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The world of FE has many uncertainties: Let the Data Decide!

Malcolm Cooper, MCA Cooper Associates

Many other organisations are also faced with similar challenges, of this there is no doubt. However, it is my belief that FE is certainly at the top of the list when it comes to uncertainty.

  • Will adequate numbers of learners enrol?
  • perhaps the government will decide to unexpectedly reduce funding?
  • a key member of the team may decide that pastures are greener elsewhere or
  • will there be another life-changing pandemic-like event?

In some cases, factors are beyond the immediate control of the college but in others there is much that can be done to mitigate the uncertainties.

We have advised numerous colleges faced with decisions involving far-reaching operational/strategic changes. These have included developing recovery plans and helping with mergers; situations in which life-changing decisions needed to be taken.

Bearing in mind the high degree of uncertainty it is not sensible to add to the unknowns by using, what effectively amounts to guesswork upon which to base decisions.

Guesswork? Is that not a little extreme?

No, it’s not, I’m afraid. How else would one describe the practice of basing important decisions on such things as history, personal opinions, anecdotal evidence or personal intuition?

The technology now available in the FE Sector means we do not need to rely on such old-fashioned and frankly dangerous methods.

Colleges now have software available to them which can help them to plan, more accurately both their expected income and allocation of resources. They have access to very sophisticated dashboards through which they can monitor actual versus planned performance virtually hour by hour and analyse the results ad infinitum. There are really flexible cloud-based process management systems which allow a detailed analysis of how things are currently done but could be improved.

We have worked with clients where guesswork had become part of their normal business practice. A typical example is resource allocation. In some colleges resources are merely allocated based upon a minor modification of previous years’ practice, despite fundamental changes – in the level of planned activity, personnel, funding conditions or government policies.

Why then does it occur?

There are two reasons in my experience:

  • it is easy to achieve and
  • because the College has no better basis i.e. data upon which to base such decisions.

At MCA we are noticing an increased desire from colleges who want to understand their situation better. The pandemic acted as a major catalyst. During Lockdown, colleges learned a lot about their business and its weaknesses. They were forced, due to the severe circumstances, to re-evaluate in a number of key areas.

Following the pandemic, when operations were able to return to a version of normality, it was realised that it would be desirable to retain a number of the changes that had been forced upon the college by Covid 19.

For example, one of our clients had always had car parking issues. These disappeared during the pandemic because most staff were working from home. When normality returned, they maintained a mix of home and office working and their car parking issue was solved!

Seek the most effective and efficient way of working

As “balancing the books” becomes increasingly more difficult for colleges, it is of paramount importance that they seek the most effective and efficient way of working in all areas. This can only be achieved by a thorough, detailed and accurate understanding of how the college functions. The technology and support is available for them to do this.

There is no doubt that this more scientific approach to structuring and managing a college is on the rise. Following the necessary technology-based analysis, it can be glaringly obvious where the bottlenecks or weaknesses are present. “Why was this not noticed before?”, may be asked. The answer is quite simple “because the data did not exist before”!

Make sure your decisions are guided by data analysis. The results could be really surprising!

Malcolm Cooper, MCA Cooper Associates

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