The Biggest Risk is Not Asking the Big Question

The Biggest Risk is Not Asking the Big Question

I recently wrote an article for the NBOA publication Net Assets on implementing an enterprise risk management program.  It is a hot topic; I have probably had 40 business officers and others email me for more information.  We all know we need to look at this, but it is a hard road to start down.  So I am going to make it a whole lot harder: I don’t think most of us are asking many of the really big questions that pose the greatest risks for independent schools.

We know we need to increase the pace of innovation in our schools if we hope to keep up with the rapidly changing world around us.  Nowhere is this more apparent, or is the agreement greater, than in the need to break down the walls that keep faculty and staff apart from each other in the functioning of our schools.  Every measure points to the need to increase collaboration, not just amongst those who work on common problems, but amongst people who have traditionally operated in completely separate sandboxes.

Our schools are going to undergo a radical transformation in the next decade, and that transformation is going to have an enormous impact on budgets, fund raising, and the basic value proposition of both public and private education.  Yet I don’t think many of us are rigorously building those changes into our long-range financial models.

Are CFO’s tightly wrapped into planning for the technology changes that are sweeping our schools?  Are we drilling down on the impact of flipped classrooms in terms of teacher loads and student-to-teacher ratios?  Are we planning for radical increases in the number of online courses that students will take in place of their current classes?  Have we factored in the admissions trends and demographic data and marketing surveys of the last five years?  Do we have a plan for tuition increases in a new normal economy that has marginalized a good portion of what had been the middle class? Will decreasing job certainty for college graduates impact our admissions demand?

All of these questions require discussions that include both internal and external data and interdepartmental collaboration.  Most would benefit from inter-scholastic discussions, as the ideas of many are frequently better than the ideas of a few.  Most of these questions exceed the bounds of traditional strategic planning, the function around which we have based our financial and operational models for decades.

I look forward to helping promote these discussions, and sooner rather than later.  If we don’t there is a good chance that the needed changes in our flagship academic programs will be unsupported by the foundations and organizational structures that they need to evolve.

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