If you build it, will they come?

Note: This is a presentation I gave in February 2010 at the 27th Annual Academic Chairperson’s Conference. It’s fairly long, by blog standards, the equivalent of six double spaced pages. A retrospective analysis of the launch of a new online only program, it discusses what I call the Field of Dreams model of program development.

Institutional inertia and curriculum innovation

As I sat across the table from the accrediting team, they asked me if our department really wanted to launch a new online only master’s degree. “Yes,” I said. “If we build it they will come.” Now I can see more clearly that they were offering me a way out. They would tell president we were not quite ready for this. They were warning me that I would probably not get the resources I asked for or expected. But I’d built new programs before and believed the administration would show up when I needed them.

They didn’t.

Four years later I still didn’t have a new faculty member or director, although I did have fifty students. At one point I was handling or helping with all the marketing, recruiting, registering, advising and auditing while finding adjuncts and chairing thesis committees, while still running an undergraduate program and teaching. So this is a cautionary tale. It is also a morality play, about redemption and renewal. I have never been prouder of an accomplishment, or more frustrated by the process.

Here is the story in brief. We are a tuition-driven liberal arts institution and our communication department was getting further behind. We were still using analog cameras in our TV studio, for example. There was also a lot of pressure to create new income streams. If we built new programs that generated new revenues, we would get a share.

I had been interested in online community and online education, so when one of our faculty members retired we replaced him with a newly minted Ph.D. who had experience and expertise in this area. We ran a few pilot courses and developed a proposal, and since it was the university’s first online only degree, the accrediting team came for a special visit.

As it turned out, we had thought of everything we needed to do but we had not thought enough about how we were going to do it. Suddenly the president wanted half our classes taught by adjuncts and two large programs had declining enrollments. Even though the cabinet might approve a new program, the proposed budget had no connection to the real one. You can see why I had to find some way to make sense out of all this.

A field of dreams

Sensemaking, as it turns out, is a concept about which there has been much thinking and theorizing. Karl Weick, in Sensemaking in Organizations, compares the process to the discovery of Battered Child Syndrome. In 1946 a pediatric radiologist found six cases of injuries for which there was no explanation in the patient’s history. He speculated that parents might not have fully appreciated the seriousness of some accident. It was fifteen years before other studies were correlated against court records to identify and name the battered child syndrome.

I am neither suggesting I have discovered the battered chair syndrome, nor that I have more than anecdotal evidence to consider. But the process of sensemaking is similar—we notice something surprising, and only in the act of looking back at it do we construct the frameworks for analysis.

Weick is careful to distinguish sensemaking from interpretation. While they are connected, sensemaking is more about the action than the analysis, and more about invention than discovery. It is the larger process in which interpretation can occur. From this perspective department chairs are also sense-givers. We help choose those cues from which both our administrators and our faculty begin to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Weick’s notion of sensemaking helped me understand what happened, but his systems approach to organizations helped be understand why. Unlike more hierarchical systems, motivated by the need to reduce uncertainty, the requite variety in a university permits it to be more comfortable with equivocality. In a loosely coupled system like this, the basic unit of interconnectedness is the double interact— an act, a response, and an adjustment. This is why it takes five years to get anything done. Every opinion is considered, every plan adjusted. But in the competitive environment where we found ourselves, this is extremely inefficient.

Weick does suggest a three-step model for organizational change in loosely coupled systems: enactment, selection and retention. It’s counterintuitive, but his basic advice is “ready, fire, aim.” This is the approach we took, fully expecting to overcome inertia by acting and then adjusting as we went along. As we act, we make sense of the information flowing past us. Then we select the cues that provide the basis for interpretation and analysis. This leads to retention: what do we want to remember? Generally, Weick believes we should forget as much as possible, since what we think we know should be challenged and doubted.

I call this the Field of Dreams model of program development, which works best in a loosely coupled system. But as market pressures increase, the whole system became more tightly wound, falling back on more rules, more protocol, more hierarchy and more memory. In some ways our institutional memory became a liability: the fact that we were early leaders in adult education and had built the systems to sustain it across multiple campuses did not mean we could also do it with an online program.

The red queen

Our success bias gave us expectations that were too high and systems that were too slow. Our recruiters were used to face-to-face interactions and had no understanding of how to find and convert leads online. The registrar’s office insisted on physical signature from students who lived on the other side of the county, or even in Afghanistan and Bahrain. Our marketing people gave us materials with no web address.

William Barnett says success bias results from Red Queen competition, an illusion to the Red Queen who tells Alice that in Wonderland “it takes all the running you can do to stay in one place. “ We were working hard and not getting anywhere, frustrating administrators who were expecting more and faculty and staff who were doing more. Barnett shows how this bias leads successful organizations to try new things while failing to account for everything that might be required. Although we thought of ourselves as entrepreneurial, we were mired in budgeting, staffing and marketing practices that were deeply entrenched.

Michael Hannan’s structural inertia theory predicted that age, size and complexity would keep organizations from changing as institutionalization and standardization generate pressure to maintain the status quo. But later studies show that large, complex organizations are capable of quickly adapting to market pressures. In Kelly and Amburgey’s study of airlines, age alone was negatively related to the probability of change in an institution’s core features. Those core features are the institution’s goals, forms of authority, core technology and marketing strategy, all of which required adaptation in our case. But if we had matured to some degree of rigidity, then Weick was right about treating memory as a pest, especially when innovation is necessary in a changing marketplace.

We were six years in before we began to see the systems and structures coming together to support this endeavor. We now have a faculty member full time in this program, a graduate advisor who helps with thesis management and supervision and a support staff that is quick and reliable. There are rewards as well. I used to say I wanted a t-shirt that said, “I added $300,000 a year to the annual budget and all I got was a lousy cell phone.” But we have been able to buy some new technology for our undergraduates and take some graduate student to conferences to present. We didn’t get what we expected, however, and it cost more than we imagined, not in dollars but in ideals. My faculty no longer believes that if we build it they will come. There is no enthusiasm for program development of any kind.

Personally I have more ideas but I have less energy. Older and wiser, I struggle with cynicism. Although the institution has learned a lot through our experience it feels like it was learned at our expense. New programs are better funded and better planned, and yet the Red Queen still rules.

I still believe that if I build it they will come, however. I just believe it will take much longer than I might expect. In the end, successful innovation requires both better resources and tougher conversations. I’ve learned something about that.

So here are some questions I will ask, after they show me the money:

    • Are you going to fall back on inflexible formulas when things get tough?
    • Is our effort going to bail out programs with falling enrollments?
    • We’ve told you why we think this will succeed, but why do you think it will?
    • How much success bias is there in your thinking?
    • Can we tinker with the core features to make this work?
    • How much are you willing to forget about what you think you know?

Find the right answers and you too can have an iPhone.


The presentation that accompanies this paper is available here.

Barnett, William, and Elizabeth Pontikes. 1991. “Organizational Inertia and Momentum: A dynamic Model of Strategic Change.” Academy of Management Journal, 34: 591-612.

Hannan, Michael T., and John H. Freeman. 1984. “Structural inertia and organizational change.” American Sociological Review, 49: 149-164.

Kelly, Dawn, and Terry L. Amburgey. 1991. “Organizational Inertia and Momentum: A Dynamic Model of Strategic Change.” Academy of Management Journal, 34: 591-612.

March, James G., Lee S. Sproull, and Michal Tamuz. 1991. “Learning From Samples of One or Fewer.” Organization Science, 2: 1-13.

Weick, Karl E. Sensemaking in Organizations. 1995. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

One thought on “If you build it, will they come?

  1. Bonnie says:

    I too struggle with cynicism. I have always been known to be a person who champions for the underdog. Having this personality trait gives me a special heart for the online student. I see more than the computer screen when I am talking with them and hearing their trials and tribulations. I pray for them and keep a log of names so that they know I care. Few have these traits. Online is just a computer screen other than seeing $$ signs for tuition. Online has been just a thorne in traditional education’s side.

    If you build it they will come is so true. But you have to take care of them while they are here. (let them watch the game) Give them the tools to succeed and know they matter to someone other than a computer moditor or they will leave.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s