OTH's Mission
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1994, 2(5), 3-5. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Several colleagues have written congratulatory, supportive letters assessing On the Horizon. These have been most welcome and reassuring. There have also, however, been a few critical responses that are thoughtful, provocative, and challenging. Three of the questions are paraphrased below:

  1. If On the Horizon's orientation is toward describing future changes and implications of these potential changes in the macro-environment, rather than toward reporting on institutions' current activities to meet ongoing changes, won't your newsletter be perceived as theoretical and irrelevant?
  2. Aren't many of the trends and developments the newsletter identifies as on-the-horizon really coming down the street and knocking at the front door? The time for scanning and planning is past. This is the time to act strategically, to redistribute resources, to adopt more efficient instructional delivery systems and to restructure curriculum.
  3. Why have you enlarged On the Horizon's coverage from higher education to the entire education field? K-12 institutions already have publications that focus on school reform (e.g., Education Week and Phi Delta Kappan). On the Horizon should remain focused on fundamental issues facing higher education and should report on the success or failure of innovations specific institutions have adopted in response.

The first two questions can best be responded to by briefly overviewing and clarifying On the Horizon's mission.

First, a definition of three levels of environment (Fahey & Narayanan, 1986): The task environment refers to a set of customers (e.g., students and potential students, parents of students and of potential students, political leaders, employers and potential employers of students, professional associations of faculty and administrators). The task environment is more or less specific to a particular educational organization. Although a community college, a public school, a proprietary school, and a research university are in the same community, each has a different task environmens.

A second level, the industry environment, comprises all enterprises associated with higher education or K-12 education in the society. At this level, factors such as public confidence in education, or student aid bills being considered by Congress directly affect all educational organizations, although the effect varies depending upon the type of organization (i.e., research or comprehensive, two- or four-year, public or private, or K-12).

The third and broadest level is the macro-environment, where changes in the social, technological, economic, environmental and political sectors interact to produce system-wide changes that, in turn, affect schools and colleges directly or indirectly. For example, the economic costs of technological transformation (e.g., equipment upgrading and worker retooling) reduce society's discretionary resources, leading to reduced public sector revenues, just at a time when these changes also require greater expenditures on education. At the same time, a recession may stimulate an increase in enrollments, particularly in K-12 schools or in colleges with low tuitions.

This system-wide level, the macro-environment, includes the social, technological, economic, environmental and political (On the Horizon's STEEP) sectors.

The social sector focuses on demographics, life-styles and values. Our interest here lies in understanding shifts in population characteristics and the emergence of new social values or life-styles.

The technological sector is concerned with advances in basic research (e.g., new processes, products, or materials) that may generate commercially viable new technologies.

The economic sector focuses on the general set of economic factors and conditions in the regional, national and global society (e.g., GNP growth, disparity in income levels, concentrations of wealth).

The environmental sector includes issues such as energy efficiency, reusing and recycling, protecting biological bases, adequately feeding world population, stabilizing population, environmental protection.

The political sector focuses on local, regional, national, and global political and regulatory processes (e.g., interest groups, regulatory agencies, legislation).

These five sectors are interactive at the macro-environmental level. Changes in one sector at any level (local, national, global) may lead to changes in another. A war in the Middle East may cause the price of oil to increase, stimulating a recession, which in turn results in budget cuts. Technological developments in California to convert wind power to low cost energy could reduce the costs of fossil fuel energy, with concomitant economic ramifications. Similarly, the three levels of environment interact. These interweaving interdependent patterns underscore the necessity of scanning them all if we want to pick up early signals of change.

Publications of various professional organizations focus on the task and industry environments, as do such publications as Education Week, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Phi Delta Kappan, to name a few. Occasionally, these publications carry items from the larger macro- environment. On the Horizon's unique niche is to focus on the macro-environment and derive the implications of signals of change in this environment for the task and industry environments as well as for educational organizations themselves.

For a full answer to the third question/complaint, why has On the Horizon expanded coverage to focus on education as one system, kindergarten through graduate school, please see my column in the April/May issue. Briefly, the rationale cited was that each component of education is interconnected; changes in one segment affect other segments. By drawing out the implications of emerging trends and potential developments in the larger society for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education, including current efforts at educational reform, On the Horizon can better inform leaders in these sectors (and in the corporate and political sectors) who may then be able to act more effectively to improve education as a whole.

To summarize, On the Horizon's mission is to provide early warning to leaders in schools and colleges, and to the corporate and political sectors concerned about educational improvement. We will continue to emphasize changes in the macro-environment and their implications for educational organizations, including what educational leaders may do in response to these implications.

And we will take advantage of technology to assist us in this mission. The announcement on page 14 describes Horizon List on the Internet, and how you may respond to articles, propose articles, or join in a general discussion about emerging trends and issues that may affect educational organizations. Active use of this list will make On the Horizon a truly interactive newsletter and one that can keep us informed between issues. To facilitate this conversation, we have put past issues in an archive, easily accessible when you sign on to Horizon List. I look forward to seeing you on the 'Net.

[Fahey, L., & Narayanan, V. K. (1986). Macroenvironmental analysis for strategic management. New York: West Publishing Company.]

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