Higher education faces greater challenges today than at any point in recent history—and in these times of uncertainty, proceeding with an established five- or 10-year strategic plan is likely to hamper, or possibly stall, an institution’s progress in different areas. Holding tight to the strategies reflected in a document that does not account for the lasting and vastly different circumstances that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic could have a damaging impact.
As Hugh Courtney, Jane Kirkland and Patrick Viguerie stated in their “Strategy Under Uncertainty” article in Harvard Business Review: “Underestimating uncertainty can lead to strategies that neither defend against the threats nor take advantage of the opportunities that higher levels of uncertainty may provide.”
It is important for institutions with active strategic plans to revisit and revise their plans to account for various operational and financial changes within the context of newly anticipated risks and changes in resources. And it is equally important that campuses undergoing the process pause to examine how to shift course.
Decide how to move forward
Institutions currently at the beginning or in the middle of their strategic planning process have the opportunity to react differently from their institutional peers who have completed the process. For campuses in the early to middle stages, there are many potential directions to take, including:
- Stop: Focus on the here and now, and narrow efforts to the immediate problem of responding to the difficulties of COVID-19, with no strategic planning discussions
- Ignore: Unwisely proceed forward with original process frameworks, with little to no consideration of current implications, and ignore both the impact and uncertainty of COVID-19
Institutions should focus on providing clarity and inspiring confidence—for faculty, staff and students.
- Consider and continue: Aware that something needs to change, but unsure how to move forward; proceed with limited changes to the original strategic planning framework
- Question and adjust: Question what should be considered or changed about the process in light of current circumstances, identify what discussions should be going on now and which stakeholders should be involved, and shift to a more dynamic process
Form a strategic team
Regardless of whether you are in the early stages of the strategic planning process or are having to reassess a plan currently implementated, all campuses should form a strategic team to think about the current disruptions for the short and long term. For some, this may be naturally woven into the mandate under which your strategic planning team already operates. This team will need to be empowered to identify risks, consider multiple futures, and use data and evidence to support strategic thinking and decisions.
Focus on actionable data
The underpinning of any strategic planning process is data. However, institutions don’t need a constant stream of data. Instead, in times of change, focus on the most important data. Actionable data that allows institutional leaders to adjust the two main levers, enrollment and retention, should be at the center. Access to specific insights, combined with supporting analysis and some intuition, will help shift resources as needed.
Start scenario planning
Scenario planning is valuable as it focuses on the creation of multiple futures based on a unique combination of uncertainties. The impact, threats and opportunities of each future can be identified and acted upon. This can help institutions gain clarity into decisions that have to be made when developing or adjusting a strategic plan.
Going through such a process can remove some confusion around what needs to be done in anticipation of a host of scenarios based on current realities. It provides a mechanism for identifying strategic priorities. Above all, it creates a clear direction forward for the entire campus community and identifies actionable steps to course-correct your strategic plan as needed.
For instance, through scenario planning, campuses can explore different futures that may include (as a starting point):
- meeting local workforce needs while having to balance financial realities and possible hiring freezes/furloughs
- focusing on remote learning, student services and new approaches to institutional technology
- fulfilling the traditional higher education mission in nontraditional ways
- expanding focus and diversifying revenues by helping local school districts or managing local health systems
‘Changing course is not an admission of defeat’
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions to quickly determine new ways to navigate an already choppy sea of revenue changes and uncertain public funding—all of which have impacted the ability to act on strategic plans. Surrounding these fiscal realities are the known challenges of shifts in enrollment, increased public scrutiny and political unpredictably. It is essential in this environment to set forth an intentional, vision-based path through strategic planning. Institutions should focus on providing clarity and inspiring confidence—for faculty, staff and students.
Now is the time to address how our new reality affects the current stage of your institution’s strategic planning process, or to assess needed revisions to the current strategic plan you have in place. Changing course is not an admission of defeat; instead, it is a necessary step to recognize a higher education landscape vastly different from the one we were in just two months ago.
Kelli Rainey is vice president of campus strategy at Campus Labs, having recently served as assistant vice president for academic and student support services and chief operating officer at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. Nicole Melander is vice president of strategic initiatives at Campus Labs.
UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.