Strategic Planning and the "Perpetual Whitewater" of Dx

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In higher education, the dynamic nature of digital transformation creates tension in the traditional strategic planning process, complicating the implementation of strategic objectives.

Digital Transformation with web icons in futuristic theme for, ai, technology, communication, data, iot, automation and networking.
Credit: buffaloboy / © 2019

Universities are learning to deal with "perpetual whitewater," adapting and refining the plan as they go. —Tom Andriola, email message to authors (June 12, 2019)

Consider how strategic planning in higher education has traditionally taken place: A campus leader identifies a group of trusted colleagues and key stakeholders. A series of meetings and group exercises—sometimes facilitated by an external consultant—is convened where constituents identify themes and possible goals, provide information on the current state of affairs, share perspectives, and raise concerns. Input from the campus community may be sought through surveys and focus group discussions. These meetings, group exercises, and outreach efforts, in turn, lead to a strategic plan, which includes SWOT analyses, data summations, and a distillation of ideas.1

If you have participated in such planning efforts, you will likely agree that interacting with colleagues to produce a meaningful, forward-looking plan can provide both personal and professional satisfaction. When all goes well, this collective creativity leads to a prevailing set of understandings that reflect the deeply ethical purpose of higher education, an agreement on priorities, and a shared vision of how to accomplish common goals. At their best, strategic plans are concise, coherent, and intelligible to a variety of constituencies.

Yet there remains some distance between strategic intent and the mise en scene of change: gaps surface between the broad parameters of a strategy and the real-world constraints encountered during implementation. Tom Andriola, who joined the University of California as its vice president and system chief information officer (CIO) in 2013, noted a trend: "Strategic planning now is much more of a rolling, continuous process. For example, instead of a serial approach, organizations (including universities) are learning to deal with 'perpetual whitewater,' adapting and refining the plan as they go."2 The whitewater metaphor and the feeling of turbulence may be familiar to many, and the ongoing nature of strategic planning today presupposes a regular evaluation of progress, which, in higher education, may not be taking place. While the broader themes and goals of a strategy may remain intact, objectives are not always met, and outcomes are not always measured.

The dynamic nature of digital transformation (Dx), which we define here as a journey from analog, legacy models to new digital processes, creates tension for the traditional strategic planning process and complicates the implementation of strategic objectives. For example, gone are the days when a mainframe student information system written in COBOL will last for 30 years. The increasing speed of change3 compresses the time between a plan's conception and its rollout to such an extent that the business-process automations so confidently implemented just a few short years ago are now obsolete or need to be upgraded or refactored. Newer technologies come to the fore, generating new costs and causing further disruption to the underlying business processes we sought to improve.

In addition to increased speed, the velocity of change from analog to digital calls for "flexible leaders at all levels who can enable the college or university to rapidly and efficiently achieve its strategic aims."4 Doing nothing, although a popular choice, is clearly not an option. The sea change that is Dx, with its lean and agile practices and its relentless attention to delivering value to customers as quickly as possible, may actually stymie the traditional strategic planning framework in higher education.

In "Stop Making Plans; Start Making Decisions," Michael Mankins and Richard Steele describe the impacts Dx has had on the strategic planning process in the commercial sector:

A small number of forward-looking companies have thrown out their calendar-driven, business-unit-focused planning processes and replaced them with continuous, issues-focused decision making. By changing the timing and focus of strategic planning, they've also changed the nature of top management's discussions about strategy—from "review and approve" to "debate and decide," meaning that senior executives seriously think through every major decision and its implications for the company's performance and value.5

Planning techniques that can pivot on a dime are well suited to business environments with top-down control, where lean portfolio management and agile approaches can concentrate company efforts on the customer value chain. Product management, which is more commonplace in the commercial sector, can bring an intense focus to an organization and conclude with significant value-add features, all measured neatly in quarterly profit-and-loss statements.

But this rapid-change environment does not describe higher education, where shared governance, broad consensus, limited resources, and a very different model for budgeting rule the day. Distributed fund accounting principles may provide targeted accountability, but they can hamper agility, growth, and the ability to deliver value at scale. Even the most forward-thinking higher education IT departments can bump into areas where lean approaches, which are so viable for a commercial enterprise, are simply incongruous with the institution's strategic planning framework.

Three characteristics of Dx are worth examining in the context of strategic planning: the velocity of change, the expansion of agency, and impacts on costs.

First, commercial service providers operate at a different velocity than universities often can or want to operate. The commercial sector thrives on competitive change, and in some cases, velocity becomes a primary success factor. The velocities are different because the motivations are different: for-profit service providers introduce new features and products to disrupt the market and supplier distribution channels. The volatility that results is often delivered with the specific strategic intent of disintermediating established industry participants. Rapid growth in market share can boost shareholder value in the short term and pave the way for additional funding in the mid to long term.

This velocity can be highly disruptive for higher education institutions and their staff who are confronted with a continual array of new products, revised service contracts, and modified support agreements. To make matters worse, universities can be completely stranded, such as when a product is suddenly cancelled. For example, when WorkDay acquired video augmentation platform Zaption, it promptly pulled Zaption from the market. Numerous colleges and universities suddenly had to find an alternative tool to use in some of their courses and online programs and also redevelop course content. Another example is DecisionDesk, which abruptly abandoned its college admissions platform two-thirds of the way into the graduate admissions cycle.

Second, in addition to the velocity of change and its consequent turbulence, Dx also creates possibilities for individual agency as departments, faculty, and staff independently initiate and deploy services in ways that previously were not possible or practical. Ranging from low-cost experiments to full-scale, clustered production systems, it is now easier than ever for small research groups, class activities, and special projects to independently arrange IT hosting services. For example, by coupling Ronin and Amazon Web Services, complex, full-stack, clustered Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) environments can be spun up with a few clicks and payment with a credit card. The amount of technical resources required and the complexity of these initiatives would have been previously impossible without the permission, talent, and support of central campus IT.

Third, while Dx enables rapid innovation, it also exposes a campus to increasing transactional costs and may introduce new costs that impact the strategic budgeting process. Because cloud service providers individuate micro service costs (i.e., separate line items for OS, storage amount, storage type, network access, identity management, security, etc.), campus infrastructure costs, which previously may have been included in a bundled, campus-level recharge amount, can come under scrutiny. Surfacing discrete cost elements in this way is an arguably good practice, but the additional accounting overhead adds soft costs to the other technical and administrative costs and, ultimately, to the bottom line.

Another consequence of individual agency is that costs often are supported through discrete funding streams (such as grants, donor gifts, and awards) and thus may be obscured from central IT planning and campus-level budgeting. Ideally, the flexibility and freedom to innovate at the local level—regardless of the funding source—would be accounted for in an institution's broader strategic planning and budgeting processes.

These three characteristics help to frame our brief analysis of strategic planning in the context of Dx. At this juncture, it may be a useful thought exercise to recognize two broad spheres within education, each with a different velocity and focus: the academic side, with its missions of teaching, learning, research, and public service; and the administrative side, whose job it is to provide the service infrastructure necessary to fulfill the academic missions. Equally reasonable, then, is to identify areas where Dx could be successfully applied and other areas where it may be antithetical to an institution's raison d'être.

The authors of the EDUCAUSE Review article, "We Shoulda Known: Lessons for the Future from the Past" accentuate the positive side of new deployments, urging IT leaders to always consider the mission:

We should remain interested in, and even enthusiastic about, new technologies. But we must be careful to advocate and implement them only when we have good reason to believe they align with our institutions' missions. This means that we should organize and manage IT planning, operations, and support based solidly on institutional mission and customers' needs.6

The suggested course of action is for technology leadership to conduct strategic planning in concert with, not in opposition to, the academic mission(s) of the campus. Ideally, by streamlining the digital experience on the administrative side, IT departments can create efficiencies, improve accuracy, and realize other time-saving benefits, which in turn frees up students and faculty on the academic side to focus on what is most important to them.

The academic side, composed of teaching, learning, research, and public service, requires individual effort, motivation, and perseverance. Dx will improve research and instruction through the collaborative alignment of technical capabilities and mission-defined needs. However, knowledge creation is time-consuming, and higher education has established a system of respectful engagement that involves myriad protracted processes. From the perspective of a commercial-sector business analyst, these processes can seem patently inefficient. From the perspective of the general public, higher education processes can seem downright mystifying. In many instances, the academic side may simply need more time for transformation. In fact, there are specific measures in place, such as tenure, to intentionally counteract the staccato pace of change and the potentially negative impact of fads.

In her article "Can't the University Be More Like Business?" UCLA Political Science Professor Susanne Lohmann describes the research university as reliant on a fragmented array of cost subsidies and exposed to growing business risk:

The profitable parts of the research and teaching enterprise will get cherry-picked by commercial research enterprises…. Chronic budget deficits will kill state funding for public research universities. Eventually the political consensus supporting the "research university bundle" will come undone. Standard cross-subsidization practices will become unsustainable, and the unprofitable parts of the research and teaching enterprise will die.7

Lohmann's point draws our focus to the challenge of situating the purpose-driven academic enterprise within the context of Dx's fast-changing, profit-driven world. It is worth remembering that the currency of the academy is not dollars: it is creating, sharing, and perpetuating knowledge. This is a vastly different value proposition from that of the commercial sector.

Andriola suggests that reconciling the two strategic spheres ultimately boils down to effective communication on strategic value. What is needed, he suggests, is, "an integrated set of conversations where alignment between one's role within the university environment must be clearly understood at the local level, supported by a dynamic and open culture, that provides both integrated thinking as well as autonomous action."8

Absent the absolute measure of profit that guides strategic value discussions in the commercial sector, one strategy campuses can use is to establish and maintain a shared understanding of what constitutes value, with specific agreement on how value is measured.

Justifiable confusion and real arguments can erupt when faculty, staff, and administrators work to reconcile campus strategy. What gets lost in translation during the high-level planning process is, in essence, a mismatch between shorter-term management measures to optimize efficiency and productivity and longer-term efforts to build knowledge, generate new thinking, and retain understanding through education and research.

But are all the players truly engaged? Conversations are personality-based and subject to political influence, feigned agreement, and delay tactics. The integrated conversation, so crucial to reconciling the middle space between the two strategic spheres, may not be sufficient to address legitimate institutional disagreements on strategic direction that can arise.

When developing strategic plans in a university environment, the academic-administrative duality often devolves into a tug-of-war between strategic intent and action as different departments develop strategies based on or in response to interpretations of the loftier plans of the institution. This pluralistic tension, a hallmark of higher education, has always run at cross-currents with the ostensible unity of campus-wide planning processes. Dx can exacerbate this by empowering individual agency. Handling this pastiche of disparate local-level strategies and responses puts a squeeze on IT leaders seeking to balance factional interests and return value to customers.

This unraveling may be felt most acutely at the departmental level where local IT providers, ever mindful of the academic mission, endeavor to be responsive to a multiplicity of incongruent demands. A matrix of tension exists between what can be changed and what should be preserved and between efforts that can move quickly and those that need to move at a measured, thoughtful pace.

One reaction to the looming wave of Dx is for campuses to engage in large-scale efforts to reorganize their IT departments to improve the digital experience for students and faculty. This topic will be addressed in more detail in the next article in this series.

Tending to organizational structure and service efficacy seem like logical responses to Dx, but one wonders if higher education may be reaching a point where no response (strategic or tactical) is possible to overcome the increasing velocity of change and other complexities introduced by Dx. Can higher education surface from the perpetual whitewater?


  1. For more information, see The Arc of Integrated Planning (Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning, 2019).
  2. Tom Andriola, email message to authors, June 12, 2019.
  3. To distinguish between "speed" and "velocity," we used the descriptions found here: "Speed and Velocity," The Physics Classroom, accessed July 25, 2019.
  4. Susan Grajek and Betsy Reinitz, "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation: Change Your Culture, Workforce, and Technology," EDUCAUSE Review (website), January 8, 2019.
  5. Michael Mankins and Richard Steele, "Stop Making Plans; Start Making Decisions," Harvard Business Review (January 2006).
  6. Gregory Jackson, Klara Jelinkova, Joseph Moreau, and Jenn Stringer, "We Shoulda Known: Lessons for the Future from the Past," EDUCAUSE Review, March 11, 2019.
  7. Susanne Lohmann, "Can't the University Be More Like Business," Economics of Governance 5 (April 2004): 9–27.
  8. Tom Andriola, email message to authors, June 12, 2019.

Jim Phillips is Director of Learning Technologies, Information Technology Services, at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Jim Williamson is Director of Educational Technology Systems and Administration at the University of California, Los Angeles.

© 2019 Jim Phillips and Jim Williamson. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.