Leveraging Academic Assets

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The literature is full of strategies, some complicated and some simple, for maximizing the return on IT investment, especially for online offerings and related course materials. Some advocate minimizing expenses and taking advantage of outsourcing opportunities, while others propose using a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis approach to success. Why not draw on the 2,500-year-old wisdom of a master strategist to help us with our modern battles with IT planning? In The Art of War, the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu advised that it is important to “know the enemy and know yourself.” And while IT planning is thankfully not a real battlefield, the stakes are high enough to give these words some thoughtful consideration.

Knowing Yourself

The first consideration in Sun Tzu’s advice is knowing yourself. You should put your initial focus on one thing, and that is understanding your institution’s potential. Determine the breadth and depth of the online assets your institution has available. Significant opportunities may already exist that lie unrecognized within one program or one school. It is possible to improve your institution’s return on investment for online offerings by identifying what is already available that can be taken to market quickly, with little or no preparation. This process is called an internal audit and is conducted in order to identify online materials that can be reused or repurposed to other markets without the commitment of significant resources.

Why Conduct an Internal Audit?

Often the development of an online program is undertaken for one particular use and with a specific audience in mind. This presents a challenge when trying to improve the return on investment, since the expense to develop the course is only spread over one audience and a limited number of uses. One way to decrease the aggregate cost and to increase the return on investment is to identify the various online courses owned by the institution and try to promote their application within new, related markets.

The challenge to doing that is that specific online offerings have most likely been developed within a particular school or college on campus. Take for example, an online hybrid course in Research Methods developed by a faculty member in the School of Pharmacy, complete with notes, slides, and audio. The opportunities for other uses of this course are often overshadowed by the simple fact that no one outside of the School of Pharmacy—or for that matter even within the school itself-knows the course exists.

Unfortunately, within higher education a communication problem exists whereby there may be limited awareness of the unique and innovative things our colleagues are doing. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that faculty and administrators are usually busy with the myriad of activities associated with their own teaching, research, and service commitments. By raising awareness about online offerings at the institution in general, it may be possible to increase the return on investment through reuse and sharing. The key is to identify the existing online content and determine how it is being used, how well it is being used, and whether it can be used in other ways.

In any business it is imperative that inventory is accurately accounted for in order to ensure that the business has what the customer is willing to purchase. Applying this idea shifts the nature of academic inventory from faculty, research, grants, and endowment to online knowledge, more specifically creating a “knowledge as commodity” business model. The internal audit is a product inventory in which online courses are accounted for. The institution attempts to determine the value associated with its most valuable asset, the collective expertise of its faculty.

The Challenges of Looking Within

The internal audit of online course(s) and other content covers diverse sources including distance and continuing education, onsite courses, and other related online content. It can be broken into three categories: (1) content currently taught online via distance education, (2) content currently taught online to onsite students, and (3) potential online content. In order for an internal audit to be conducted efficiently it will need to be championed by someone within the central administration. This will ensure an institution-wide view of what is available; plus, it will promote centralized coordination of the use of the online materials in a way that will guarantee appropriate rewards to the colleges, departments, and faculty involved.

To conduct an internal audit it will be necessary to create forms and most likely a database that allows for the appropriate gathering and analyzing of information. Sources of information for the audit can include, but are not limited to, the undergraduate and/or graduate course catalogs, the Office of the Registrar by virtue of reviewing course codes, outreach materials and catalogs, and interviews with faculty and college or department administrators. As the internal audit is conducted, some degree of personal interview may be necessary to get a better determination of the status of the online materials. Since a variety of ways are available to organize the information that is collected, the most important element is the users’ ability to appropriately collate the information once it has been collected. Needless to say, it will take time to conduct the audit, but the benefits will far outweigh the challenges of doing the work.

Knowing the Enemy

The second consideration of Sun Tzu’s statement, about understanding the enemy, or in this case the marketplace, is a necessity though somewhat beyond the scope of this article. But unless you know what is at your institution’s disposal, it will never be possible to fully understand market potential. Spend the time to ask the questions and explore within your institution, as opposed to merely responding to external market pressures.

When an audit has been completed, it may be possible to use the same process to review new courses or content that becomes available as well as using it to decide which materials should be brought online. And once you know your inventory, you can make better strategic plans about how best to position your institution’s offerings with respect to the rest of the marketplace.

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