October 20, 2014

What a $10,000 College Education Says About the Downside of Goals | From the Bell Tower

Higher education requires cost containment, and recent calls by some governors for a $10,000 diploma sound good, but some goals are doomed to failure.

An academic library without a strategic plan is almost unthinkable. Without one how would we share our goals with the world, or whoever cares enough to look? Those who take the time to review these plans and their goals, whether it’s for the library or the university, are likely to see some fairly similar-looking plans and goals. Take some of these plans, cross out the names, and there’s little chance of determining which plan belongs to what organization. Perhaps we should question the value of all the time spent on developing plans and the goals found in them. Some experts believe the specificity of our strategic plans may actually contribute to decreased levels of productivity. Perhaps there are better ways to devise the road map to our intended outcomes.

Goals gone bad

What’s truly problematic about our strategic plans, according to Peter Bregman, is the goals we set. As he brought to our attention in his essay “Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013,” some new research about goal-setting found that the value of establishing goals was exaggerated and the downside to it was rarely discussed. The problem is that we become so focused on our goals that we lose sight of the bigger picture. In order to achieve the goal, at any cost, we take shortcuts to get there and along the way forget that we were out to do some good in the first place. We get bogged down in the effort to make these specific goals happen, and in some cases, enough time passes to make the goals less relevant.

The study uses examples that primarily come from the world of business, where cases of corrupt or illegal behavior, in the name of achieving a goal, are found. Perhaps the worst that can be said of goals set by colleges and universities, and their libraries, is that the organization gets sidetracked and the goals languish. Alternately, in our libraries, we are under such pressure to get the goals accomplished that we rush and get something done, but the results are just a mere shadow of what was originally intended. Either way, how we approach strategic planning or goals may need some rethinking.

Make it $10,000

Case in point: what’s getting attention in higher education now, given the pressure to achieve greater affordability for students, is how vastly to decrease the cost without sacrificing the quality. There are providers of free and low-cost higher education experimenting in this territory. We’ve yet to see real cost-cutting among traditional colleges or universities, but if some governors have their way, their states will make it happen. The result is one of higher education’s more interesting goals—the $10,000 degree. So far Florida, Texas, and California have publicly announced they are pursuing or investigating a low-cost option. We should certainly support efforts to contain costs and make higher education affordable, but this may be an example of misguided goals. If Bregman’s column is correct, what this type of goal is likely to lead to is low-quality education. Yes, it is possible, but, again, at what cost to the students or their faculty members? And you know getting tuition that low requires significant belt-tightening or service declines. The campus library will no doubt be experiencing both. Are those setting the goal giving that any thought? In striving to meet the $10,000 limit for an entire college education, what would they strip away? If it comes to fruition the governors may say the goal was met, but the real test will be in the learning. It may be a case of you get what you pay for.

Abandon strategic planning?

This isn’t about looking for excuses to avoid strategic planning or sensible goal-setting—although I’m sure many academic librarians would applaud it. If an excuse is needed, just reference the uncertainty and ambiguity of our fast-paced world. Does it make any sense to set plans in stone when technology and user expectations are changing so rapidly? Remember those early 1990s five-year library strategic plans? The ones with no mention of the World Wide Web? So much for those plans. If you think abandoning strategic planning is the way to go, consider what business expert, design thinker, and master strategist Roger Martin has to say.

Even in the fastest paced hi-tech industries, with high levels of uncertainty and constant change, Martin claims that thinking strategically and being strategic in our planning is still critical to our success. Avoiding it, Martin says, just hands the competition the advantage needed to conquer us. An option worth consider is “Emergent Strategic Planning.” It’s intended to account for the concerns we have about rapidly changing technology. The idea is to form loosely conceived goals that are likely to move the organization forward. However, they are malleable and subject to change as each new technology or opportunity emerges, hence the name. It allows for an organization to leverage those opportunities more rapidly or even turn mistakes into new possibilities. It is still possible to forge the road map, yet allow for sudden detours.

Alternative to goals

If we acknowledge that planning is important but that our standard way of thinking about goals is potentially problematic, what other options exist? Bregman shares an idea that resonates with me. Instead of our fixed goals, he recommends a new approach he calls “focus areas.” If the failure of goals is their specificity, then the solution may be to think more broadly but with focus in mind. He defines a focus area as an action that “establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.” This might be a challenge for academic librarians because it requires us to suspend identifying outcomes, something that’s been drilled into our planning and assessment brain cells. Instead of establishing a goal along the lines of “We will embed librarians in 20 percent more courses and demonstrate evidence of expansion into no fewer than five new academic departments,” a focus area would emphasize how we most want to spend our time, such as “Connect with faculty and create opportunities for collaboration that moves the library into learning spaces.” Use Bregman’s guidelines to craft these focus areas:

  • Tap into what intrinsically motivates us
  • Avoid stimuli or incentives that might encourage us to focus too much on specifics while preventing us from taking new opportunities
  • Encourage collaboration and reject competition
  • Always focus on moving the organization forward on what it most values

When it comes to setting goals, for our organizations or ourselves, we might be well advised to worry less about the specifics. If we are able to do that, we just might discover that the things we want to accomplish are getting done and with much less stress and anxiety. Who thinks that’s a bad idea?

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. I think the message could be taken as “setting loose goals is safer and more flexible”, and that doesn’t quite connect with what I’ve been used to for many years. First of all, if a person or business does what I call a thorough “situation analysis” of a prospect or possibility of something, before arriving at the GOAL, then the goal should be pursued with no deviation of the goal. However, once that’s set in stone, then the development of the strategic plan and tactical plan that follows, should support this goal. Having said this, if some unforseen blockage or roadblock occurs, we should then change and develop some new strategies, that continue to take us on our journey. I fully believe that the strategic process is always subject to change, but never the GOAL, so I guess I’m just not comfortable with the word “loose” when it comes to goals.
    General Eisenhower had to change the strategic plan many times before the invasion of Normandy, but there was never any doubt about the goal….it was never a “loose” goal so to speak. Thanks for the opportunity to speak.

  2. Military planners understand something important: “the plan is nothing; the planning is everything.” The useful output of planning is not a script, but the broad and deep understanding of resources and how we can use them. “The plan” is the plan today, but we may very well need a new one tomorrow when we know more.

    A “$10,000 education” is not strategic planning at all. I hope it’s meant as a goal that we’re not expected to reach, but rather to use in finding how much we actually can achieve. (Who knows? someone might find a way to *better* it.)

  3. Thanks Mark and James for adding your perspectives. Moving away from goals to focus areas is going to be questionable for many of us who are accustomed to (and often expected to develop) goals. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be a one or the other proposition, but that both focus areas and goals could be used to keep the organization moving in the right direction. It is something I’ll be thinking about the next time we need to do some strategic planning. Thanks for reading the column and sharing your thoughts….Steven