Transforming Educational Organizations
By James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1997, 5(1), 1-2. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers]

On the Horizon is replete with descriptions of trends and forecastable developments that are likely to affect the future of educational organizations. The emerging global economy, characterized by the increased international movement of capital, products, technology, and information, is accentuating economic competition and means that students’ knowledge and skills must meet international standards. Regional free trade will be augmented by worldwide free trade. Organizational downsizing, already common in corporations and government agencies, is spreading to colleges and universities. Computers and telecommunication systems are driving changes in how we manage educational organizations, how we teach, and how our students learn. In home schools and public classrooms, in vocational institutions and graduate and professional schools, new "informated" operations and products are challenging employers and educators.

The implications of these macroenvironmental changes are substantial. Educators need to rethink their basic assumptions about organizational structure and curricular programs. According to Terry O’Banion (1995), the existing structure and organization of most schools are inappropriate for the information age. The current educational system is time-bound by requiring credit hours, class hours, and semester courses; and efficiency-bound by credentialing students on the basis of time-in-class (so many hours per grading period) and by specifying bodies of materials. The current system is also teacher-bound, requiring instructors to be experts in rapidly expanding fields of knowledge, motivational psychologists, and gifted lecturers so that they are able to initiate, nurture, and certify learning.

O’Banion (1995) argues that to serve an information-age society, we need to transform educational organizations by requiring teachers to design and manage, not deliver, customized learning experiences that include many options, including stand-alone technology and opportunities to learn outside of school. Schools and colleges should provide road maps, optional routes, itineraries, rest stops for feedback, and access to information databases throughout the world. Postsecondary students should be allowed to enter, leave, and reenter on any day, twenty-four hours a day. Students "must be allowed to change directions, to move back and forth, to make U-turns for remediation, and to call for assistance when they hit roadblocks" (p. 2). Schools and colleges must improve their assessments of student abilities, achievements, attitudes, goals (and limitations), as well as reconceptualize their standards for entry into and exit from formal learning activities. In short, educational institutions must become self-transforming organizations to take advantage of what we know about learning and what we know about using technology to enhance learning (O’Banion, 1996).

The Wingspread Group on Higher Education urged a redesign of our educational system to align "with the personal, civic, and workplace needs of the 21st Century" (1993, p. 19). Perelman (1993), Davis and Botkin (1994), and Snyder (1996) forecast that unless we redesign the public system, the existing system will be replaced by private sector learning organizations.

If schools and colleges need to reorient, refocus, and realign themselves to meet the challenges of the information age, the compelling question becomes: How can educational leaders change the existing culture and structure of their organization?

Transformation Tools

One solution is to involve people throughout the organization in a systematic and ongoing analysis to identify emerging or potential developments in the external environment that could affect their school’s future. This exercise is necessary so as to link what is happening or could happen in the external environment to internal decision making and resource reallocation in the minds of the institution’s stakeholders. When stakeholders from all functional areas of the organization comprehend just how the future could be different from the past, and when they draw out the implications of these changes for their organization’s mission, goals, structure, and functioning, they are more likely to want to make the resulting plan work.

A number of external analysis methods developed in the futures research community could serve as transformation tools for educational organizations, including environmental scanning, issue management, vulnerability and opportunity assessment, and scenario planning. Environmental scanning involves systematically examining all sectors of the external environment for signals of change, a process that requires continuously searching a number of information sources for "news" about the future: long-term trends and probable developments. Issue management uses the results of environmental scanning to identify emerging issues that will affect the organization. Vulnerability and opportunity assessment identifies factors that are critical to the organization’s functioning, analyzes the sensitivity of these factors to environmental forces of change, and develops anticipatory responses to these changes. Scenarios are comprehensive, long-term perspectives on the future that provide insightful understanding of the dynamics of change and a fuller consideration of the range of opportunities and threats facing the organization.

Colleagues at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and I have described and illustrated use of these tools at Lincoln in an upcoming chapter in the New Directions for Institutional Research series (Morrison, Sargison, and Francis, in press). The point: by harnessing the intellectual power of stakeholders (boards of trustees, faculty, staff, students) to identify signals of change, analyze the implications of these signals for the organization, and design actions in light of these implications, organizational leaders are able to develop and implement creative plans. Because these plans incorporate the thinking and support of the majority of stakeholders, they can transform the organizational culture and align it with changing realities.

Jossey-Bass Publishers (who publish the New Directions series) have given us permission to post the chapter draft on Horizon Home Page. It is in the workshops and seminars section under the workshop titled "Transforming Higher Education" (URL: /courses/papers/transforming.asp). This workshop was cosponsored by On the Horizon and by Lincoln University in Christchurch in July 1996. We posted the chapter to focus discussion on the topic via the discussion board on the workshop’s Web page; participants wanted to continue discussion on this important topic. We invite you to join us.


Davis, S. and Botkin, J. The Monster Under the Bed: How Business Is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Morrison, J. L., Sargison, A., and Francis, D. "Transforming a University to Meet the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century." In Donald M. Norris and James L. Morrison (eds.), Transforming Institutions of Higher Education. New Directions for Institutional Research, no. 93. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, in press.

O’Banion, T. "School Is Out—Learning Is In," On the Horizon, 1995, 3(5), 1–2, 5–6.

O’Banion, T. "Gladly Would He Learn," On the Horizon, 1996, 4(1), 1, 3–5.

Perelman, L. J. School’s Out: A Radical New Formula for the Revitalization of America’s Educational System. New York: Avon Books, 1993.

Snyder, D. P. "High Tech and Higher Education: A Wave of Creative Destruction Is Rolling Toward the Halls of Academe," On the Horizon, 1996, 4(5), 1, 3–7.

Wingspread Group on Higher Education. An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education. Racine, WI: An American Foundation, 1993.

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