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Michael Dooris, John Kelley, James Trainer,  Eds., Successful Strategic Planning, New Directions for Institutional Research, No. 123, Jossey-Bass, Fall 2004

As summer slips into fall, memories of rest and relaxation turn to …strategic planning of course! Made famous by George Keller’s Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in Higher Education, (1983) – and subsequently made infamous by well-intentioned but misguided attempts to take Keller’s words and translate them into reality in academe – strategic planning is often the curse of faculty and administrators from coast to coast. As noted in the opening essay of this slim but informative volume “The fact is, most colleges and universities look at strategic planning as a path to pain, rather than a path to plenty.” Successful Strategic Planning is a primer that can help ease the pain. 

This volume is part of the New Directions for Institutional Research series published under the auspices of the Association for Institutional Research in the United States.  The book, composed of thirteen essays, is organized into two sections: the first dealing with the Foundations of Strategic Planning; and the second focusing on Examples from the Field. From the outset the editors and contributors make it clear there is no single template for the development and implementation of a strategic plan. Institutional culture, history and circumstance influence the process, timing, the participants and, ultimately, the end-result. In fact the absence of a template approach reflects the evolution of strategic planning and the importance of tempering a formulaic approach by what is referred to as a “cultural-environmental-political perspective.” Two other developments speak to the more modern version of strategic planning: a greater reliance on strategic thinking, characterized by an emphasis on synthesis involving intuition and creativity;  and “a new powerful emphasis on moving from formulation to implementation.” (p.8) Essentially the editors recognize that ‘planning’ in too many institutions has been seen as too dogmatic and formulaic, with a predilection for data and analysis and a framework that simply does not encourage strategic ‘thinking’. Moreover there is clear recognition that having a plan is only one part of Strategic Planning and, in fact, the term “strategic management” is adopted to capture the essence of plan development and implementation.  

The book provides some interesting insights into the obstacles associated with the establishment of a strategic planning process and development of a plan. The first is a recognition of the ‘silos’ mentality that is too often associated with decentralized organizations and the need to develop planning processes (development and implementation) that ‘reach out’ and involve all parts of the organization. Villanova University’s Team Approach to Goal Attainment provides an illustration of how “cross-functional quality improvement teams” have helped break down the silos by focusing on the operational actions required to translate the goals into reality. 

The second is the need to have people engaged in the process and ‘living the plan’ on a regular basis. The experience of the  University of Wisconsin-Madison (Moving the Strategic Plan Off the Shelf) provides a set of “infusion strategies” to  bring the plan to life. While some of the specific actions are common enough – i.e. “Allocate Discretionary Funds in Line with the Plan” – the key point is the need to recognize the importance of having a set of strategies to make the plan an ever present part of institutional life.  

The third insight is the need to integrate the plan into all aspects of the university’s operation – enrolment planning, financial planning, capital planning, and academic planning. The strategic plan can, and should act as catalyst for a full scale integrated plan and the example from Penn State provides a good illustration of how to link the strategic plan to operational plans through an integrated planning process. A more detailed example from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University focuses on the link between strategic planning and budgeting where the adoption of a new responsibility-centred financial model led to a requirement for a more integrated approach.  

A number of essays also focus on the links between strategic planning, quality improvement initiatives, and accreditation. Accreditation as a Catalyst for Institutional Effectiveness, for example, provides a glimpse of the accreditation movement in the United States and its impact on institutional planning, outcomes assessment, and accountability reporting. Accreditation activities tend to be ‘below the radar screen’ in Canada, but there are a number of developments that could lead to considerably greater interest in accreditation activity. The emergence of new degree designations (e.g. applied degrees) and new higher education entities, such as university-colleges and technology institutes, raise interesting and challenging questions about quality assessment and quality assurance at the provincial, national and international levels. As those questions are raised, interest in accreditation will increase and the U.S. experience will begin to take on greater relevance.  

Finally, there is some attention devoted to the ‘tools of the trade’ and the final essay – Models and Tools for Strategic Planning – provides a brief but informative review of several models, key planning tools and commentary on a limited set of strategic planning references. The emphasis on additional reference material is a theme throughout the book and each of the essays includes a useful reference list for further investigation.   

As a publication of the Association for Institutional Research, there are references to the role of institutional research in the planning process but the core message that emerges is the need for considerably more interaction among individuals from all parts of the campus. As a primer, Successful Strategic Planning provides a good overview of the topic by emphasizing its relevance, not only as an important activity by itself, but also as an integral part of the day to day activities of the institution with direct ties to quality improvement, accountability and accreditation. The use of specific institutional examples is always of added interest because it brings aspects of the topic to life and the contributors have done a good job describing the situation in their institutions and focusing on the lessons to be learned.  

There are, however, noticeable gaps in the book as well. For example, there is limited reference to the role of governance in the development and/or implementation of the strategic plan. Should Boards of Governors be involved? What about Senates?  With multiple stakeholders represented by formal and informal entities how do institutions reconcile the differing perspectives (e.g. students, full-time faculty, part-time faculty, staff, alumni, community leaders).  Who should lead the development of a strategic plan? Who or what body ensures the institution ‘lives’ the plan?  Additionally, it would have been helpful to explore what happens to a strategic plan when fundamental assumptions about resources fall by the wayside as a result of major downturns in the economy or government cut-backs. Nevertheless, for those embarking on the development of a strategic planning or those engaged in bringing a plan to life, Successful Strategic Planning is worth a look: there are always useful lessons to be learned from the experiences of others. 

Postscript to Ontario: A Leader in Learning, February 2005 (Rae Report).

The Spring 2005 volume of University Manager, included a review of the Rae Report and noted that readers should “stay tuned” for the government’s response. In its 2005 Budget the Ontario Government provided its response – Reaching Higher: the McGuinty Government Plan for Postsecondary Education – a $1.6 billion  base investment by 2009-10 described as the “largest multi-year investment in 40 years.”  Many recommendations  and ideas from the Rae Report have been addressed and incorporated into the McGuinty Plan including the continued expansion of undergraduate enrolment, a major new expansion of graduate enrolments, increased investment in medical education, and improved student assistance. The Government also announced a commitment to develop a new tuition framework in the coming months.  As of late August, implementation details regarding the McGuinty Plan are still in the works. The “devil” will be in the details but the overall size of the planned investment and the Government’s clear commitment to make postsecondary education a priority, bodes well for universities and colleges alike. A summary  of the McGuinty Plan is available at http://www.ontariobudget.fin.gov.on.ca/bud05e/bke1.htm

 

 

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