An Rx for 20/20 Vision: Vision Planning and Education

GERALD J. CHRISMAN, Executive Manager of Technology Services Dallas Independent School District Dallas, Texas and CLIFFORD R. HOLLIDAY, President B & C Consulting Services Colleyville, Texas Have you recently been involved in a technology conversion (or similar) project that seemed to be a continual series of starts and stops? Do you have a clear idea of how the technology you are buying today will fit with what you will buy next year and exactly how both purchases will support the direction your district has selected for its future? Has your district even made a specific decision as to its desired future direction? This article looks at some technology work going on in a very large school district (Dallas Independent School District) and outlines the technique -- Vision Planning -- they adopted to help answer these questions. Situation Description The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) is the eighth-largest school district in the nation. It encompasses 351 square miles in the eastern portion of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Student enrollment is 149,623 students with 8,800 teachers at 137 elementary schools and 61 secondary schools. In addition to the 198 total schools, DISD facilities include 7 year-round swimming pools, 6 varsity football complexes, 4 athletic field houses, 7 service center buildings, 10 maintenance centers and 7 administrative buildings. The district is involved in a $275-million bond facilities program that is providing 16 new school facilities, 11 additions to existing facilities and renovation work at the remaining 173 campuses. In making these additions the district must also deal with an aged infrastructure and substantial student growth, while simultaneously delivering ever-improving services to all equitably. Amongst the many problems that come with a district of this size, DISD administration recognized in 1992 that its technology base, a key component, was rapidly becoming inadequate. It was also the opinion of Superintendent Dr. Chad Woolery that the success of DISD graduates, to a large measure, will be determined by their math, science and technological mastery. Given these perceived driving needs -- the current inadequacy of its computer and communications systems and the need to increase and enrich the in-class presence of technology -- DISD decided to move toward an integrated technology infrastructure. A contract was issued to a consultant to develop a "Global Overview for Technology." This document reviewed the existing structure and identified problem areas. Not surprisingly (similar findings would be likely in any large organization) this review indicated that the imbedded systems were overloaded, incompatible and restrained from expansion. As a result a number of initiatives were begun, directed at various deficiencies identified in the "Global Overview." These initiatives included RFPs (Request For Proposals) for communications and computer systems, and for a number of administrative software systems. An implementation plan envisioned these improvements over a 5-6 year time frame. The superintendent also set up a Blue Ribbon Team (comprising independent consultants and businesspersons) to validate direction and, at a very high level, to oversee the series of projects. The Problem To this point all seemed well, but one of the first tasks assigned to the Blue Ribbon Team (BRT) was to evaluate the overall program. Results of this review indicated a surprising issue. In spite of the carefully thought-out preparation of the district for its attack on its inadequate technology base, it still had not clearly identified overall long-term goals. Technology problems had been identified, but only in terms of today's environment. There was no widely understood and accepted vision of the future. To really hammer home this point, one of the consultants on the BRT asked a meeting of several DISD top administrators what their vision was for the district. Although all shared a generalized vision of improving the education-delivery process, there was no specific articulation of that vision. Some could quote parts of it from various documents, but there was no general agreement as to the specific vision source. The point was dramatically made. Although DISD had indeed attempted forward-looking leadership by trying to tackle some very large technology problems, they had done so without first establishing a broad understanding of the guiding direction for the district. In other words, there was no clearly understood guarantee to insure that the technology "fixes" would in fact support DISD's future environment. Lack of a widely articulated vision could easily cause a noticeable lack of integration of the individual projects. What was needed was an overall guiding vision, which was widely accepted, to drive the technology plan. What Is Vision Planning? Vision Planning is, in the simplest terms, a set of goal-development activities. It is, in the context of a company's or a school district's planning system, actually much more than that because it is the cornerstone on which everything else is based. Vision Planning is, in the simplest terms, a set of goal-development activities. An outstanding example of a vision-driven activity was the decision of IBM to develop the System 360. This decision was made in the early 1960s and it required a commitment of greater resources than were needed to develop the atomic bomb. This amount of commitment would have likely resulted in bankruptcy if the project failed. This choice to move away from its then-current product line was made at a time when that product line was an industry leader. Yet the vision basis was to develop a family of computers that could grow as the firm grew and that had standard interfaces so that peripherals could be reused. The result was the design of the well-known System 360, a new generation of computer systems with standardized interfaces, that set the world standard for 20 years. This vision result was so successful that it produced at least $100 billion in revenues and made "IBM" synonymous with "computer." The first step in Vision Planning then is to develop a vision of the future. For a business leader, this vision specifies -- in a form that is concise, clear and actionable -- the future for his or her business. Good vision statements seem easy to recognize because of the clarity and preciseness embodied in them. For example this may have been IBM's vision statement: "Our major source of revenue in the next decade will be based on a new generation of a family of computers that are designed to allow interchangeability so this family will be the only computer a firm ever needs." As another example of a vision statement consider: "Our software will be preeminent in its field by the year 2000 as demonstrated by its use by at least five of the ten largest companies in the industry." This is clear, concise and measurable. Whether it really is a good vision statement depends on the difficulty of the task. If four of the five companies are already using their software, then it is a very complacent goal and not a good vision statement. At the other end of the spectrum, if it is known that the software won't be ready until late 1999, and that competitors will have products in the field in 1996, it is also not a good vision statement because it is unattainable, and no amount of focus and leadership are going to make it happen. Thus vision statements are a balance between what can be done and what is very difficult. They are developed through an iterative process that balances proposed statements against what is currently projected for the future. How Is a Vision Developed? The process of developing a vision statement begins with one's perception of a desired future based on personal experiences, training, temperament and all the other attributes that make up the whole person. The inputs of others are then added in a mix that has to be determined by the organization involved, by the nature of the vision, and ultimately, by the individual developing the vision. The most striking difference between Vision Planning and the more traditional approach is that Vision Planning starts with the solution (i.e., the Vision), while the traditional approach starts with the problem. Thus Vision Planning tends to start with a very high-level view of the future, rather than risking becoming enamored with, and stuck in, today's problems. The Vision Planning approach encourages broad, imaginative thinking, and discourages tunnel vision. Conversely, the traditional approach often burdens the planner with so much detail about the current situation and problems that he or she has a difficult time focusing on the future plan. The often quoted story, "... it is difficult to concentrate on draining the swamp when the alligators are nipping at your heels..." is very appropriate in comparing Vision Planning to the more traditional approach. The traditional approach is perfectly geared to becoming expert at fighting the alligators, but if the goal is to farm the cleared and drained swamp, planning to kill the alligators loses focus on the real objective. Let's look at the steps in developing the basis for a Vision Planning system. Step 1. Vision statement's first draft Much has already been said about developing the vision statement. It needs to be concise, clear, actionable, a "stretch" but "doable," and it needs to be the focus of the leader. Many authors have noted the attributes of a good vision statement. A summary of their recommendations would include many things we have already discussed: Clear; Hard, but not impossible, to meet; Inspiring; Stable, but constantly reviewed; Focused on the market or customers, in this case well-educated students; Constantly communicated; and Implemented with constant feedback paths. Given these guidelines and the previous discussion, readers should have a feel for what makes a good vision, or at least how to recognize a good one or a bad one. How then d'es one go about actually developing a vision statement? Several authors have put together structured approaches to creating a vision statement. These procedures start with a freewheeling brainstorming session in which a draft statement is developed. Subsequent meetings are devoted to refinement and restatement of the vision, while also adding detail (going down the pyramid). Each step is intended to provide an iterative approach to vision development, as well as to add more information to the statement. Establishing an initial vision statement is clearly the most important part of the process. Exactly how it is done is not as important as doing it. The process is designed for rework as each step unfolds, but there must be a starting point. Step 2. Develop a view of one's future environment & test it against the Vision It is at this stage that the process begins to restrict the vision to what is feasible. This will be a refining activity, perhaps involving removing some of the optimism out of the "free thinking" that has gone into vision development. While this and succeeding steps will move toward what is realistic, it is paramount to remember that a vision must be challenging, and the leader must exercise that leadership by continually being the champion of the "stretch." The draft vision has to be tested against many things -- market projections, anticipated customer needs, suspected competitor actions and regulatory change. For a school district an important test would be against the community's expectations plus the future makeup of the community in terms of skill requirements. In addition some kind of costs vs. income estimates must be made, as well as an evaluation as to what the payoff will be. It is likely that anything more than the broadest measures at this point are a waste of time, distracting to the real intent of the process and possibly misleading. Step 3. Restatement of the vision After each of these reviews, appropriate modifications should be made to the vision. As noted before, while this is the time to bring the vision into the realm of feasibility, it is important that the leader throughout this process stresses the need to have a vision that will be difficult to attain. The perfect vision is one that is just marginally feasible. Step 4. Backwards deployment This rather strange-sounding term is the real pay-off stage of Vision Planning. It could be called migration-plan development or high-level implementation planning, but the term "backwards deployment" is much more descriptive of the activity. It means the process of starting with the future vision and working backwards in time to today's reality. In so doing, a roadmap -- a high-level implementation plan -- is prepared to guide later, more detailed strategic and implementation planning. It is this stage that will create a list of direct guides for the system/product design processes. This completes the discussion of the Vision Planning technique. Now let's review how DISD developed their vision and how that vision was incorporated into their planning process. DISD's Vision Development The following were the steps that DISD took in arriving at their vision of the future and in developing the technology-supporting documents. Drivers: What is/are DISD's driver(s) to take short- and long-term action in the information/communications systems arena? This must be clearly understood by DISD administrators, as they'll need a firm basis to consistently answer questions from the board and public as to why funds are being spent. Items that may be of importance here include: Major problems with current systems; Internetworking current systems; Need to improve access to information; Need to improve teaching techniques; Need to prepare to connect to the "Information Highway" (Internet); and Need to prepare students for technological jobs. DISD Vision: What is DISD's vision of the future? What is going to be the product of DISD in the early 21st century? How will that product compare to other major school systems and to students' needs at that time to function in the then-current environment? What will be the characteristics of graduates in that time frame? DISD Technology Vision: What is the technology vision of DISD? This, of course, should grow out of the overall vision statements, but it should take at least one more step into the details of the future of technology in DISD. Items included here would be: A definition of how technology is going to impact the product produced by the school system; Types of technology that will be critical; Anticipated technology breakthroughs required; Major components of the technology vision; and A very generalized schedule of major changes. Enterprise Architecture: The technology vision will lead to developing a high-level architecture (enterprise architecture) statement. Any proposed system/communication development will be tested against this statement. Items included will be: Identifying the general relationship of major processing elements (hardware); Interrelationships of major software elements; General identification of network elements and their interrelationships; To the extent possible, identifying expected protocols and standards; and Identifying the major elements of function (that tie back to vision statements) that are supported by the architecture. Integration With Planning System For the above (more or less) theoretical approach to Vision Planning to have meaning, it must have application to real-world problems. In the case of DISD, application was achieved by incorporating this approach into the district's planning procedures. The method of incorporation is indicated in the sketch shown here. Its circular flow indicates the constant feedback and opportunity for adjustment that is necessary to be flexible in a rapidly changing environment. However, this flow also provides the opportunity to establish an understood direction for the district and to clearly tie all activities to the vision. Townview Center as Example As mentioned earlier, Dallas Independent School District is now into a bond program that must complete seven schools annually under strictly controlled conditions. Some of the conditions relate to a desegregation court order that guided the most complex school site, better known as Townview Center. The Townview Center facility is home to six magnet high schools with up to 2,800 students and 164 teachers. A state-of-the-art communications network supports voice, data and video. Classroom design provides for four student computer workstations, a teacher workstation, a speakerphone, video monitors, multi-source centralized media retrieval system and in excess of 250 software titles. The network comprises over 1,053 personal computers and 250 printers connected over a fiber backbone driven by ten file servers with automatic backup facilities and set up so that every student can access all software titles. The administration control system includes public-address system, bell, clock, video broadcast, security control, satellite, distance learning and emergency systems. Instruction at Townview will utilize the newest technology so experiences are more interactive, utilizing extended blocks of time devoted to real-world work. Teachers will become facilitators of learning, as opposed to dispensers of knowledge. Assessment of student progress will be based on performance criteria, not on a subset of facts. Thus, the infrastructure and design of hardware and software must support the new instructional direction. Uses of technology will move from the almost exclusive domain of tutorial and application arenas to that of exploratory and communication arenas. Townview's schedule presented an enormous challenge. A technologically superior educational setting had to be in place within a few months of the buildings' construction completion. Meeting this challenge required using a vast amount of resources (many of which were near the leading edge of technology and, to an extent, untested), needing close inter-coordination, while keeping the correct vision in view at all times. All involved employees had to repeatedly meet to maintain coordination and many "stops" had to be called to allow staff to gather more information to be able to determine the best way to proceed. Coordination of the AC power provision was one of these "stops." The design plan originally failed to consider that highly sensitive computer and peripherals were being driven off the AC mains. Due to this lack of foresight, there was a continuing problem during the software installation and hardware integration stages. Because the processor equipment was not provided adequate AC power, there was a series of power outages at the most critical time: trying to get the networked computer facilities in 160 rooms ready for teachers and students. Much of this downtime was directly caused by the missing Vision Planning process. The perfect vision is one that is just marginally feasible. The challenges that were overcome to complete such a technologically advanced school, with 13 complex integrated systems, within record time brought into clear focus the necessity of the planning and vision process described in this article. DISD now recognizes that this is one of the many examples where the application of backward planning would have been valuable. The opportunity to understand the district's direction, and maintain the same energy and direction while establishing technology that parallels the district's vision, can only be accomplished through the planning steps outlined in this article. Summary This article has used the experiences of DISD to illustrate the importance of Vision Planning. As noted, the district had actually done a very good job of preparing to correct some very difficult deficiencies in their technology infrastructure. In spite of this careful prep work, they indeed were headed towards some major problems by focusing only on today's issues. DISD now has set up a long-term planning procedure that may well be the model for other large districts. The planning model will help to unify a district behind its visionary goals, and help to avoid going down blind alleys. One should also note that the forces (federal, state, county, city, community, special interest and social services) placed upon school districts can be somewhat softened by directing their impacts into the Vision Planning process. This directs all energies toward a common purpose and vision. Ultimately all the constituencies of a school system (pupils, teachers and the general public) will be served. This planning model will not only make schools ready for the 21st century, it will help them design their own future. Gerald Chrisman, Executive Manager of Technology Services for Dallas Public Schools, was part of the team that put together the Vision Planning process, per request by then-superintendent Chad Woolery. The intent was to create a methodology that would give the district, among other things, an ongoing process for acquiring technology products that would give them "the most bang for the buck." He holds an MA in Math, an MS in Computer Science and a BS in Education. E-mail: jchrisma@pigeon.dallas.isd.tenet.edu Clifford Holliday, president of B & C Consulting, was brought in as a consultant to assist the district in explaining the educational setting and its specific needs to product vendors and local businesses involved in the project. He served, in effect, as a mediator and collaborator. He is a Professional Engineer with over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, and holds an MBA and a BSEE. E-mail: c.holliday@ieee.org Some material in The Vision section originally appeared in an article by Holliday titled "Vision Planning," in the October 1995 issue of Communications System Design. It is reused here with permission.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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