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Back in Line

Despite a history of continuous process improvement, a community college noted some mismatches in its goals and resources. An integrated planning process brought things into strategic alignment.

By Marilyn Hansmann and Dave Weber

*If the impressive number of patents filed here every year is any indication, Rochester, Minnesota, may be one of the most innovative cities in America. What's the dynamic behind this creativity? In large part it comes from the strong relationships among the city's well-known research institutions: the Mayo Clinic, IBM, and the University of Minnesota.

Rochester is Minnesota's third-largest city and is growing fast. A center for medicine, technology, and biosciences, its strong and diverse economy is built around health care, hospitality, information technology (IT), and agriculture. The bright ideas the city can claim range from creation of the world's largest patient-record and tissue-sample database to the development of the world's fastest computer. That helps explain why at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC)—founded in 1915 as Rochester Junior College by a motion of Dr. Charles Mayo, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic—excellence and innovation are woven into the college's value system.

Today, RCTC is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU), which consists of 32 campuses including 25 two-year colleges (RCTC is one) and 7 state universities. RCTC serves approximately 11,000 students, offering more than 70 credit-based programs with more than 130 credential options in the areas of liberal arts, allied health, business, services, and technical career pathways.

The college has been particularly committed to high-quality outcomes since 1992, when its leaders identified continuous improvement as a goal in the institution's strategic plan. Since 1996, RCTC has participated in the Minnesota Quality Awards program and the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award—and in 2002, became a member of the Higher Learning Commission's Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP).

Despite this dedication to self-assessment as a means to plan and improve—and frequent strategic planning—it became increasingly apparent by 2003 that goals, strategies, and resources were not particularly well aligned. Several indicators supported that conclusion:

1. Feedback from various organizational assessment processes facilitated by the quality awards programs and AQIP findings suggested a lack of strategic alignment.

2. College constituents could not see the relationship among annual work plans, academic program review processes, measurement and evaluation requirements, and budget activities.

3. The college's external stakeholders, including the State of Minnesota and MnSCU, had begun to demand greater accountability as evidenced by the system's stated goal “to advance learning focus and improve organization focus.” These were to be accomplished through the achievement of three strategies:

  • Develop a systematic process to assess the environment, analyze results, and focus on the future.
  • Align resources to reward and recognize learning-centered innovations, respect, and teamwork.
  • Create a framework of organizational measures, integrated and aligned at all levels.

This combination of external and internal pressures—to be accountable, demonstrate organizational performance, achieve system goals, foster student success, and improve communication and transparency—were the elements driving the college's leaders to conclude that achieving strategic alignment of institutional resources was imperative.

Such an overall goal led us to incorporate our existing quality efforts with an integrated planning process (IPP) and a dashboard system to track performance, all of which would eventually result in aligning resources with strategic goals.

Bringing Alignment Front and Center

In the past, RCTC had used a strategic planning model that first identified resources (people, facilities, and money) and then divided up these resources among the divisions of the college. This model relegated strategy and assessment to the position of afterthoughts, since we used no overarching process to establish desired actions and outcomes, to design a budget in support of them, or to measure and evaluate outcomes.

To align the disparate activities of strategy and budget, we began the development of an Integrated Planning Process (IPP). A key element of the process was Web-based technology that would allow for campuswide data input and analysis. First piloted in 2006, the IPP portal created a means to enter and compare data to ensure alignment of all divisions and departments with college goals in an integrated and transparent way. The portal also created a way to capture new and innovative ideas and make resource decisions based on institutional priorities.

Since the launch of the portal, other components have improved the planning process, most notably the addition of annual academic program review (along with the already existing service department review) and a balanced scorecard (BSC) system that uses dashboard indicators to measure performance.

Links at Many Levels

Since 2006, the Integrated Planning Process has been a coordinated effort, with the chief strategic operations officer facilitating the strategic planning process while the vice president of finance and facilities conducts the annual budgeting process. Together, they build a bridge between the two activities to achieve strategic alignment in an environment of continuous improvement and innovation.

The IPP has evolved into an annual activity that includes: (1) service department and academic program review; (2) identification of overarching college goals and related departmental and divisional strategies in support of those goals; (3) assignment of resources; and (4) tracking of performance.

Service department and academic program review (APR). In the first years of the IPP, only the nonacademic (service) departments were required to do a yearly self-assessment and record results in the IPP Web tool. At one of the yearly kickoff sessions for the IPP cycle, however, a faculty member asked, “Why can't the faculty use this tool to do our program reviews? We would like to be able to see the strategic plans of other areas.” The door was opened and the academic leadership integrated academic program review into the IPP process, making the related information transparent to the rest of the college. It became an annual process linked to the IPP in 2008.

Previously, APR was done on a three-year cycle. Now the annual process of service department and academic program review is the first step of the IPP and focuses on three dimensions: efficiency, satisfaction, and effectiveness of programs. For example, for academic program review, leadership identifies key data that will eventually comprise the dashboard for each academic program or department. Required data might include the following:

  • Course fill rates.
  • Course completion rates.
  • Budgetary efficiency.
  • Program revenue generated.
  • Instructional cost study data (provided by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system reports).

Each academic and service department team considers the activities that will allow its area to reach its goals and enters strategies, actions, and resource requests into the system. Each submission is also linked to department-level processes and the related dashboard core measures.

The academic deans then evaluate the various programs and provide relevant feedback, the purpose of which is to assess the overall health of each program. Changes that might occur as a result of the review include adding online options, making curricular changes, adding new degree options within a program, and so forth. While academic program review is not used as a tool for deciding to eliminate programs, such decisions are informed by this process.

Only after the strategic plans are in place and aligned to overall institution goals does the Leadership Council assign available resources to expense areas.

Identification and confirmation of strategies. Once program review provides insight into organizational priorities and needs, the college's Leadership Council (cabinet and academic deans) reaffirms the overall strategic goals for the college, including any adjustments based on results of service department and academic program review.

At present, the college has identified 13 institutional goals. The alignment process calls for division and department strategies to be developed in such a way that those strategies support the overarching institutional goals. For example, one of RCTC's goals calls for the college to “measure learning and the success of each student.” To support that goal, the teaching and learning division developed a strategy that was articulated as “expand the assessment of student learning, including course, program, and all-college outcomes.” That strategy then links to specific department plans within the division that, when achieved, will result in reaching the division strategy and college goal. (See Figure 1 for an example of the way in which strategies align at various levels of the college.)

Assignment of resources. Only after the strategic plans are in place and aligned to overall institution goals does the Leadership Council assign available resources to the various expense areas, such as strategic initiative funds, personnel, nonpersonnel, capital, repair and replacement, and so forth.

If resources (people, facilities, and money) are scarce, it may mean RCTC stops doing a particular activity—or reduces funding for it—if that activity that does not appear as necessary as others in supporting the strategic plan of the institution, divisions, or departments.

For example, in prior years, teaching and learning division leadership spent the three weeks before the start of each semester evaluating class sections for low registration numbers. At any time during those weeks, classes could be cancelled, affecting faculty teaching loads and student registration. Potentially, this could happen more than once before the start of the semester. Division leaders evaluated this process against the strategic goals of the institution and found that it did not meet the needs of either students or faculty. They developed an improved process that calls for consolidating the three-week process into one day, on which undersubscribed classes are cancelled. Disruption to both faculty and students has been minimized while the process itself is much less time-consuming for all.

Tracking of performance. The balanced scorecard (BSC) is the other foundational component of the college's strategic alignment system. This is a family of dashboard indicators cascading throughout the college and includes the RCTC strategic dashboard, 6 divisional dashboards, and approximately 80 academic and nonacademic program and department dashboards. The dashboard system mirrors that of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Accountability Dashboard. RCTC launched its dashboard system publicly in the fall of 2009.

Each dashboard includes core measures to track performance, which are linked to processes supporting the achievement of strategies. The college's goals, which drill down to related strategies and core measures, are organized on the dashboard under the strategic direction that the goals are designed to achieve: access and opportunity, quality programs and services, state and regional economic need fulfillment, and innovation and efficiency.

Figure 2 is an example of a Level 1 strategic dashboard and indicates performance against the college's overarching 13 goals. (Core measures appear on another view of the dashboard.) The dashboard uses a color-coded system to indicate the progress being made toward the strategic goals. Measures exceeding performance expectations are coded as “gold,” those meeting expectations as “blue,” those in need of immediate attention as “red.” At division and department levels, the color coding reflects the overall performance for that core measure.

Department dashboards include core measures from the division dashboard and others unique to the department's work processes, or to work performed by the department's division.

Dashboard performance is assessed based on preestablished tolerances and error margins for each measure. Program leaders and division coordinators provide periodic updates and comments regarding program characteristics and core measures that appear on their dashboards. They also rate department and division measures for each dimension.

In that way, performance can be automatically calculated such that leaders can view trends, make comparisons, and set targets. Mid- and end-of-year strategy updates in each measured area are used to assess performance and take action. Overall college performance is displayed on the RCTC dashboards in real time and analysis can be done at any time.

For example, applicant conversion data can be tracked monthly to predict yearly performance and take appropriate actions to improve the conversion rate at any point in an admissions cycle.

Ensuring an Effective Effort

As with any change initiative, there are bumps in the road to success. We found that the single most important condition for achieving alignment of goals and resources is strong commitment at the senior leadership level. And for true alignment to be possible, all areas of the institution—most importantly the finance department and business officer—must support this process and be willing to accept decisions, even if it means resource reductions in their departments.

In the first years of development and use of the IPP and dashboard tools, there was great skepticism and fear among both faculty and staff. But, leadership persisted by holding everyone to the process requirements. Initially, this meant encouraging adoption of the IPP portal by requiring all resource requests to be submitted via the online tool. Strong and continuing commitment of the senior leadership also meant that old habits of requesting resources in other ways had to be denied. For the business office, a much more fair and equitable process resulted, because the previous process saw many requests for resources come directly to the vice president and circumvent the formal budgeting process. Now the question is always: “Have you requested the resources through the IPP process?”

Now we plan to take the process to the next level—incorporating into employee goals the responsibilities that will support strategies related to particular positions.

All this builds on the RCTC leadership commitment to periodic self-assessment using the external quality award framework mentioned earlier. Like the strategic alignment of goals and resources, self-assessment is not an “event” but a process that drives continuous improvement throughout the institution.

The effectiveness of RCTC in achieving strategic alignment has also hinged on the openness of the activities involved. The Integrated Planning Process is fully transparent to all faculty and staff. All related actions at any stage—proposal, recommendation, approval, a fall or midyear adjustment—are recorded and fully accessible to any employee at any time. All constituents of the institution can view the input of all other departments. Academic program and department self-assessments have become more authentic as the assessments become more visible.

Likewise, the balanced scorecard and its family of dashboards are fully accessible to faculty and staff, students, and the college's diverse stakeholders. The college is increasing its accountability efforts and opening itself up to external review, with all details available for public viewing on the Web (view the process).

Next Up

We've found that our college's continuous improvement journey has been greatly enhanced by the IPP, and the Web-based portal has allowed us to align strategy, resources, people, and processes at the college, division, and departmental levels. In addition, the process has fostered innovation and deepened the culture of accountability and continuous improvement. For example, in the teaching and learning division, 59 strategies for the various academic departments support the college's overall goal of measuring learning and the success of each student. Resources are assigned to these strategies and performance is measured via various dashboards. In the nursing department, one of the ways to measure student learning is to monitor the core measure of student pass rates on the external exam taken at the conclusion of the two-year course. Annual pass rates tie back to the related dashboard that ultimately rolls up to the college goal dashboard (Figure 2) noted earlier.

The fact that we are a two-year institution leading this initiative for the entire State of Minnesota is significant and perhaps reflects the college's long history of excellence and innovation. A number of large, four-year institutions are turning to our model and wanting to adapt it for their purposes.

Now we plan to take the process to the next level—incorporating into employee goals the responsibilities that will support the strategies related to particular staff positions. Staff will be able to see how their work affects the overall performance of their departments and division—and ultimately the college as a whole.

Our college's president, Don Supalla, puts it this way: “The Integrated Planning Process helps align college, division, and department goals; provides a clearinghouse for both program and service review; and serves as a template for budget development. The highly sophisticated Web-based application process results in comprehensive, always current, user-friendly, and transparent strategic planning, accountability, and budgeting. Moving forward, we'll rely on the IPP to support the development of our upcoming strategic plan, continue to analyze trends and chart improvement, and aid in the development of individual employee work plans.”

MARILYN HANSMANN is vice president of finance and facilities, and DAVE WEBER is chief strategic operations officer, Rochester Community and Technical College, Rochester, Minnesota.

Gaining Support for Strategic Alignment

After using a variety of techniques to bring resources and strategic plans into alignment, Rochester Community and Technical College leaders identified some essential factors in the effectiveness of the process:

  • Information technology support is critical. Strong support from IT is crucial to development of the Web-based tool that is the centerpiece of the strategic alignment process. RCTC's webmaster, Darin Hoffman, and RCTC's database administrator, Jon Benson, devoted many hours of technical expertise to development of the tool.
  • A staged process adds functionality each year. Incremental development and implementation of the tool allows RCTC to develop improvements requested by the end users. No one department or person understands all the requirements of the other departments, and this staged process allows early development of the most crucial functions. The staging also allows the entire college community to see the value of the tool and actually demand more of the tool each year.
  • Once benefits are realized, the request for more system capability increases dramatically. As the internal users of the tool become convinced that the senior leadership is committed to alignment and this is the tool the college will be using to achieve it, requests for increased functionality increase dramatically.
  • Transparency fosters acceptance. Transparency can cause fear as lower-functioning areas are highlighted. Leadership use the transparent self-assessment process to drive improvement, not to sanction poor performance. Therefore, leaders working together with their areas of responsibility are able to move the college forward.
  • Data drives decision making. The use of the strategic alignment tool increases the transparency of decision making at the senior leadership level. When a division's resources are increased or decreased, the “notes” section of the tool allows all areas of the college to understand why a decision is made and what data are used to make the decision. This keeps senior leadership accountable for their decisions.
  • Data integrity is crucial. A large portion of the academic program review process relies on data from the college's integrated student records system. The integrity of this data is crucial, as program reviews rely on the data to show evidence of movement toward meeting core measures. Academic and support areas must work together if there is any question on data integrity. Coding and reporting errors are more easily identified when divisions work together to report data that show evidence of meeting core measures.
  • The reporting tool is the repository for college data and information. The strategic alignment tool is the place where the documentation of the sum of the institution's activity resides. If the activity is deemed important enough to measure, the data and information collected will be reported in some way in the IPP and on the dashboard.
  • The strategic alignment activity strengthens the bridge between teaching and learning and the nonacademic operations. Integrating all aspects of planning and resource alignment has a great unintentional effect: All areas of the institution must work together to make the process effective. All the work is transparent. The divisions of the institution, especially teaching and learning and the nonacademic areas, begin to see each other as partners in the mission and vision of the institution. When strategic plans drive resources, the divisions can more easily become partners in mission and not adversaries vying for scarce resources.
  • The need for stronger integration with MnSCU system-driven applications is apparent. The next big area for improvement is to integrate the MnSCU system-driven applications with the college's resource alignment efforts. Currently, RCTC does not have a software application that loads budgets into the accounting system and then downloads actual spending back into the IPP application. Comparisons must be made manually. System integration will streamline these efforts.

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