George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev sign the START I agreement in 1992 to limit nuclear weapons.

I am writing an autobiography, mainly for my family, but it does cover some key moments in the development of open and online learning. I thought I would share these as there seems to be a growing interest in the history of educational technology.

Note that these posts are NOT meant to be deeply researched historical accounts, but how I saw and encountered developments in my personal life. If you were around at the time of these developments and would like to offer comments or a different view, please use the comment box at the end of each post. (There is already a conversation track on my LinkedIn site and on X). A full list of the posts to date will be found toward the end of this post. 

A management re-organisation at the Open Learning Agency

As a result of the tensions between the different components and the dysfunction of the Executive Council (see my previous post), in 1991 the Agency called in an external consultancy company, Thompson and Associates, to help develop a management re-organisation. The consultants’ first report was radical and recommended the abolition of the three main components of the Open University, Open College and Knowledge Network to be replaced with a horizontal rather than vertical management structure, based on operational areas rather than target markets. This received in general a hostile reception from a wide range of stakeholders. (The main objection was to eliminating the three market-focused components, but one particular concern was the separation of management of technology from management of education programs.) Most importantly, the provincial government was concerned that the proposed re-organisation would be too expensive as it added extra layers of management.

A second model was therefore developed, which kept the three main components, but added defined operational responsibilities to each Vice-President. A side effect though, as far as I was concerned, was that I found I was now responsible for research and strategic planning, and a little later I found the Director of IT also reporting to me.

The final model adopted, following the consultant’s report Source: Nielsen, 1992

Strategic planning at the OLA

Here it is important to make a distinction between strategic planning and policy. Policy and future directions were still the responsibility of the President and the now re-named Executive Committee (and ultimately the Board). Strategic planning was mainly about scanning the external environment at a level above day-to-day operations, participating, particularly with Glen Farrell but also the Executive Committee, in policy decisions about possible future directions, and tracking the Agency’s strategic directions over time (the latter involved a spreadsheet with the main strategic directions and lots of ‘deadlines’ for action.) My other responsibility for research into the activities of the Agency and keeping the Agency informed of developments nationally and internationally in open and distance learning fitted well with my new responsibility for strategic planning.

I have written specifically about leadership and strategy in open and distance education, particularly with regard to planning for and managing learning technologies (Bates and Sangra, 2011).I have been greatly influenced by the work of Henry Mintzburg, a professor of management studies at McGill University. Mintzburg wrote (1994):

‘An appropriate image for the planner might be the person left behind in a meeting together with the CEO, after everyone else has departed. All of the strategic directions that were made are symbolically strewn across the table. The CEO turns to the planner and says: “There they all are; clean them up. Package them neatly so we can tell everyone about them and get things going’. This was exactly my new role at OLA.

Strategic planning in the wider world of 1992

To support me in my new role, Glen Farrell arranged for me to attend a one-week course on strategic planning in Newport Beach, California, organised by the American Management Association. There were about 30 participants at a fairly high management level in several major North American companies, including a Vice-President from Microsoft. I found the AMA course extremely interesting. However, everyone attending had senior positions in their organisations and as soon as the daily session ended, they headed off to their rooms to get in touch with their operations back at base, so I did not get much chance to network or get to know the other participants.

At this time, there were major geo-political events happening. While my wife and I were struggling to get our immigrant visas in November, 1989, the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany was torn down. By 1991, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Balkan and Eastern European countries were declaring independence and becoming democracies. American leaders of industry in particular were flocking to Moscow and St. Petersburg to transform Russia into a capitalist country.  In 1991, the United States and Russia announced the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives to substantially reduce their respective tactical nuclear weapons arsenals.  The political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote an article in 1989 called ‘The End of History?’ suggesting that Western liberal democracy had triumphed and would now become the final form of government for all nations.

The AMA course ended at lunch time on the Friday and everyone was itching to get away and back to their families. As we were ending the final session, the instructor said,

‘Now, are there are any final questions?’

A hand went up at the front of the class and a low groan went round the room. The guy who had put his hand up had been very quiet during the whole course, writing lots of notes but saying almost nothing and not even talking to others during the breaks.

‘This stuff about environmental scans, looking at what’s happening around you in the outside world – can that really affect your long-term business strategy?’

‘Well, yes, it should. Remind me what you do and what your company does.’

‘Well, I’m our company’s chief engineer, and my company makes nuclear weapons for the U.S. government. Do you think these developments in Europe will affect our business strategy going forward?’

The value of environmental scans

I wrote several environmental scans for OLA. They covered three main areas: the political context; the economic context; and the educational context. It is interesting to see what I wrote about British Columbia in February, 1992 (this is a very brief summary of a 37 page document):

Political Context

  1. The economy, the (Canadian) constitution, and Native Indian issues will dominate the political agenda for the next 18 months
  1. The federal government will play a greater role in education and training, through directly funded programs; transfer payments will reduce, throwing a greater burden on provincial governments for education and health.
  1. With regard to external relations, OLA’s main objectives should be to focus policy-makers on:
  • increasing the priority given to education and training to those already in the workforce
  • the central role that open and distance education can play in improving economic competitiveness
  • increased funding for B.C. produced television programming focusing on the changing nature of the B.C. economy, constitutional issues, the environment, and native Indian issues. 

Economic context

  1. There is a paradigm shift occurring in the B.C. economy. Work is changing:

       From             manufacturing       to         services

       From             resource-based      to         knowledge-based

       From             large companies     to         small companies

       From             men                      to         women

       From             the interior             to        metropolitan areas

       From             fulltime/full year     to        part-time/contract

       From             younger workers     to        older workers

       From             low, specific skills    to        higher, generic skills

  1. Canada is losing its economic competitive advantage; its growth in productivity is less than its main competitors
  1. To remain competitive, business and industry need a more highly skilled work-force; this can be done quickly only by concentrating on those already in the work-force 
  1. Unemployment will increase, mainly in the interior; the unemployed will be older and will remain unemployed for a longer period. 
  1. On the other hand, over the next five years, there will be a short-fall of about 10,000 a year between those coming new to the labour market and the increase in new jobs. It will be important then to convert the current pool of around 150,000 unemployed into some of the new jobs through training and lifelong learning opportunities.

Educational context

9. Post-secondary institutions will be under increasing pressure to become more efficient, accountable and flexible; they will find this difficult.

10. The post-secondary system (in BC) will continue to expand slowly through the creation of extra spaces (and institutions) in the conventional system; this will ease the pressure from 18-24 year olds but will do nothing to address the issue of improving the competitiveness of those already in the work-force.

How little has changed in the last 30 years!

The problem with strategic plans and quality assurance programs

Although responsible for strategic planning, I was quite sceptical about the state of strategic planning in the early 1990s, which seemed to be obsessed with detailed control and measurement of outcomes that were either irrelevant to an organisation’s overall future performance or were just too difficult to measure accurately. In particular most strategic plans were obsolete by the time they became implemented because more recent and unanticipated external and internal developments had made them irrelevant or the planned outcomes less important.

Instead, I believed in strategic thinking as a continuous process. As Mintzburg put it: ‘The most successful strategies are visions, not plans.’ OLA did have a clear vision, which was to provide open and flexible educational access primarily to lifelong learners and others not served well by the conventional education system. This vision was common throughout the components of the Agency and was what motivated most of the staff.

Planning was really about implementation of the vision: what was the best way to provide such services at any particular point in time? This needed to be an ongoing, continuous process driven by the overall vision for the Agency. Strategic thinking needed to be encouraged at all levels, not just by senior management. Senior management’s main role then was to communicate and reinforce the vision and to set priorities when there was competition for resources.

However, the early 1990s was a period of many management ‘fads’ which caused me many headaches as different members of the Executive Committee jumped on each new trend. In particular, North American companies were buying into TQM, total quality management, inherited from Japanese car manufacturing. I had nothing against TQM for manufacturing cars (or Boeing aircraft), but education was not about turning out high quality machines. I was not against setting quality standards for distance education courses and later I advocated 12 steps to quality assurance for online and distance courses for instructors, but these were ideas to be kept in one’s head, and applied to one’s daily work, not detailed administrative procedures.

Formal and extensive quality assurance processes though were very popular, particularly in the large open universities, but they easily became bureaucratic. TQM and rigid quality assurance processes were very expensive to implement properly and considerably slowed down course development and delivery, and OLA’s main advantage over conventional institutions was its nimbleness and flexibility. (It was another 20 years before agile design became another popular trend).

TQM and quality assurance processes were not the only management fads at the time though, and the consequence was that the OLA Executive Committee almost week to week kept changing its directions to accommodate each new management trend. Since I was responsible for making sure strategic directions were being implemented and followed through, this meant that I kept having to change my spreadsheets and target dates on an almost daily basis. Previous strategic directions became ignored or not implemented in order to cater to other new directions. More importantly, staff became confused and uncertain, and rather cynically started ignoring the latest management direction and just got on with their work on developing and delivering programs (but still driven by the overall vision of openness and flexibility in program offerings).

This was not unique to the OLA at the time. Specifically about university strategic plans, Dalrymple (2007) wrote: ‘Most institutions… ended up with a large report gathering dust on the shelf viewed as yet another management fad that created a lot of busy work.’

In reality, if there is a strong collective vision, strategic planning to be effective must be integrated with budget planning. It is about setting priorities for spending that further the overall vision, while taking advantage of opportunities that arise unexpectedly. Too often, though, budgets are based on historical allocations, with the same balance between programs being carried over from one year to the next, thus inhibiting innovation and flexibility in an organisation.

It can be seen I learned a lot in a very short time about strategic planning. This was to be useful not only for my time at OLA, but also later in my career.

Up next

The state of educational technology in the early 1990s. This was perhaps the most significant period of all for the development of educational technologies that have had a lasting effect not only on open and distance learning but on education in general.

This will be followed by my move to UBC and my new role as Director of Distance Education and Technology.


Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass

Dalrymple, M. (2007) Strategic Planning in Higher Education Saarbrüken, Germany: Verlag. Dr. Müller

Mintzburg, M. (1994) The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning New York: Free Press



  1. I am very much enjoying this read! You paint vivid pictures with your words and your sense of humour is spot on.

    I have read about your escapades right up to about when I met you and was told DET was our largest client at UBC. I am looking forward to reading more and recounting funny stories I still tell that happened to us over 20 years ago.

    I also saw some photos of you flying across Canada in The Great Belvedere Air Dash when I was producing some award shows for the BC Aviation Council.

    Glad to see and read your posts Tony.


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