnegie classification is giving way to financial, demographic and competitive realities of quite a different sort.

For example, institutions are increasingly asking themselves:

 1. Do our deeds match our intentions?

After decades of claiming to be “student-focused,” many students still have difficulty with transfer of credits, class schedules that better suit faculty, clunky online services, and inadequate advising. One public university found that such student experience factors were a primary reason for students choosing the costlier nearby for-profit institution. The student experience is often far less satisfying than the customer experience in commercial settings.

 2. Can our people deliver on our intentions?

Higher education is an intensely human enterprise on every level. It stands to reason that investing in people and optimizing their contributions will have a high rate of return. Most faculty have little or no background in pedagogy – the most essential service delivery method – yet advancement incentives and access to instructional development are often inadequate. Too few staff members understand supervision or business process redesign. Training and systems for performance improvement are often weak. Opportunities for leverage from this perspective include targeted professional development, reassignment, position redefinition, team building, and getting the wrong people off the bus. All require excellent human resources support, a function too often either under-resourced or focused only on staff positions.

 3. As we look elsewhere for options, are we overlooking our existing strategic assets?

Institutions often have unrecognized kernels of success right on campus – for example, a talented professor with a passion that could become a cornerstone of student and institutional success. Even when “everybody” knows about it, it can take a fresh eye to see the strategic potential. Even the person or unit may not see it. Realizing the potential in existing strengths can be far more productive than starting something new.

 4. Are we relying too much on intuition?

Intuition comes in part from past experience, which can be very misleading in these changing times. Many of the old rules no longer apply—we need data-based analysis to understand the new dynamics and test opportunity scenarios. Yet access to truly useful business intelligence is abysmal in too many institutions. A major role for such analytics can be development of a sound new revenue model.

 5. Who else should be in our network, and what additional value can our network deliver?

The value of partnerships is old news, and many institutions have multiple partnerships today. Again with fresh eyes, leaders are seeing that multiple partnerships create a network of assets with potential benefits for participants and their diverse beneficiaries that extend well beyond bilateral mutual interests.

At the 30,000-foot level, trends like these suggest shifts such as: consciously learning from and about ourselves as well as other institutions, investing in the strengths of our personnel even more than our technologies, and developing our human resource balance sheet in order to develop our financial balance sheet. Most of all, they are driven by deep understanding of why the institution should continue to exist and a commitment to fulfill that promise no matter what it takes.

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