With Halloween just behind us, the thought of ghouls and goblins are still fresh in our minds. While fictitious characters tend to frighten and delight the masses, they can also bring out our inner child. Remember the angst and dread that would come over you when you'd call out to Bloody Mary in the mirror three times? If you want to instill that same sense of fear and anxiety within the higher education industry, simply utter the word "efficiency." But it doesn't have to be that way; efficiency doesn't have to be scary.
Efficiency has gotten a bad name in higher education. It’s become nearly a reflex to brace ourselves for something bad to happen when an efficiency agenda is pushed. What could be so bad about efficiency?
Several things if efficiency is the end goal and not a means to a more laudable end goal. An annoying, but relatively benign example is academic staff being forced to change tried and true practices in the name of efficiency when no institutional or student benefit can be sited to justify the change. A more threatening scenario, and increasingly more common in these tough economic times, is when efficiency becomes the battle cry behind cuts that compromise quality and possibly even the mission of the institution.
The truth is, of course, that efficiency can be a good thing. Reducing waste can free up constrained resources to meet student needs. In that way, efficiency becomes a necessary strategy that makes improved quality and student outcomes possible, even in the face of shrinking budgets. This only happens, however, when efficiency takes its rightful place in the strategic pecking order as a means to an end – not an end unto itself.
The first question is an obvious, but sometimes difficult one. What is the end goal? For an institution in a dire financial situation, the end goal might be cutting superfluous costs without threatening quality. A school that is not under as much financial pressure may decide to reallocate, not cut, resources and expenditures to best meet students’ changing course needs (and facilitate improved outcomes). An institution with great outcomes and high student satisfaction may understandably focus on preserving what they have as they are confronted by funding cuts.
We’ve learned that the conversation has to start with the real goal – that target that objectively calls for heightened efficiency. Once identified, that goal becomes the rallying cause behind a targeted change management campaign. Finally, real efficiency (the kind that is objectively a good thing for the institution and its students) must leverage data to direct targeted, objective resource allocation decisions.
So really, efficiency doesn’t have to be scary. It can become a welcomed strategy by being integrated into an important goal, directed by data and executed in a targeted, strategic way. In fact, the right approach to efficiency should remind us that it’s not only a good thing. It’s an essential thing.