Adapt to Advance: Community Colleges as Agile Organizations

Dr. Belinda S. MilesDr. Belinda S. Miles

When COVID-19 arrived in 2020, community colleges were already adapting to myriad political, economic, social, cultural and technological shifts.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerated disruptive innovations in automation, robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and others. Social justice movements progressed from calls for representation to outcries for justice and equity. The increased momentum caused by these dynamics made ubiquitous online learning, rapid the transition to remote work, and efforts to hear, value and act upon user experiences the status quo.

Amidst the turmoil of civil unrest and a deadly pandemic confounding an already fluctuating landscape, community colleges can and must remain relevant and transformative. Committing to institutional sustainability and preparing students to succeed in an ever-evolving world invite exploration of new models for current and future practice. Community colleges can use “agile” to flourish in this enduring and relentless pace of change.

What is agile?

Agile originated in software technology development teams, which used the principles to deliver more features to customers faster. Later, businesses used agile for broader engagement and quicker efficiency. Agile transcends cross-functional participation and promotes a new standard of integrated teams as co-creators. Agile teams are differentiated by their strategies, structures, processes, people and next-generation technology.

Community colleges have thrived on traditional hierarchical models, with people divided into specialized functional units and managed accordingly. Agile offers a 21st century alternative: dynamic networks of small, multidisciplinary, purpose-driven and often virtual teams that focus on student experiences rather than administrative processes, performance objectives rather than tasks. Not wholly autonomous, these teams are typically unencumbered by bureaucratic oversight.

How does agile work?

At Westchester Community College, located in the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in New York State, safety was its prime objective followed by a commitment to teaching, learning and business continuity. Available and new technology facilitated the transition to fully remote operations. Remarkably, the college achieved several strategic plan outcomes for innovative instruction and advanced automation in just three weeks!

Multiple networks of teams formed to address issues in real-time and redesign processes. Strategic planning governance morphed from centralized structures into a distributed Allied Strategic Plan Engagement Network (ASPEN) in which co-creation replaced participatory input. Teams engaged in rapid prototyping to redesign systems when needed.

Increasing competence in remote learning escalated opportunities to compete for post-traditional learners such as working adults, gig workers and student parents. An agile structural change combined the entrepreneurial expertise of our workforce development team, the digital savvy of our communications staff and our enrollment management leads — three different college divisions — to optimize new market penetration.

We continuously evaluated sources of guidance, triangulated input, determined what best suited our institution and spoke truth to power as we navigated uncharted territory. New relationships with trustees, legislators and system offices ensued.

Why should community college leaders consider agile?

Dr. Shawn M. BrownDr. Shawn M. Brown

Community colleges will play a leading role in the emergent and unknown post-pandemic recovery era. They will train the next generation of skilled workers and prepare students for a complex, unpredictable world. Amid constant flux, a core principle guides our uniquely democratic purpose: community colleges are higher education’s accessible open door. If we fail to remain relevant and responsive in real-time, our economy and our society will suffer.

Current events have created a constant cycle of crisis management as every week presents new challenges. Old hierarchical models inhibit the free and fast flow of information required for just-in-time decision-making. Redesigned systems empower employees, include new perspectives and better serve students.

Community college leaders are wise to consider many factors before transitioning to agile practices: What professional development would help specialists become effective general managers? What is needed to shift from a culture that relies on rigid standing committees to more transient teams? How is shared governance maintained amidst such fluidity? What processes and technologies best facilitate collaboration and communication? Such deliberations could be key for community colleges faced with adapting or perishing.

Dr. Belinda S. Miles is president of Westchester Community College (N.Y.), serving an increasingly diverse population of more than 20,000. The college was the first in the State University of New York system to be designated an Hispanic Serving Institution.

Dr. Shawn M. Brown is chief of staff and vice president for strategic operations at Westchester Community College. He is an expert on process and design optimization to achieve institutional goals.