Environmental Scanning and Effective Listening
Leaders have an unfortunate infatuation with new theories. Academic leaders would be more effective in charting and managing the future if they did not often confuse current theories with what actually works. Management theories are not science. They are only reasonable approaches informed by experience to increase organizational and individual effectiveness.
There is always a new management theory out there. Leaders often fall prey to not distinguishing the new from the successful. Two well-established tools for success in management are: creation and use of a systematic approach to environmental scanning, and the practice of effective listening that involves management by walking around. Shifting from one passing theory to another undermines leadership credibility. All management theories are limited in their applicability. Informal leaders and supervised individuals within any organization will inevitably conclude that rapid changes in communications by any leader demonstrate both instability and plans likely to not be well thought out.
Systematic environmental scanning
Nearly all administrators do some environmental scanning about pricing and local educational competitors. Most do not really engage in systematic environmental scanning, which is a regularized process of surveying and interpreting relevant data to identify opportunities and threats to organizational success. What a limited and haphazard management approach produces is a narrow and unrealistic view of the long-term future.
Management guru Peter Drucker commented that the best way to predict the future was to shape it. Shaping it requires actions that comprehensively address the elements of the future likely to affect an institution. This requires a systematic plan for scanning and digesting information.
Relative to scanning, one must review the entire national market for education services and degree programs. Many institutional leaders underestimated the importance of the adult education market as well as the impact of online learning programs and for-profit institutions. These errors were rooted in inadequate scanning that focused only locally and on perceptions of prestige from successful older alumni. They did not examine thoroughly the profit motive, changing student populations, changing financial aid programs and financing, or the technologies involved in online learning. Without that kind of thorough review, the impact of environmental factors on an organization will often be far off the mark.
In scanning data, one should focus on identifying emerging trends in the educational marketplace and how the general economy will affect an institution. Then, systematic environmental scanning requires the development of a plan of action that builds on strengths. It also focuses on potential negative enrollment and financial consequences of any weaknesses discovered through the reflective process of examining relevant data.
Effective listening involves environmental sensing in the organization
To communicate effectively in any organization requires that the leader listens to all types of people in the organization. This simple rule is often forgotten. And, when it is practiced, it is often practiced in a fashion of listening only to the choir of your supporters or those you enjoy sharing company with. These practices doom any realistic prospect of early alert to necessary changes in one’s actions and institutional direction. They interfere with administrative credibility. They tend to create dissonance from competitive messaging from ignored individuals.
The first step to an effective listening practice in management is to get out of one’s office and comfort zone. Do not confuse “walking around” management with “walking through” management, where the manager is physically present but not fully engaged in quality communications. To do management by walking around well, one must plan a good amount of time to just go out and seek views from different parts and people in the organization. Listening is the key characteristic of engaging others and not selling or defending recent communications or directions. What does that particular individual see as happening in her unit? What does she hear from her peers in other institutions about what is happening? Early alert is critical in timely response. To listen thoroughly and openly is a basis for future actions.
The first step to an effective listening practice in management is to get out of one’s office and comfort zone.
Apart from the issue of seeking out very different people in the organization than you usually encounter, effective walking around management requires you communicate something positive about those individuals’ contributions to the organization. Using selective, but earned, praise will make individuals be more candid, honest, and engaged in telling you what they really think the future holds for their unit or position and the individuals they serve.
No walking around management initiative will be successful unless it includes non-formal and non-meeting contacts with key executive officers. These include, at least, the chief officers of finance, institutional advancement, and student development. They each have their own networks of environmental information that must be blended with yours related to academic quality, teaching effectiveness, and student learning. Whether those encounters are at sporting events, walking on campus, or eating a meal or a snack together, nothing is more important to your success as an effective listener. Be particularly attentive to having them identify their sources of information and their own patterns of environmental scanning from their point of view regarding the people they serve.
Another critical resource in an effective listening program is the engagement of students and student leaders on your campus. Every academic leader should have a student advisory council that meets informally and formally. This council should include not only student government leaders, but also academic achievement leaders, student athletes, and new students. Each kind of student provides important information on student aspirations and behaviors affecting future enrollment and the academic reputation of the institution. Eating with students in the student union or cafeteria is a critical element of an effective listening program, which identifies you as available, accessible, and student committed.
Another practice of an effective listening program requires engagement with your peers in professional organizations and the identification of a few peers that are easily available to you via phone calls and that are not your competitors. These individuals can inform you on what they are hearing and seeing, and how they are approaching changes in the educational marketplace. They can also provide valuable information on what they have tried and what has been successful for them.
Last but certainly not least, talk with new faculty, established faculty leaders, and well-respected scholars in your institution. Don’t focus solely on listening to faculty governance leadership. Do this informally. Do this as a part of your daily routine. Be particularly attentive to faculty who are making a strong campus impression on the students they teach and mentor.
Henry W. Smorynski is a leadership fellow at Midland University.