Once upon a time, during the twelfth century, the steppes of Asia were like the Wild West, but worse. Survival alone was hard and the fight for resources meant the nomadic tribes of the area just could not get along. Constant theft and violence produced non-stop feuding between the tribes. Hard times meant hard measures and everyone was always reacting to the last injustice they suffered. Maybe you would win a battle, but the next week someone would retaliate in revenge. The inhabitants of the steppes of Asia were considered barbarians.
Into this terrible time, in this terrible place, a boy was born. His father was poisoned by an enemy tribe and for a time, he himself was enslaved. He never learned to read or write. He did not have access to education or resources. But he proved to be a great military strategist. This boy who grew up in a horrible place in a horrible time, conquered more territory in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. He built an empire that spanned over twelve million contiguous miles. He accomplished all of this with an army that never grew larger than one hundred thousand men. This boy who grew into a man, stepped outside of this vicious cycle. He did not merely react. He thought about what he wanted and he made plans. One illiterate man impacted the lives of the people who lived on the steppes of Asia and forever changed history. As higher education institutions, to effectively impact students’ lives, we too, need to make plans.
- The first step to implementing his plans was to create a new culture. To effectively unite the various tribes, the man had to eradicate the kinship structure that kept the nomadic tribes caught in a cycle of feuding. He established a meritocracy where skill and loyalty were rewarded and bloodlines and politics were ignored. He abolished wife-napping and harshly punished lawbreakers to prevent the spiral of vendettas that had plagued the area. He discarded the names of the various tribes. They would now all be united as People of the Felt Walls. By 1206, the Mongol nomads of the steppe were one. And the man took the title: Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan focused on making a difference for his people and he believed that he could be the one to accomplish this. It was his mission. Much like many institutions. Institutions start out because they believe they have a philosophy, a way of delivering academic programs that meets the needs of an unserved or underserved student population. This is their mission. This mission drives the development of an institution’s product or academic programs. To achieve the mission, Genghis Khan needed to use the existing strengths to his advantage which is what he did. The Mongols were expert horsemen and they used that to their advantage. For institutions, this is reflected in the academic programs offered. The way to continue to enhance and improve this occurs through the lens of the mission in an effective outcomes assessment plan and discipline.
- The second step to implementing his plans was to leverage existing strengths. Creating a new culture alone was a huge success, but Genghis Khan wanted to help build a future for the People of the Felt Walls beyond their current borders. He needed to figure out how to defeat more advanced civilizations, like China and Europe. China and Europe’s armies were better trained and better equipped. He had only one hundred thousand nomads. But he developed a plan for this too. His strategy was not to beat his enemies at their own game, but to use the advantages that came naturally to his people. Mongols rode horses from the age of three. A simple people without modern technology, they overcame bigger, better-equipped armies by using greater speed and mobility. Genghis Khan used disciplined cavalry moving in coordinated units. They were used to living off the land, and had no need to drag slow supply chains behind their army. Each fighter brought three to five extra horses with him so they would never have a tired mount. This allowed Mongol horsemen to travel six hundred miles in only nine days, centuries before the combustion engine.
An institution’s outcomes assessment plan focuses on monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of the “product” offered as defined by the institution through program outcomes. For institutions, the “product” are the educational offerings. The outcomes assessment plan is a granular review of the extent to which the institution is achieving their mission through the performance of the students served. Outcomes assessment planning allows institutions to define the benefits of their program while setting them apart from other institutions that offer similar programs using their existing strengths. This granular focus is designed to provide detailed data down to the level of course/program performance through comprehensive curriculum maps.
- The third step to implementing his plans was to maximize limited resources. The Mongols fought the way modern armies do. They descended upon their enemies like a “swarm of bees” with separate groups all attacking independently from multiple angles. When you look at how the Mongol army waged war, you would think they had the advantage of seeing into the future, yet modern generals learned it from him. They all studied his style, replacing horses with tanks and planes. Additionally, Khan’s army looked like peasants, so they were often underestimated which he used to his advantage. He also did not reactively lash out. If his enemies thought he was weak, great. His favorite plan in battle became faking a retreat. When the enemy was sure they had won, they would give chase, breaking their formation and charging right into a waiting ambush, where Mongol archers would rain arrows down upon their cornered prey.
Institutional effectiveness planning intentionally builds links between planning and the evaluation and assessment in the achievement of those goals. It combines strategic planning for operations and continued growth with educational assessment or as indicated on the gears slide, institutional effectiveness evaluates past and current practices. Loosely defined, institutional effectiveness planning allows us to know whether implemented processes and procedures are getting the job done at the anticipated level of expectations. Or another way of looking at it is the return on the institution’s collective investment.
Most institutions would likely agree that resources comprehensively are limited. As much as we would desire millions in donations, endowments funds, endless enrollments, the reality is that every institution struggles to make the best use of the resources available. The only way to understand whether we are efficiently achieving the stated mission is to evaluate past and current practices through institutional effectiveness planning including the identification of quantitative and qualitative measures that are meaningful to the institution.
The Mongol nomads looked like a bunch of peasants. They did not have the resources or refined skills of other armies so they had to maximize their limited resources. Institutions are faced with the same challenges. They rode horses and waged war against other countries and they maximized the use of the tools at their disposal. Not every institution will measure its effectiveness in the same way which is the beauty of tying everything back to the mission. Institutional effectiveness planning allows an institution to comprehensively see how it is achieving its institutional goals/outcomes focusing on three distinct areas of educational offerings, services (both student-focused), and operations (which is business-focused).
- The fourth step to implementing his plans was to remain adaptable. Waging war during this time was no easy feat. There were constantly new challenges, but Genghis Khan always had a plan, but he was also adaptable. He learned from each and every battle. Most would have expected him to be stymied when his army encountered the walled fortresses of China. The Mongols did not even have two-story structures in the steppes let alone the knowledge of how to assault such fortifications. They had no experience with siege warfare or catapults. But they didn’t have to.
Genghis Khan’s mission focused on making a difference for his people. Very similar to each of institutions. However, to truly make a lasting impact, institutions need to be sustainable and this occurs through long-term planning or strategic planning. Strategic planning is more than just continuing to manage the day-to-day operations over a three, five, or ten-year period, but also looking at the changes which occur throughout the higher education industry and how best to protect the institution and continue to best serve the target student population.
For strategic planning to be effective, it should initially take into consideration the individuals who should be involved and then look at the maturity of the institution itself. Sometimes especially upon initial start-up a three-year strategic plan might make more sense and help keep the institution comprehensively focused on mission-critical goals, like seeking accreditation or continuing to develop academic programs. For other institutions, a ten-year strategic plan might make more sense as a more mature institution may be looking to expand into a new market, offer new disciplines, or even begin offering programs internationally. Effective strategic plans not only look at the actions needed to achieve the mission and promote continued viability, but it allows institutions to predetermine their level of flexibility or pivot-ability.
- The fifth step in implementing his plans was to seek the expertise of others. Genghis Khan knew there were things he didn’t know or things he didn’t have time to learn, so he was always recruiting. Among conquered people, anyone who was useful was allowed to join his army. One enemy archer had managed to shoot Khan’s own horse out from under him. When the man was caught, Khan did not execute him; he made him a general. Along the same lines, the Mongols absorbed a number of Chinese engineers familiar with siege warfare. Eventually Khan’s army became so successful at it that it “ended the era of walled cities.” Genghis Khan’s plans were so solid that the empire did not crumble after his death. It kept expanding for another hundred fifty years.
Strategic planning allows for innovation within the parameters of an institution’s mission. Innovation rarely occurs from an abundance of resources. Innovation is generally the result of restrictions—the need to do more with less. Genghis Khan’s army was comprised of one hundred thousand men who looked like peasants and until recently didn’t even like each other. After implementing a culture shift, Khan needed to use his limited resources to begin building the foundation for continued sustainability for his people. He had to do more with less.
Strategic planning also reveals institutional gaps that can be filled by seeking the expertise of others. Genghis Khan knew there were things he didn’t know and really didn’t have time to learn. This is true for all of us. This is why the effective use of Advisory Councils and external expertise is so important. They are able to see a perspective that we cannot because we are preoccupied with running day-to-day operations.
Genghis Khan was a fatherless, illiterate nobody from a terrible place at a terrible time, but became one of the most powerful men to every live. He did not blindly react to problems. He thought about what he wanted. He made plans. That’s what we need: plans. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations of delivering quality distance education opportunities to students that documentation and planning get pushed aside until initial or reaccreditation is looming overhead. We tend to be reactive, like the tribes of the steppes. To be successful, it is not enough to just wait for regulations to impose new restrictions or for revised accreditation standards to dictate when changes are needed. To be successful, we need effective plans.
This blog was inspired by the story of Genghis Khan from Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker.