In an earlier blog, I looked at Scenario Planning as a strategy for dealing with the gross uncertainty that colleges and universities face relating to the upcoming academic year. We do not know if and when campuses might reopen; and when they do, we do not know how many students will return. Could online education be just as much a part of AY2021 as it has been in the second half of this spring semester? Scenario Planning can help institutional decision-makers plan for exactly this type of uncertainty.
While Scenario Planning is a broad-based planning process to guide institutional strategy, Tabletop Exercises deal with very specific events and the immediate organizational response. Universities are familiar with using such exercises for responses to emergency situations such as an active shooter on campus. These simulations bring together the appropriate group of organizational decision-makers and present a specific emergency situation. The group then plays out the situation response, identifying the actions that would be taken by various individuals and departments and the sequence in which those actions should be taken. Often, the simulation is dynamic with facilitators injecting new events and changes into the situation. These exercises are particularly useful in clarifying roles and responsibilities and in identifying gaps in policies, procedures, and systems for dealing with emergencies. The non-threatening environment of the exercise allows individuals to discuss the best way to handle a situation as opposed to becoming defensive.
Tabletop exercises can be designed around almost any emergency situation. There are numerous examples that might be appropriate in the upcoming months:
- Students return in September, but coronavirus reoccurs on October 1st (or November 1st or December 1st, for example) requiring the campus to be closed
- Campus reopens in September, but you are required to test students for the virus before they are allowed to return
- Students return in September, but on October 1 large numbers of students begin testing positive for the virus
- Campus reopens in September, but enrollment in the freshman class falls by 50 percent
- Campus reopens in September, but overall enrollment falls by 25 percent
- Reevaluation of family financial status indicates a need for a 25 percent increase in student financial aid
These are just a few examples of the kinds of situations that are both real possibilities for the fall of 2020 and can be the subject of a Tabletop Exercise. Individuals on each of your campuses are in a better position to identify the most salient and critical situations that you may face. It is important to note that the peculiarities of your campus—your finances, your structure, your mission, your location, etc.—will determine how you would respond. It is impossible to develop a nation-wide approach. This is why it is important to conduct such exercises at your campus—decision-makers need to sit across a table from each other, evaluate the underlying principles and policies, and speculate as to the effectiveness and outcomes of their decisions. Sometimes the “take away” can be as simple as individuals not having access to the right cell phone numbers. At other times, however, you will find that your policies make it difficult to uphold your underlying principles and mission. Whatever the case, you will have confronted these issues when you can make an unpressured decision.
Aviation Flight Safety Case Study—During my tenure as the business school dean at a New England regional state university, the aviation department was part of the business school. This department conducted a pilot training program operating 11 aircraft and flying over 100 student pilots each year. Through this program, I was introduced to aviation’s concept of a Safety Management System (SMS) and Tabletop Safety Exercises. Each semester, the departmental safety officer conducted a safety tabletop exercise. A wide range of individuals would be asked to participate—students, instructors, flight program managers, campus police, university communications, personnel from the airport where we were located, and our representative from the FAA. On one occasion, we invited the regional FBI office to attend and they sent a representative! The process was similar on each occasion—the safety officer introduced a hypothetical or an actual incident (typically an airplane crash) to the group and then led a discussion among the participants as to whom would do what when. Operations manuals were referenced for proper procedure, and individuals outside of line flight operations commented on how their particular operations needed to be involved in an actual incident. Each exercise revealed new elements of how to work together in a crisis situation. During one simulation, we discovered that the phone number for the airport tower was incorrect in the operations manual—something that could have wasted vital minutes in an actual incident. I discovered how important this kind of planning is several years into my tenure when I had to deal with an actual incident. During this actual incident, I was amazed at how calm my director of flight operations was in dealing with the incident (See “Hiccup Leads to Uneventful Event” if you’re interested in the details). Simulating how to respond to crises makes a huge difference in what the actual crisis looks like when you experience it.
As we have said previously, we cannot pick our crises; but we can pick how to respond to them. Planning for the worst while we hope for the best is a far superior strategy than waiting to see what the future holds. The institutions that plan this summer and into the fall for multiple possible futures are the ones that are most likely to survive the coronavirus crisis.
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.
Our next blog will focus on how institutions will need to reexamine their operations to find ways to become more efficient and more effective:
Avoid costly mistakes and wasted time – talk to an impartial peer in Higher Ed!
There is nothing like speaking with a peer who has implemented the same product – send us a request.
You can also provide general feedback, inquire about additional free resources, submit a topic you’d like us to cover, tell us about a feature you’d like to see, or request the best staff for your project.