Most of us are still reeling from the initial shock of coronavirus. Every element of our being has been upended. As it is for everyone and every organization around the world, we in academe are focused on survival. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has never been more relevant—we are compromising higher order needs to make sure that we meet our basic safety and physiological needs and hoping that sometime soon we’ll again be able to meet our needs for belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. Colleges and universities are focused on keeping students, faculty members and staff safe, making sure that bills and salaries are paid, and providing the education that is our primary mission. And that is exactly where attention should be focused! On the other hand, this phase of the coronavirus crisis will end, and the problems that we faced in the fall semester will again be salient while we face new problems created by a changing landscape for higher education and the potential of a second wave of the virus. Uncertainty is our paramount challenge, but it is certain that hunkering down in the face of this uncertainty will not help us survive. In upcoming blogs, we will look at specific survival strategies for both small colleges and regional state universities, but the focus of this blog is about the “how” and not the “what” of the survival process—about how to plan in a time of chaos and uncertainty.
What does the fall semester hold?
- Will students be able to return to campuses in the fall?
- If so,
- How many students will return?
- How will educational and service expectations have changed?
- What about freshmen?
- Will freshmen take a “Gap Year” postponing the start of their college careers with the expectation of a more predictable and comfortable 2022?
- Will freshmen decide to stay closer to home choosing a nearby as opposed to a distant college?
- What if everyone returns to campus in September only to be sent home in November because of a second wave of novel coronavirus?
None of us knows the answers to these questions or the many other contingencies that are ahead, but we must plan for the potential of their occurrence. Scenario planning could prove very useful to colleges and universities as they plan to reemerge after the retreat of the coronavirus.
Scenario Planning has a long history dating to the economic expansion following World War II. Organizations develop descriptions of possible future states of the environment that they will face (including the assumptions that underlie these descriptions) and then create plans to address these different states. The idea is to create multiple possible scenarios that the organization might face from very pessimistic to very optimistic so that the organization can plan against a wide range of environmental situations. The expectation is that the participative development of various scenarios will rely on both objective and subjective data to identify possible future states of both the internal and external environments of the organization. Externally, the scenarios should include political, economic, social, environmental, and global projections. Internally, the scenarios should include human resource and financial elements as well as current programs and program development and innovation.
Typical planning processes that focus on a single view of the future are biased toward the belief that the future will be like the past. By pushing organizational planners to consider a wide range of plausible, although not necessarily probable, futures, a wider range of perspectives are given consideration. Creating such a discussion allows assumptions to be challenged in a safe environment—if the purpose of the exercise is to advance unique and improbable ideas, it is more difficult to dismiss such thinking out of hand. In this sense, the process is disruptive and challenging.
Faced with a set of three to five possible futures for the organization, the management team can set about developing strategies that address the unique characteristics of each. Again, the focus on the extreme pushes for creative and unique plans that go beyond current practices.
Scenario Planning should involve the following steps:
- Interview leaders (stakeholders)—It is often helpful to use a structured interview process to tap the opinions of leaders as to the possible futures that the organization may face. Individuals need to be pushed to go beyond the “probable” and “likely” to dig deep for their perception of “improbable but possible” events. Structured interviews can push beyond first impressions. The stakeholder/leader groups to be interviewed should be broad. Faculty members, students, administrators, trustees, and even alumni should be included. If possible, advisory board members who represent the business and organizational communities important to the university should also be interviewed.
- Identify overarching themes—Out of this interview process, overarching themes should begin to develop. What do individuals fear? What do they hope for? What are the key variables that will impact organizational success? What do we know with certainty? Where and about what are we most uncertain? A summary report identifying these overarching themes should be developed.
- Gather data—The resources of Institutional Research and various other campus groups can be critical in providing data to evaluate the plausibility of these themes. Institutions should look beyond their own data to verify assumptions and to compare against comparable institutions. Economic forecasts and projections from sources like Brooking’s US Economy and the TD Bank State Economic Forecast for regional data and the Economist Intelligence Unit and the IMF’s Global Insight for national and international data can be helpful in grounding discussions as the process moves forward.
- Brainstorm scenarios—The summary report should be used by a planning group (a representative subset of the individuals interviewed) to develop a set of scenarios—ideally, three to five ranging from very pessimistic to very optimistic. These scenarios should be fine-tuned in a meeting of as many of the individuals who were interviewed as possible. In our current pandemic situation, this might result in the following best case, worst case, most likely case group of scenarios:
- Worst Case — Students are not able to return to campus until March of 2021, and the number of students in the freshman class is 30% lower than in the past.
- Best Case — Students return to campus in September 2020 with a freshman class about the same size as last year.
- Most Likely Case — Some students return to campus in September 2020 but significant numbers of students choose to stay home, and the campus is forced to close again at some point within the semester.
- Develop plans against each scenario—The planning group should then develop a set of organizational plans to respond to each scenario. How broad or how detailed these plans are is dependent on the timeframe being considered. If the scenarios are for next year, the plans should be very detailed. If they are for five or ten years out, they will necessarily be more general.
- Vet the plans with the interviewed group and the organization as a whole—Plans are not valuable if they sit somewhere in a document storage file. They are only valuable to the extent that members of the organization understand and believe in them. Be willing to make adjustments to the plans when good ideas bubble up from individuals who were not involved in the scenario planning process.
H1-N1 Virus – For most of us, the H1-N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 is as close as we have ever come to a situation like we face today with coronavirus. That year, I was the business school dean at a moderate-sized college in the northeast. Well ahead of the flu season, the top management group began to meet and went through what essentially was a Scenario Planning process relating to the H1-N1 virus. We had guidelines as to what the potential outcomes could be for our campus. We worked our way through a number of possibilities from the closing of campus for short periods of time to suspension of campus activities for the remainder of a semester or the academic year. These discussions began at our pre-fall semester retreat and continued at regular president’s cabinet meetings throughout the year. Detailed response plans were developed for each of several scenarios. Fortunately, we did not have an outbreak on campus, but we were prepared for the worst. A couple of actions that we took exemplify the preparedness that came from the planning process.
- Prior to that year, only about sixty percent of our faculty/courses employed a Learning Management System or were online. We had been pushing faculty members to develop LMS sites for all of their courses, but many individuals were just not interested. Preparation for H1-N1 included a goal of getting 100 percent of courses into the LMS—we missed that goal, but we did get above 95 percent. Unquestionably, this improved these courses and increased faculty acceptance of both LMS sites and online education.
- In the course of planning to operate classes online and the campus from individuals’ homes, the CIO asked, “What if my staff comes down with the flu?” While all of us chuckled at our oversight, we began to plan for an alternate site for maintenance of the LMS and critical campus systems. This site was in addition to the backup site to protect against a natural disaster—it was close to campus and had a simpler design. It would have been critical, however, if a large percentage of IT staff had become sick.
What we will experience in AY 2021 is very uncertain. We cannot change that. We can, however, plan for that uncertainty. Scenario Planning can help us to anticipate the challenges that we will face and to consider how we will respond in less frenzied environments. AY 2021 will be here sooner than you expect. You need to be planning now.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
Part 2 of this blog will focus on tabletop exercises:
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