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Aug 19, 2011

The planting season and risk management

Summer is the planting season for us, college administrators. We plan, anticipate, try to see what’s coming, prepare for what we don’t see coming. Some of the seeds are easy to plant. For example, I started a whole new journal in a matter of days. It already has about half the editorial board (more people from around the world will be joining). No one knows whether this particular plant will thrive or even survive. But the idea seemed to be good, the cost is minimal, and potential return on investment can be significant. This is a no brainer, really. Another easy picking: we figured out a simple way of collecting students’ Praxis II scores and sub-scores (which we always need for accreditation and quality assurance). No one could see potential downside, and the time commitment is minimal.

Risk is best measured as ratio of investment size over likelihood of success over the potential benefit. OK, for those mathematically inclined, I*B/S, or I/S/B (I is investment, B is benefit, S is likelihood of success). If the investment is small, and return is large, even less likely to succeed projects should be attempted.

Other examples are less certain. There seems to be support for some program revisions, and new programs to be developed. These things are expensive in terms of time and effort. The outcomes are more certain – the programs will be improved, but it is never clear to what degree. The more radical is the change, the larger is our investment in development and implementation, but since the rate of return is uncertain, at some point radical changes become unwise. Now, once you tried a specific practice and found it to be both effective AND replicable, then a more radical change becomes less risky. But there is always cost to change: time we spend trying to change is not spent on tiny every day improvements, which are sometimes more efficient in the end than the large change with uncertain outcomes. However, if a program’s enrollments are dropping, or it has not been revised in 20 years, a higher degree of risk is quite justified.

This is not exactly math, because too many variables are in place. For example, I really want to start an innovation lab. Why? - Because we don’t spend nearly enough time and resources on innovation. It is not a priority for us. We may say it is a priority, but we do not act as if it were one. A real priority is something you spend a lot of time on. So, in this particular case, the investment is relatively large. I plan to spend several hours every week to work on it, and am planning to ask other people to do the same. The likelihood of a radically new and effective idea is not very high: there are hundreds of institutions just like ours, and most try something new once in a while. However, there are significant side benefits that are almost guaranteed: it is a lot of fun, and quality of work experience is going to be better for me and all those involved. Activating creative collaboration is very likely to bring better morale, better communication across departments. At the very minimum, these conversations will help us learn about each other’s work, and it is not a small thing. Even if the big idea never materializes, many small ones will be shared or created.

And one last concern: we only have so much of a garden plot; time and human resources are limited. Planting too much leaves no breathing room; we end up working too hard, chasing too many projects, and doing none of them really well. I always try to overplant just a little, because not all seeds germinate, but not too much, so we don’t have to weed out perfectly good plants. And of course, one can never plan for floods, droughts, and hail.

1 comment:

  1. Sasha,
    I was most impressed by the Journal. It is a great idea. Elevating college teaching to the level of other scholarship will likely promote collaboration, collegiality, and creativity. The editorial board is very international. I have some people in mind that may be great for the journal! Just let me know and I'll contact them.