Anticipating and Managing
Change in Educational Organizations
L. Renfro & James L. Morrison
from Renfro, W. L., & Morrison, J. L. (1983). Anticipating and
managing change in educational organizations. Educational Leadership,
41(1), 50-54. Reprinted (1984) in Education Digest, 69(6), 40-42.)
last two decades brought great acceleration in change, and the years ahead will
bring even more. Increasingly this accelerating change has come from
developments in the external environment-the environment in which our
institutions must survive and thrive. Thus, anticipating and responding to
change is a major responsibility for all institutions.
changes may seem to come upon us without warning, experience shows this is
rarely the case. Unfortunately, we often disregard or misinterpret the signals
of change. We tend to spend our time on issues we perceive to be most important
right now; we fail to scan our surroundings for changes that are in the early
stages of development. The flood of problems that forces us into crisis
management makes concern for emerging issues appear to be a luxury. It is not.
It is a necessity.
though the signals of change are available to us, separating them from the
tremendous amount of "information noise" is almost overwhelming.
Another difficulty lies in the human characteristic of not seeing what we do not
want to see. We quickly filter out of the noise the signals that confirm our
established positions and ideas.
We also block out information that forces us
to rethink ideas, opinions, and
attitudes, or that forces us to adapt to change. The scanning process is an
organized, conscious struggle against these human characteristics and
Blinders We Wear
important signals of impending change is a natural consequence of the way we
conduct our daily affairs. Since most organizations have no formal scanning
function to look at the external environment, they implicitly rely on the
information flowing to their administrators. Surveys conducted of the external
information resources used by executives in business, government, and
professional associations always come to the same astounding conclusion:
everybody uses the same information resources. They typically review a weekly
news magazine, a major national newspaper, a local newspaper, one or two
publications focused on their profession, business, or industry, and see TV
national network news and news magazine programs. Virtually no one reads Working
Woman. Virtually no one reads Sierra. Virtually no one reads Ebony, Savvy,
High Times, Young Miss, Mother Jones, Teen, The Futurist, or any of the
other literature reporting on, advocating, or involved in change. We would never
consciously design an information system around a few mainstream resources-but
that is what we have done.
spite of the narrow base of our information resources, many of the important
changes facing us in the future are known to the leadership of organizations. If
we were to ask: "What issues face our present or planned operations that
you believe will demand a response in the future and that have not yet begun to
receive any significant attention," we would receive a flood of
information. This raises two issues: how can this information be systematically fed
into the organization and how can the quality of the information
will briefly describe the design and operation of an environmental scanning
system and then illustrate how a school system can use the results to avoid some
crises and have more lead time for crises that cannot be avoided.
a Scanning System
individual can set up a scanning system, but it is better if several top
administrators work together. There are two main reasons for this. First, only
those with a broad view of current operations and future directions of the
school system as well as its capabilities for responding can evaluate the
potential importance or relevance of emerging issues. Second, the problems of
achieving the necessary communication, recognition, and acceptance of
information about change in the external environment are minimized. If
the scanning task is delegated to a single person or a group of experts in an
external service, the results of scanning can easily be ignored or their use
postponed. If top administrators are personally involved, reporting and
organizational problems are minimized.
the scanning process encourages a kind of thinking among the leadership of an
organization that is needed and valuable. This continuous searching for and
questioning of the interconnection of events and of the potential importance of
external developments encourages a new process and approach to problems that can
be valuable in other management decision-making processes.
are only a few basic design requirements for a scanning system. The first step
is to determine the areas that need to be scanned. This list should include
issues in each of four areas-- social, technical, economic, and
legislative/regulatory developments. The 20 to 30 issues that would be developed
from the survey might be organized into groups to identify the 10 or 15 issue
areas that will be covered by scanning. Several specific issues might all belong
in a general issue area such as minority rights, environmental quality,
computers/communications, and so forth. (This list will change as new areas
next step is to -create a set of files around these issue areas. Then the
information resources that are covered need to be matched against the list of
issue areas to ensure that each area is covered. Each member of the scanning
group is assigned one or more of these specific resources to scan. National news
magazines will, of course, eventually cover all issues that reach a certain
threshold of importance. While they provide an excellent general resource for
areas that do not justify a separate file, they are not adequate for areas that
are to be scanned. These general resources are extremely important since the
appearance of an issue in them signals its growth and spread to a larger
audience. But for resources that will identify emerging issues, specialized
publications must be used. The particular publications to use depend on the
magazines, periodicals, newsletters, and news sources in each of the four major
areas should be scanned. A special effort should be made to include public
opinion polls on all available issues. It is almost a requirement that a
scanning system include a file on public opinion and that all opinion polls be
included, no matter what the issue (an excellent source is the American
Enterprise Institute's Public Opinion magazine.) Of course, newspapers
constitute a major scanning resource. Indeed several national newspapers should
be scanned on a continuing basis since each newspaper has its particular focus
and biases. Usually these include the New York Times, with its
focus on international affairs, the Washington Post or Washington
Times with their focus on domestic political developments, the Chicago
Tribune, with its focus on the Midwest, the Los Angeles Times, with
its west coast perspective, and one of the major papers from the
sunbelt-Atlanta, Houston, or Miami.
the best newspaper for scanning is U.S.A. Today with its emphasis on
factual - news rather than analysis and opinion. The Wall Street Journal
continues to be one of the best newspapers in the country for identifying
all of the materials that come into the scanning system need to be reviewed,
organized, analyzed, and evaluated. Even a small scanning system can, in a
couple of months, produce a hundred or more items. The chief scanner's job is to
review this material and organize it into the specific issues that are
identified-usually not more than 30 new issues. For example, scanning by the
Policy Analysis Company recently found several items concerned with known or
suspected carcinogens in school facilities and associated interior air quality
standards. The sources of these items ranged from proposed legislation to
planned medical research, to discussions with an expert, to a policy statement
by the Association of Heating, Air Conditioning, and Environmental Control
Contractors. All of these items pointed to a single issue.
the scanning categories have been organized, some understanding of the potential
impact of each issue must be developed. One technique is to sharpen the
issue into a scenario. For example, suppose the screening committee discovered
forecasts that its region would be at the leading edge of the national trend
toward an aging society. This might be stated: the average age of the regional
population will increase by 10 years. The emphasis at this stage should not be
on the likelihood of this happening, but
rather on what the
consequences would be if it were to happen. Indeed, the next question is,
"What would happen if . . .?" Here, the search is for first-order or
direct effects if the starting event occurred. When five or six direct impacts
have been identified, the "what if" process is repeated for each of
the first-order impacts. This enables us to identify second-order effects.
rule of this process is that any possible impact is acceptable. As this is a
brainstorming session for understanding the importance of an issue, the fact
that an impact is small or unlikely is no reason to exclude it from
consideration. The only reasonable limit is the size of the diagram created from
this exploration of effects. Typically, third- and fourth-order impacts are
sufficient to explore the full context of the impact of an issue. The resulting
diagram is known as an impact network.
1 shows an example of an impact network for the aging society. There are both
positive and negative implications for public education. On the one hand, the
demands of parents of the relatively fewer children who are in school seem
likely to increase while the vast majority of adults either do not have children
or are no longer parents of a school-age child. A recent edition of the American
Journal of College Health estimates that the majority of adults-as many as
64 percent--do not have children of school age (Nadelson, 1983). Major impacts
of the aging society will be relative declining salaries of schoolteachers,
particularly starting salaries. The effect of most of the feedback loops is to
aggravate the problems focused around decreased support. However, there are some
positive factors resulting from an aging society. For example, schools may
receive increased volunteer support in the classroom in the form of teacher
aides or teachers of specialized subjects. Moreover, cutbacks in funding may
also have positive third- and fourth- order effects: they will necessitate more
efficient use of resources, an efficiency that may be met by application of
educational technology, thereby stimulating instructional experimentation and
the impact networks have been completed for each issue, the scanning group is
ready to move on to developing and evaluating relative priorities. Again, for
simplicity, a simple technique can be used to organize and structure this
process. For each issue, each member of the committee is asked to make two
independent decisions. First, what is the probability or likelihood that the
issue will develop in the next five to ten years? And second, what is its impact
(on a scale of 1 to 10) if it were to develop? These two judgments are the
coordinates of a point on a graph. A sample probability-impact graph is shown in
evaluating the probability and impact of each issue, the group needs to employ
the rules of democracy --everyone gets to vote anonymously. Usually each member
of the group will have an impact graph for each issue. When everyone has voted,
the graphs are collected and the results collaged onto a single chart. The
resulting scatter of the votes graphically shows the opinion of the group. If
the votes are clustered in such an area that it is reasonable and practical to
average them as an expression of the group opinion, then additional voting may
not be necessary. If the group feels that more discussion is needed, then
additional rounds of anonymous voting with feedback of the group opinion should
follow. Typically the chief scanner will guide the group through a discussion of
the various possible reasons for extreme votes that appear in group response.
Thus the question is not, "Who said this is unimportant?," but
rather," "Can someone imagine the rationale of a person who thinks
this is unimportant?" The value of anonymity continues.
the probability-impact charts have been prepared for all issues, the issues can
be ranked according to the product of probability and impact. This is shown in
where there is reasonable consensus about both the probability and the impact.
The weighted importance is 3.2 (70 percent times 4.5). The "O" event
on the other hand, shows some consensus about the probability-low-but little
consensus about whether the impact is positive or negative. The "O"
event needs to be recycled for additional discussion, voting, redefinition, and
so on. The process of sequential anonymous voting with group feedback is known
as the Delphi technique.
the number of issues to begin with is very large, then it may not be practical
to prepare an impact network for every event. An initial screening through the
use of a probability impact chart may be valuable to reduce the number of issues
to manageable size as determined by resources available to the committee. This
manageable set of issues then proceeds through impact network and the
probability-impact graph stages.
the Scanning System
scanning system has now produced an extremely interesting document: first, an
ordering of external events in terms of their potential importance to the school
system; second, an analysis of the kinds of effects each event could have--the
impact networks; third, selected clippings from the scanning file showing the
source and background of the issue. This document now provides important
information for the strategic planning process of the school system. Issues
within the control of the school system should be added to the agenda of
strategic planning. Issues not within its control should be added to the
planning assumptions used in strategic planning. Of course, specific issues
might be directed to their corresponding departments-affirmative action issues
to personnel, student issues to the dean, and so forth. To facilitate the use of
these results, many scanning systems in the business community publish
newsletters to distribute throughout the organization. These newsletters
identify and discuss the issues identified in scanning as well as the impacts
developed by the committee.
purpose of the scanning system is to alert the organization to its own best
thinking about emerging issues, which may provide opportunities or threats. It
does this through an orderly system of organizing resources to anticipate and
respond to these issues. Few if any school systems have established scanning
committees to the extent described in this paper, probably because developing
such a committee requires expenditures of time, energy and money. One way a
district may reduce this expense is to involve faculty members. Another way
would be to establish a consortium linked through electronic mail in which the
scanning task can be shared. Whatever the cost, establishing a scanning process
within a school system will pay dividends in that system's ability to anticipate
and manage change.
of Additional Information
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W. L., and Morrison, J. L. "The Scanning Process: Getting Started." In
Applying Methods and Techniques of Futures Research, New Directions for
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I. Boucher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983.
W. L. and Morrison, J. L. "Scanning the External Environment." In Applying
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'This chart is from Renfro, W. L., and
Morrison, J. L., "The Scanning Process: Getting Started," in Applying
Futures.Research in Institutional Research, New Directions in
Institutional Research Number 39, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1983).