Planning and why we don’t do it very well

For many of us in the higher education world, returning from the Christmas break is not always welcomed.  For residential campuses, the second semester is typically less populated than the first.  If the change is too large, the financial plan can be in trouble.  Then, there is the influence on next year’s budget, brought on by a lower number of potential returners.

In my travels, I find it interesting how low the sophistication is with respect to the planning process.  Few can enter in population changes and  immediately view the impact on next year’s plan.  Fewer still are prepared to project revenues from their non-traditional operations, a growing component of overall revenues as the world of higher ed changes.  Let me offer a few of the reasons why this tends to be the case.

1.  The CFO is but one voice and might not be an important one.  This is not an exercise in whining, by the way.  I do see financial issues being treated as but one of the considerations to be weighed.  When an institution is dealing with fundamental financial issues, it would be prudent to evaluate nearly everything on the table in terms of its financial impact.  Sorry to be so blunt but, without a margin, there will be no mission. Every decision has stewardship ramifications.  Make sure the dollars are measured, at a minimum.

2.  Making cuts ahead of time is to be avoided.  Some would rather put an unrealistic plan together that relies on optimism off the scale and blame poor performance on an unanticipated occurrence later that fall.  These institutions might have a planning model for this or that but the driving force behind budgeting is to inflict the least amount of pain for the shortest amount of time.  The staff tend to absorb the brunt of after-the-fact cuts and, sadly, that is often on purpose.  “Sorry, we had no way of knowing,” leads to loss of confidence in leadership, an environment of paranoia and low morale.  This is particularly true if some were privy to data that predicted the problem well in advance of the revelation.

3.  A lack of faith.  Some are reluctant to believe that the rigor of a comprehensive planning system will be of any benefit.  In fact, some think such approaches are too rigid and wind up being too conservative, leading to the worse exercise possible – cutting more than necessary.  Skepticism is hard to overcome, particularly with digital immigrants or those who never got on the digital boat.

4. The availability of comprehensive planning programs is quite limited.  This is an area where ERP providers are profoundly inadequate.  The reasons are probably related to the influences in 1 through 3 above.  There are some programs out there that require a lot of effort, training and expense.  If it is too complex, expensive or not designed for distributed ownership, there is little chance it will be adopted.

So, what do I recommend? Adopt a system that is being used by a goodly number of institutions and tested over a period of years.  And, to avoid the limitations of budget problems, find one that is free of charge.  Oh, and while were dreaming, add a companion that projects revenues for cohort-based non-traditional programs accurately. 

I’m pleased to say that there now is no reason not to have a comprehensive system for planning and budgeting – not even a financial one.  I have one that is owned by all the leadership team, broken down into component parts and includes a non-traditional component.  And, all of it is free (though I would be happy to jump-start your implementation into a handful of days from months or years.)

Maybe, the return from Christmas vacation won’t be all that unappealing next year.

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