Workshop provides planning focus

March 1, 2016

New software training provides insight to Strategic Planning Online software suite



Planners from throughout the North Dakota University System attended a two-day workshop last month regarding a new “suite of systems” called Strategic Planning Online.

Financial analysts, communicators and other strategic planners from throughout the North Dakota University System sat down together last month for a 16-hour course focused on tracking system progress.

The two-day course on the Strategic Planning Online software suite, or SPOL, was given by presenter Erin Bell, SPOL’s vice president of client services, who’s been shaping it since its inception. As “User Zero” of the software, she had valuable insight to provide the two dozen assembled planners, mostly to facilitate strategic processes on behalf of their respective campuses and the system itself.

Bell stated that numerous benefits were now available thanks to the NDUS recent adoption of the software. Some of those benefits included the common platform and framework itself, which would assist the 11 institutions in their respective planning and promote a shared understanding of institutional effectiveness; integrated modules that could be used to meet a variety of needs and reducing duplication of effort; the ability created by the software that allowed users to track cause-and-effect through the planning process; and how SPOL served not just as a documentation tool, but a productivity tool that collected institutional intelligence to support collaboration and long term effectiveness.

According to university system strategic planners, the goal is to have the software fully implemented by the end of the planning cycle. A task force is being formed to iron out details of how best to tailor SPOL for NDUS use. The planning and budget modules will be the first to implemented systemwide.

“We believe it would be tremendously advantageous for us to be able to access this and pull up data during board meetings or legislative hearings,” said Vice Chancellor of Strategic Engagement Linda Donlin. “This could provide updated, real-time measurements of where we are as campuses and as a system in relation to our goals.”

Currently, system office employees are using the software to track progress on the presidents’ goals, but many other applications exist. The cloud-based software includes modules surrounding planning, budgeting, assessment, accreditation and credentialing. Each have unique metrics to help track operational statuses, challenges and results. Assessments, for instance, allows for the tracking of criteria surrounding measurements that constituted success rates. Other examples noted by Bell included allowing the user to shape the response narrative for documentation requested by accrediting agencies. For goal-tracking, “the cloud is the limit” she said.

Bell noted that SPOL was originally conceived and developed at Indian River State College in Ft. Pierce, Florida, as a suite of standalone access databases. Bell had developed the accreditation and planning databases in 1998 with the budget database having been developed earlier by a colleague. By 1999 the three databases were set to be integrated as one that could be accessed online. With the help of software development contractor Think Education Solutions, Strategic Planning Online was born.

With its origins as a suite of databases, SPOL now serves as a combination website, database and software suite.

“We call SPOL a suite of systems, when it is actually a suite of functional modules that exist within a single system – but SPOL can be deployed as a single module or custom suite of modules,” Bell said, noting that NDUS had licensed the entire suite – Planning, Budget, Assessment, Accreditation, and Credentialing modules. She said SPOL is primarily accessed through a cloud service, although it could be installed locally on a client college or university’s servers.

“Consequently, whether locally installed or served from the cloud, users can access SPOL anytime, anywhere over the internet,” she said.

With a primary focus on higher education, system planners felt SPOL would be a great fit for NDUS. Bell said because of that, SPOL development and deployment was focused on the unique nature, needs and operating atmosphere of higher ed.

Currently it is in use at around 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. the Caribbean, and the Middle East. The “suite of systems” employed common templates that fostered shared languages for planning. Once input into templates, planning objectives could be easily aligned with common institutional structures.

“Our greatest presence is in the 11-state region served by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, with Florida, Texas, and Alabama being the states with the greatest number of SPOL schools,” Bell said. “We also have a strong presence in the Higher Learning Commission region. Our license with NDUS is our first installation in North Dakota and our first state system!”

Bell added that SPOL assessment module helps enhance the ultimate goal of student learning by helping “chart the course for improved performance.”

“The SPOL planning objectives provides a framework to not only identify what we intend to do, but to prepare ourselves to analyze the results we achieved to better understand what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “Using SPOL for the day-to-day repository of data, and tying the data to specific course sections, provides faculty with a real-time indication of student performance on outcomes, which have been designed by the faculty to be indicative of student learning.  … Enhancement of student learning is, thus, not focused solely on students who take courses in the future, but students who are taking courses now.”