The Sigmoid Curve.

Richard Evans applies tool to colleges.

Reading Charles Handy’s excellent book ‘The Empty Raincoat’, I reflected on the application of the Sigmoid curve for college managers (see below) The symbol is a powerful one, and as Handy states, it possesses almost infinite universality of application. Obviously one can imagine a single curve which can represent the institution’s life and a particular point can denote its current health, but practically each element within the institution can be mapped to its contours. Other curves could locate the general effectiveness of, say, an indi-vidual member of staff or a group of staff in a course team. The general health of a particular management unit in a college, such as a faculty, department or agency, could also assist in showing the effectiveness of that unit at a particular time. Similar mappings could be done for a particular course or programme of study, or a cluster of courses or programmes.

The Sigmoid Curve

The Sigmoid Curve

The Sigmoid curve represents a dynamic construct and the position on it for any particular one aspect can provides a powerful formative management tool. The initial aspects of the curve require inward investment to an initiative or to help a new member of staff be inducted into the institution. Initially it might show little return, but that initial investment is essential for a subsequent healthy lifecycle for a course or for a successful and rewarding career for the member of staff.

As one approaches the end of the curve one must again manage this sympathetically, particularly if a member of staff is involved or if a course is beginning to show decay. Staff will need support to update or retrain following careful negotiations with them. It is now accepted that the members of the workforce of the future will undergo a number of career changes. IBM, for example, when appointing new staff, say ‘you will ‘have five careers with us and three at present are not known’. The idea of life-long learning is very much a reality.

I would like to reflect on the application of the Sigmoid curve for college managers who are involved in curriculum and programme of study development implementation and review. Obviously college managers need to review their primary products – namely courses and programmes of study constantly in order to remain competitive and to offer provision which matches student, employer and HEI expectations. Again, the Sigmoid curve effectively highlights the key elements of the lifecycle of the course, from its inception to its ultimate demise.

The initial stage highlights the need to commit resources to develop the new programme of study, invest in needs analysis and market research. Equally important is the need to invest in staff development and provide staff with the resources to develop a new programme of study. Commonly colleges have been cautious about investment in this initial stage because of the fear that little manifest return will be visible at the beginning. Mistakenly such expenditure has been perceived as possibly worse than allocating funds to long-standing but dwindling provision. However, managers must be prepared to take risks and make the investments for a longer term gain. Until recently it was known that out of every 10 new initiatives, six or seven failed, two or three resulted in mediocre return and one was a blockbuster. This often deterred organizations, especially large ones,from investing in research and development (R&D).

Current thinking is more entrepreneurial and innovative; the emphasis now is on fewer, more focused initiatives which are given more resources with a better chance of success. Effective needs analysis and market research make for more likely success of a new development. Once the initial development has occurred and the course or programme of study offered, it should show a healthy growth, providing an appropriate provision for the students, and satisfying them as well as their employers if they are sending students to the college However, managers must continually monitor the performance and the appropriateness of that programme of study.

The critical point for managers is to decide at what stage of the positive aspect of the curve it should be replaced or refined significantly. As Handy said, you can superimpose another Sigmoid curve at this stage so that you develop provision before you enter the decline and ultimate demise of the product.

The skill for the manager and staff, is to be aware of new products, new markets, or how the existing course or programme of study can be improved to continue to attract the students. Put simply, this meabs the product needs con tinuous attention and investment. To assist this effective teamwork it is essen tial to involve all staff including those in the support agencies of a college. One of the problems of British industry is the assumption that once they had made a product which appeared to be satisfying demand it was not necessary to invest further in research and development Currently, the lifecycle of a product is becoming compressed and in many cases short-lived, and this in turn puts additional challenges to college managers to keep a view of the portfolio of provision, continually seeking new markets, new products and rapidly reforming existing provision Handy makes the point that once you enter the negative aspect of the curve it is often too late to retrieve the situation Your competitors will have got a leading edge on you’

The Sigmoid curve provides a very powerful tool for managers It has application in the whole area of human resource management as well as staff development and succession planning In addition to the human resource management, physical resource can also be mapped onto the curve: the need to maintain the fabric of your accommodation, the ability to remodel it so that it matches fitness for purpose with the new methods of curriculum development. Again, it provides an additional tool for managing the ever-accelerating rate of change.

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