Dear Nic: How can we effectively use data to develop nimble plans that help us move forward through a crisis, such as a pandemic?
This is a good question and really important right now, as we face the effects of COVID-19.
In general, strategic planning in higher education has been very traditional and formal, producing plans that run for several years and have only limited flexibility. Arguably, that hasn’t been the best approach for a number of years and with the current pandemic, it is even less applicable. After all, we don’t really know what fall will look like for our institutions, never mind how things may look a year or more from now.
The following steps are approaches institutional research professionals can use to address this challenge. There are other key steps that are important during the plan development process, but the following are areas in which IR can be most helpful.
- Develop mission key performance indicators: Every college and university needs a set of key performance indicators showing its performance against its mission, developed through a collaborative process. Ideally, these measures should include data that can be benchmarked externally so you have a way to assess your performance. Leverage your strategic plan to identify actions that support improvement in these areas and establish targets. At Pima, we adopted minimum progress levels as well as stretch goals as our ultimate targets.
- Prepare and regularly refresh traditional planning documents: Ensure that you prepare annual updates of planning documents so you have current information available as you develop plans, monitor progress, and assess priorities. With the pandemic, you may need more frequent updates. At Pima, we are updating economic information every few weeks. The most data intense of these are the environmental scan and competitor analysis, each of which provide important information about the external environment.
- Gather input: It is more important than ever to gather qualitative input from your students, employees, and wider community. You may need to ask different questions amid the pandemic. For example, what needs do your students have? Is it technology? Sustenance? Something else? Knowing that will enable you to route any available resources to students in a way that will best support them and to identify the most important areas on which to focus your wider pandemic response. There are many other questions to ask, and, in part, some of them will vary from institution to institution. As you think through this, ask yourself: What are the critical things you need to know in order to make decisions? Every question you ask should be connected to a decision your leaders need to make.
- Analyze data from the spring 2020 semester: Did a high proportion of students continue in your virtualized offerings (if you transitioned from face-to-face)? Were students as successful as in previous semesters? Are there particular faculty or discipline areas that experienced higher levels of success? These questions, and others, will help you understand the impact of the pandemic on student outcomes and will provide insights to inform offerings moving into the fall.
- Build in foresight methods: To plan for the future and think through possibilities, foresight methods offer a very different way to think about planning. There are different options you can consider, but at Pima we have adopted the methodology from the Institute for the Future. The techniques help us take current trends, think through possible future states, and work through how resource needs might change. This enables us to develop a vision of the future state, so we can make short term decisions to move us in that direction.
More generally, I strongly recommend that institutions adopt a shorter term pandemic response plan, to enhance existing strategic plans. At Pima, we did this by leveraging foresight techniques, carrying out a comprehensive assessment of critical issues, and completing a careful analysis of the available data. We identified nine central priorities that need institutional focus as we position ourselves to weather the pandemic. You can access the development documents and the priorities here in an overview that we shared with our Governing Board to see what we considered and the priorities that we identified.
It should be mentioned that no plan can be successful (during a pandemic or otherwise) without clear ownership of priorities, a system to monitor progress, and ways to support progress if difficulties arise. There are different ways this can be done, but it is critical to leverage project tracking systems, have clear initiative leadership, and employ a regular reporting structure. If your institution does not have such a system, you need one.
Finally, it is vital that you reassess your priorities annually. This is relevant to any multi-year plan that you have. Do you have the institutional capacity to handle everything to which you are currently committed, while also working through the challenges presented by the pandemic? It can take significant institutional courage to step away from longer-term commitments, but we can only do so much. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has fundamentally changed. We have to respond to those changes in ways that maximize student progress and success. Otherwise, we may no longer be the educational institutions that our communities need.