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The Challenge of Strategic Planning

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

Within the last year, I've had several inquiries from community colleges around the United States that are working on plans to build a Fab Lab or maker space on their campus. One such inquiry was from a representative of a community college in Oregon. He said they wanted to put a maker space in their new strategic plan and were going to partner with their city to do a community needs assessment. Because he'd heard about the success of our Lab, he wanted to know if I had any related resources or information to help with the strategic planning or community needs assessment. I ended up telling him that I didn't have much in the way or resources in these areas since we had neither included Fab Lab ICC in a strategic plan nor did we conduct a community needs assessment. 

Two Big Challenges 

This situation illustrates two of the biggest challenges with the strategic planning process. The first challenge is a matter of time frame. It is common to speak of a 5-year strategic plan and the implication is that the plan will indicate actions the institution should take over five years to accomplish the objective of the plan. In today's world, we don't even know what the world will look like in five months let alone five years. 

The second challenge is related to the community needs assessment and asking people what they want. In 2012 a small group of us began discussing our desire to build a Fab Lab. Had we done a community needs assessment and asked people on the street if we needed a Fab Lab or maker space, we would have seen a lot of blank stares and question marks. People don't see a need for a new innovation they don't know about. A good example of this is the idea that if Henry Ford would have done market research asking people how they would like to see personal transportation improved, most would have said "faster horses." Few could see the coming of the automobile. 

Community Assessment for Innovation Hub 

Back to the community college in Oregon, I met the president of the college at a recent conference and told her of my conversation with one of her people about a year ago. She told me that indeed, they now have a maker space on the college campus and that they were exploring a partnership with the city to open an "innovation hub"--i.e. Fab Lab or maker space-- in the downtown district. That all sounded very good. Indeed, I'd like to see an "innovation hub" or branch Fab Lab in one or more of our downtown districts. With what she said next, I hope she didn't see my jaw drop. "The city is going to hire a consultant to do a community needs assessment." There are likely no consultants that have any in-depth knowledge about how the activities in a Fab Lab or maker space change people's thinking for the better. Nor would a consultant understand how a Fab Lab or maker space can benefit a local economy by supporting entrepreneurs and small business owners. This city would be much better off spending the consultant money on a "starter" set of equipment in an existing place such as the local library. Sometimes the only way to realize the benefit of a new innovation is through first-hand knowledge. 

The successful strategic planners must navigate a slippery slope, determining what their constituents and stake holders say they want while developing a broad vision, not a detailed plan, of how the institution might best serve those constituents and stake holders in an uncertain future.   

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks. 


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