Monday, January 14, 2013

There’s Planning, and There’s Planning

I read somewhere that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.  If that’s true, then I’m feeling particularly educated of late.

In a discussion about planning for the next several years, I realized that I’m stuck believing two very different ideas.  

On the one side, I accept that good forward-looking plans are relatively concrete, with measurable goals and specific ways of getting there from here.  That’s what distinguishes them from daydreams.  In “strategic plans” as such, they’re usually written as “we will increase graduation rates by x percent by year y, by using the following interventions.”  The prose is ghastly, but the idea is to tie budgeting to some sort of conscious purpose in a deliberate way.  At that level, it’s hard to object.  As dreary as they are to read, plans like these can prevent good intentions from coming to grief on the shoals of unconscious incrementalism.  Tying strategic planning to budgeting offers the prospect of actually putting money where it needs to go.  This is no small thing.

On the other, though, I’m increasingly convinced that the real issue is less about improving this percentage or that one by a few points, and more about recognizing and coming to terms with much larger changes in higher education.  Given the reality of Baumol’s cost disease and increasing political friction around student debt, how should we revisit the ways we use various online resources?  What would a competency-based system look like, as opposed to a credit hour system?  How can we change the academic calendar to help students be more successful?  

The problem is that in practice, the two ways of thinking tend to conflict.  (They don’t have to definitionally, but they tend to in practice.)  It’s hard to specify in advance concrete, measurable outcomes to such speculative questions.  You can’t nail down the future like that.  But time and energy spent on one set of questions typically takes time and energy away from the other.

I’ve heard that some tech companies -- 3M and Google, famously, but I’m sure there are others -- set aside time within certain employees’ workweeks for working on speculative projects.  (I think that’s where Google Docs came from.)  I’d love to have some sort of venue on campus for something like that, but it would be easy for it to fall prey to hobbyhorses.  To work, the discussion would have to be both relatively constrained in terms of topics -- the first ground rule would be “no nostalgia” -- and relatively open and rigorous in terms of treatment.  In other words, no “brainstorming” in the traditional sense -- people would have to be able to raise objections, poke holes, and refine.  

I’m not quite sure how to translate something like that to a community college setting.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone seen this done well in a campus setting?  I’d love to get responses in the comments, but anyone who’d rather reply privately can email me at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.  This seems like the right moment, but I’m having a hell of a time figuring out the mechanics.  Any wisdom born of experience would be welcome.
I’d hate for our plans to miss tectonic shifts because we were too focused on things we could define, and measure, in advance.