ArticlePDF Available

Scenario Planning in Higher Education

Authors:

Abstract

Scenario planning can help institutions change the mental models used in planning to achieve a focus on the long-term future, rather than on the immediate future. While institutional survival depends upon the ability to detect and adapt to critical changes in the environment, all institutions face a wide range of potential future scenarios. By interviewing stakeholders regarding their perceptions of what the future holds in store, colleges can inform their selection of one or two potential scenarios to explore. Responses can be sorted into four quadrants, composed of two common characteristics and their opposites, with scenarios being developed for each. Because institutions tend to believe that their future will be an extension of their past, scenario planning can help examine the large-scale forces that may push the future into different directions. These driving forces are related to demographics and lifestyles, economics, politics, environmental factors, and technological issues. Once these forces have been identified, institutions should identify the forces that can be predicted and those that are uncertain and largely controlled by mental models. An effective tool for examining mental models is the systems map, using arrows to define the relationships between elemental behaviors. For each scenario, a scenario matrix should be used to develop a valid compilation of scenario strategies. A collective matrix is then built, which reflects the collective vision of the group members. Contains 17 references. (HAA)
1
Scenario Planning in Higher Education
James B. Rieley
Director
October 1996
Planning for the future is something that all institutions believe that they do. We plan on how many
students we will have next semester or next year. We plan which classes to offer next semester or next
year. We plan what our budgets will be for the next year. Sometimes, we plan on what our technology
needs will be for the next two years. This is planning for the literal future, but not for the figurative future.
The future that we need to look at is the future that will be today in 10, 20, or 30 years.
Higher education is going through massive changes. Our customers are changing, our competition is
changing, our needs are changing, and our resource availability is changing. The world taking shape is not
only new, but new in entirely different ways (Barnet, 1990). If we are to remain viable, or hopefully more
effective over time, we must begin to examine how we do our planning.
When we do our planning for the “immediate future,” the future of one or two years away, we are much
like someone who is standing in the woods against a tree with his or her nose touching the bark. We are
able to focus our vision on the crevices on the bark, perhaps even on the small creatures that inhabit the tree
lining. Consequently, we begin to believe that our “world” is the tree bark and the small creatures.
However, even trying to focus at this distance requires that we force our eyes to clearly see what is in front
of us. Unfortunately, being this close to the tree eliminates our ability to discern how big in diameter the
tree is, or how tall the tree is, or how many trees are in the forest. We may not even be able to tell if the
tree is diseased and might fall on us at a later date. The mental models we have of our environment
become locked into place by our self-enforced myopic position.
Planning for the immediate runs the same risks. When we look at the future of one or two years, we will
not be able to focus on the bigger picture. We need to “step back from the tree” and focus on the forest as a
whole. Scenario planning gives us that ability. Scenario planning is not about doing planning, but is the
vehicle in which we can begin to change the mental models we have of our worlds (Duncan, 1990). Our
institutional survival “depends on the ability to detect and adapt to critical changes in the environment” (de
Geus, 1990). We need to change our mental models of what is and what is not; we need to learn how to
better plan for the future; we need to better understand what our futures might be. This paper will put forth
a methodology for doing effective scenario planning in a higher educational environment.
Scenarios in Higher Education
In higher education, we are faced with many potential future scenarios (see figure 1).
enrollments drop enrollments increase
decreased competition increased competition
economic turndown economic upturn
conflicts within our communities harmony within our communities
conflicts with accrediting agencies long-term accreditation
facility limitations unused facility capacity
resource availability shrinkage surplus funding availability
anti-education legislation federal support for education
technology advances increase in need for basic skills
reduced need for degreed employees increased demand for degrees
figure 1
There is no right or wrong scenario; there are no good or bad scenarios; there are only potential futures
facing our institutions. Selecting the scenarios to look at can be a hit-or-miss process. Few institutions
have the resources that would enable them to look at all the potential futures, therefore, selecting one or
2
two to examine becomes a matter of practicality. How to make the selection is the question. The method
that works well is by interviewing institutional stakeholders.
By asking the question, “what do you think the future holds in store for the institution?,” a scenario
planning team can begin to sort out what futures may be important to look at. By sorting the responses into
groups, the team can identify some common characteristics. By using orthogonal axes (see figure 2), we
can develop a method of completing the selection process. After selecting two characteristics that are
identified in the interview process, the scenario team determines the opposite characteristics and applies all
four to the axes. With the axes completed, the scenario team then begins to develop scenarios for each of
the four quadrants.
traditional delivery
alternative delivery
site-based
centralized
• classes at business sites
• classes held at shopping centers
• increase in partnerships
• higher entrance skills expected
• no central campus facility
• faculty on call
• heavy utilization of ITFS, internet
• foreign students
• higher entrance skills required
• increase in need for basic skills
• lower entrance skills expected
• facility expenses increase
• escalating benefit costs
• increase in operating expenses
• labor contract conflicts
• lack of organizational alignment
• difficulty in “keeping up”
figure 2
A key consideration in developing scenarios is the richness of the conversation. There are significant
obstacles to this process. They include; overconfidence and intellectual arrogance, and anchoring and
availability bias (Clemmons, 1995). As humans, we tend to overestimate our knowledge and level of
understanding. Overconfidence may make us believe that, because we have been successful in the past, we
will be able to lead our organizations successfully into an unknown future. Additionally, we may believe
that we know exactly what the future will be. We believe that the future will be basically an extension of
the past, and consequently, we anchor our beliefs in what we know now.
Through doing scenario planning, we are not trying to pinpoint specific future events, but to look at the
large-scale forces that will be pushing the future into different directions (Wilkinson, 1996). It is these
forces that contribute to the relational changes that affect our institutions.
Most current planning follows maps that we have that are two dimensional, like road maps or terrain maps
(Schoemaker, 1995). Making geographic maps are an honored art and science, so is the making of
institutional maps. However, both of them provide a distorted view of the environment. Geographic maps
show the elevations, the distances between places, and the topography. Institutional maps can show the
number of students who enroll, the number of students who complete, the number of students in classes, the
trends of business and industry, and the various ways in which we deliver education. However, neither
map shows the various uncertainties that relate to the reality that the maps are supposed to reflect.
Geographic maps do not include various elements, such as weather, landslides, animals, and other people
that might restrict one's ability to move across the territory shown on the map. Institutional maps do not
traditionally include values, legislative directions and impacts, institutional climate, relationships between
departments, or levels of understanding and buy-in. These are all considered to be uncertainties.
3
When evaluating relationships between uncertainties, we need to check for internal consistency and
plausibility; for example, high visibility and heavy snowdrifts are an implausible combination. By
examining the driving forces, we begin to surface the uncertainties that will have a major impact on our
ability to understand the potential futures we face.
Driving Forces
The forces to be examined include social, economic, political, environmental, and technological. It is these
forces that will result in the future we will find ourselves in. We need to look at the context of these forces.
Scenario Driving Forces
Social Dynamic Forces Demographics
Values
Lifestyle
Customer demands
Economic Issue Forces Microeconomic trends
Macroeconomic trends
Political Issue Forces Legislation
Regulatory direction
Accreditation directions
Environmental Forces Ecological movement
Costs of recycling
Technological Issue Forces Innovation
Technology availability
Indirect technology impacts
figure 3
By beginning to examine these forces, we can begin to paint a picture of the things that will be affecting the
relationships that impact our ability to be effective over time. Once the driving forces are identified, it is
important to begin to identify the things that can be predetermined. Predetermined forces are ones that we
can identify through direct or indirect relationships. For example, it is relatively easy to predetermine how
many students will be attending high school in a given area by looking at how many students there are in
the pipeline to high school, i.e.: how many students are in the K-8 system in that area.
Although the two numbers in all probability will not be the same, there will be a correlation. Another
example might include the number of students who attend graduate programs. To find this number, we can
start be determining the correlation between the number of students in baccalaureate programs at the
institution.
There will potentially be quite a few driving forces whose outcomes can be predetermined. Once these are
identified, we are left with what are called “uncertainties.” It is the uncertainties that we need to work to
discover. It is the uncertainties that are largely controlled by our mental models.
In scenario planning, we are not trying to predict the future, we are trying to understand the potential
futures that we might encounter. This requires being open to these potentials, being open to challenging
our mental models of what the future might be.
Mental Models
4
To better examine our mental models, an effective tool that can be developed is a systems map. In a
systems map, the relationships between various elemental behaviors are identified, as well as the
relationships between them. The tool looks like a very chaotic spider web, with arrows going from
behavior to behavior. The arrows help define the relationship between the various behaviors by showing
the direction of effect, as well as the impact of that direction (see figure 4).
competition
int/ext
commun.
cooperation
between
dept's/div's
image of
college in
community
24 hour
access to
education
use of
technology in
teaching &
learning
internal
resources
level of
endowment
union buy-in
shift in org.
culture
packaging of
courses for sale
focus on
student
needs
responsiveness
use of mobile
classroom
business
sustainability
in community
effectiveness of
org systems
staff
development
hiring
process time
use of alt.
delivery
need to be
responsive
globalization
of economy flexibility of
policies &
procedures
privatization
of training
ability to
communicate
impact of
competition
resource
allocation
economy
o
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
o
s
ss
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
s
business &
industry needs s
s
f
igure 4
In figure 4, the relationships between behaviors from a case study are shown. Keys to look for are the
arrow directions and the letter near each arrow head. The arrow shows which behavior affects which other
behaviors. The letter, either an “S” or an “O,” shows the direction of the impact of the relationship. If the
letter is an “S,” the meaning is that, as one behavior builds or grows, the other (recipient behavior) builds or
grows as well. If the letter is an “O,” the meaning is that, as one behavior builds or grows, the other
(recipient behavior) will decline or shrink. By examining the completed systems map, we can determine
which behaviors will have the most impact of the system, therefore, helping to better understand the future
dynamics of the scenario being looked at.
Using a systems map causes us to reexamine our mental models of the dynamic relationships at play in our
organizations, and in the case of scenario planning, causes us to examine our mental models of the future.
Scenario Strategies
Once the driving behaviors are identified and their relationships are understood, it is appropriate to begin to
develop potential scenario strategies. To ensure that the scenario strategies that are constructed are not only
valid but a compilation of the mental models of all the participants, a process should be used that enables
varied mental models to surface. This process involves the utilization of a scenario matrix.
5
This matrix (see figure 5) is divided into five entry columns and five entry rows, for a total of twenty-five
matrix positions to be filled in. The rows give the participants the ability to articulate their mental models
(the beliefs and assumptions that they believe will be congruent with each column heading); the systemic
structures that they believe will be present for each column heading; the patterns of behavior that will be
evident for each column heading; and the visible events that will be associated with each column heading.
The columns reflect the potential scenario in question, the current reality, the gap between the potential
future scenario and the current reality, the action steps identified to help move toward the future scenario,
and the indicators of movement toward the future scenario.
The actual process of filling out the matrix is normally completed by individuals, most often by a cross-
sectional group of institutional stakeholders. This group could include students, administrators, faculty,
and support staff. There is no set way to complete the matrix. Some groups begin horizontally, some begin
vertically -- the only requirement is that the matrix reflect the vision of the person filling it out.
Once the group has completed filling out their individual matrices, they would begin to build a “collective”
matrix; a matrix that reflects the collective vision of the group members. This process can be quite time
consuming, depending on the alignment among the group members and the ability of the group to function
as team.
Potential
Scenario
Current
Reality
Gap
Action Steps
Indicators
figure 5
It is important when developing the collective matrix to identify the target format for each matrix position.
The columns for potential scenario and current reality are most suited for sentence structure text, while the
columns for gap, action steps, and indicators are best suited for bulleted items.
The purpose for using the matrix is two-fold. First, the matrix helps to build alignment on the planning
team by creating a common knowledge base of what is and what can be. By completing the matrix and
sharing the inputs, the team can develop a collective view of the future that is based on the individual
perspectives of the group. Second, completing the matrix forces people to deal with three levels of
knowledge. These levels are: 1) things we know we know, 2) things we know we do not know, and 3)
things we do not know we do not know (Schoemaker, 1995). The object of using the matrix is not to
validate or invalidate any specific future, but to think through the implications of that future (Senge, 1995).
Upon completion of the “collective” matrix, the scenario team would then repeat the process for the other
scenarios identified by the orthogonal axes. This process is not a quick one. It may take months to weave
the way through the existing mental models and formulate individual and collective new models for
examination.
During this process, two concerns usually come up. First, a concern about the time, and, therefore, the cost,
involved. Second, a concern about the relevance of the outcomes. There are no right answers for these
concerns. However, when faced with similar concerns in the 1970’s when presenting potential scenarios
relating to what could happen to the availability of the world’s oil supply, Pierre Wack responded, we
“need to weigh the probability against the seriousness of the consequence -- if it happens, and you are not
6
prepared for it.” As we all remember, the seriousness of the consequence in that scenario was extremely
high. In higher education, we are faced with future potentials that could have the same level of seriousness
of consequence for our institutions if we do not begin to look at our mental models of the future.
Scenario planning is many things. However, it will not give higher education answers. It will not enable
us to make better predictions. Scenario planning will give us the opportuntity to explore and, perhaps,
expand our mental models of what the future could be, and what we can do as it approaches.
Scenario planning is about understanding the futures that might happen (Malone, 1995). Scenario planning
will provide the opportunity to ask the questions that will need to be asked if we are to become better at
planning for our future.
2520 words
273 lines
7
References:
Argyris, Chris (1990)
Overcoming Organizational Defenses
Allyn and Bacon; Boston, MA
Barnet, Richard (1990)
“Defining the Moment”
The New Yorker; New York
Clemons, Eric (1995)
“Using Scenario Analysis to Manage the Strategic Risks of Reengineering”
Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
de Geus, Arie (1988)
“Planning as Learning”
Harvard Business Review; Harvard University; Boston, MA
Kim, Daniel (1995)
“Vision Deployment Matrix: A Framework for Large-Scale Change”
The Systems Thinker; Pegasus; Cambridge, MA
Kleiner, Art (1996)
The Age of Heretics
Doubleday; New York
Lannon, Colleen (1990)
“Scenario-Based Planning: Managing By Foresight”
The Systems Thinker; Pegasus; Cambridge, MA
Malone, Thomas (1995)
“CEO Thought Summit”
Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
Rieley, James (1996)
“Innovation in Higher Education”
Center for CQI; Milwaukee Area Technical College; Milwaukee, WI
Schoemaker, Paul (1995)
“Scenario Planning: A Tool for Strategic Thinking”
Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
Schwartz, Peter (1991)
The Art of the Long View
Doubleday; New York
Senge, Peter (1995)
“CEO Thought Summit”
Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
Senge, Peter; Ross, Richard; Smith, Bryan; Roberts, Charlotte; Kleiner, Art (1994)
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook
Doubleday; New York
Wack, Pierre (1985)
8
“Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids”
Harvard Business Review; Harvard University; Boston, MA
Wack, Pierre (1985)
“Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead”
Harvard Business Review; Harvard University; Boston, MA
Weisbord, Marvin; et al. (1992)
Discovering Common Ground
Berrett-Koehler; San Francisco, CA
Wilkinson, Lawrence (1996)
“How to Build Scenarios”
www.hotwired.com/wired/scenarios/build/html
James B. Rieley is an advisor to CEO’s and senior leadership teams from all sectors. He was the CEO of a successful manufacturing
company for over 20 years, and has written extensively on the subject of personal and collective organisational effectiveness. He is
the author of Gaming the System (FT/Prentice Hall), Leadership (Hodder), Strategy and Performance (Hodder), Change and Crisis
Management (Hodder), as well as numerous articles and the subscripton-based Plain Talk about Business Performance newsletter.
His work has been cited in Fast Company, Making It Happen: Stories from Inside the New Workplace, A Fieldguide for Focused
Planning, and Breakthrough Leadership. Rieley, who holds an earned Ph.D. in Organisational Effectiveness, lives in Mallorca, and
can be contacted at jbrieley@rieley.com.
... Scenario planning and crisis management are well tested and have been relied upon for many years in commercial enterprises (Chermack, 2004) as aids to long term planning and crisis control. However, it is rare to see these applied in the HE sector to assist in the development of policy (Rieley, 1997;Hašková and Verešová, 2013). ...
Article
Full-text available
This paper takes a retrospective view of the year 2020, with a focus on how Higher Education policy development was undertaken on a Transnational Education (TNE) program between the University of Glasgow (UofG) and the University of Electronics, Science and Technology in Chengdu (UESTC), China in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It explores the approach to policy development under normal circumstances, contrasting this with the approach taken during the emergence of the epidemic and how the unfolding situation impacted on those policies. It demonstrates how the application of management tools for scenario planning and crisis management can be used effectively to develop a clear and prescriptive policy for staff. It also demonstrates how the use of such tools, combined with careful analysis and planning, can minimize disruption to student learning, teaching, and assessment. The paper then goes on to explain the creation and implementation of policies addressing three main areas: learning and teaching, Final Year Projects, and assessment. Finally, it reflects on the student and staff perspectives on the policies, considering how this information might be used to enhance the policy development process in future.
... While scenario planning and crisis management have been used and relied upon for many years in commercial enterprises [1] as aids to long term planning and crisis control, it is rarely used in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) [2]. This paper considers ways in which a combination of scenario planning and crisis management techniques can be employed to develop and implement an operational level policy as part of a wider strategy for managing the learning, teaching, and assessment during the unfolding Covid-19 epidemic during the Spring semester of 2020, for a Transnational Education (TNE) joint program in electrical engineering based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. ...
Article
Full-text available
Among the many tools a manager can use for strategic planning, scenario planning stands out for its ability to capture a whole range of possibilities in rich detail. By identifying basic trends and uncertainties, a manager can construct a series of scenarios that will help to compensate for the usual errors in decision making—overconfidence and tunnel vision. Through case studies of Interpublic, an international advertising agency, and Anglo-American Corporation in South Africa, the author describes how to build scenarios in a step-by-step process and how to use the resulting stories to plan a company's future. INSETS: They believed it.;Three scenarios for the advertising industry.. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]
Using Scenario Analysis to Manage the Strategic Risks of Reengineering" Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA de Geus
  • Richard Barnet
Barnet, Richard (1990) "Defining the Moment" The New Yorker; New York Clemons, Eric (1995) "Using Scenario Analysis to Manage the Strategic Risks of Reengineering" Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA de Geus, Arie (1988) "Planning as Learning" Harvard Business Review; Harvard University;
Vision Deployment Matrix: A Framework for Large-Scale Change" The Systems Thinker; Pegasus
  • Daniel Kim
Kim, Daniel (1995) "Vision Deployment Matrix: A Framework for Large-Scale Change" The Systems Thinker; Pegasus; Cambridge, MA
Scenario-Based Planning: Managing By Foresight" The Systems Thinker; Pegasus
  • Art Kleiner
Kleiner, Art (1996) The Age of Heretics Doubleday; New York Lannon, Colleen (1990) "Scenario-Based Planning: Managing By Foresight" The Systems Thinker; Pegasus; Cambridge, MA
CEO Thought Summit" Sloan Management Review; MIT
  • Thomas Malone
Malone, Thomas (1995) "CEO Thought Summit" Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
Innovation in Higher Education
  • James Rieley
Rieley, James (1996) "Innovation in Higher Education" Center for CQI;
CEO Thought Summit" Sloan Management Review; MIT
  • Peter Senge
Senge, Peter (1995) "CEO Thought Summit" Sloan Management Review; MIT; Cambridge, MA
Strategy and Performance (Hodder), Change and Crisis Management (Hodder), as well as numerous articles and the subscripton-based Plain Talk about Business Performance newsletter. His work has been cited in Fast Company
  • B James
James B. Rieley is an advisor to CEO's and senior leadership teams from all sectors. He was the CEO of a successful manufacturing company for over 20 years, and has written extensively on the subject of personal and collective organisational effectiveness. He is the author of Gaming the System (FT/Prentice Hall), Leadership (Hodder), Strategy and Performance (Hodder), Change and Crisis Management (Hodder), as well as numerous articles and the subscripton-based Plain Talk about Business Performance newsletter. His work has been cited in Fast Company, Making It Happen: Stories from Inside the New Workplace, A Fieldguide for Focused Planning, and Breakthrough Leadership. Rieley, who holds an earned Ph.D. in Organisational Effectiveness, lives in Mallorca, and can be contacted at jbrieley@rieley.com.