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.
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
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
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.