On Strategic Plans and Laundry Lists

Colleges can spend a lot of time doing strategic planning. Despite the best of intentions, however, these plans often fall short or are largely ignored as soon as the process is finished. Why is this the case?  For the most part, these plans are not strategic in nature or are completely lacking in methodology, process and assessment measures to achieve success. Often these plans become “laundry lists” of various disparate goals, static measures, and parochial thinking that do little to advance institutional initiative on important areas like online learning. Fortunately, there have been significant theoretical and practical advances in this area that can drive our strategic planning efforts. Prominent among these is the Balanced Scorecard theory advanced by Harvard professors Kaplan and Norton. In the near future, I will devote several blog posts to a discussion of their approach and its implications for strategic planning.

There are many reasons for the failure of strategic planning efforts in institutions of higher education. Often, the process is done in a pro forma manner, with insufficient time and resources to complete the task. More fundamental, however, is the lack of a real strategic planning methodology, system and leadership.  The list below represents a sampling of deficiencies in strategic planning:

  • Lack of a compelling vision
  • Lack of tie-in to organizational mission and goals
  • Lack of institutional support of  an initiative
  • Lack of actions needed to achieve goals
  • Lack of resources to achieve stated goals
  • Lack of resources to sustain strategic planning
  • Lack of clear linkages between goals and actions for specific departments
  • Lack of ongoing and timely performance measures (e.g. performance dashboards)
  • Lack of research, planning and analysis of the organization and its context within a competitive environment
  • Lack of critical staff skills to implement plan
  • Lack of communication of plan to all participants
  • Lack of structure that allows for ongoing review and revision of plan in a timely manner, and
  • Lack of understanding that goals by themselves do not constitute a strategy.

Surely this list is “lacking” other significant problems with strategic planning as it is normally done. Each one of these entries would require elaboration—left to future posts. I will only attempt a few comments for this post.

It is my belief that the single most critical aspect of strategic planning is creating a compelling vision. Like President Kennedy’s vision of “reaching the moon within a decade,” such a vision creates enthusiasm, buy-in and mobilizes action. We all know the great progress in terms of education and the sciences that Kennedy’s space program produced. Admittedly, online learning is more prosaic than a moon landing, yet a compelling vision is no less, “compelling.” In a future post, I will suggest what such a vision might entail.

The process of informing the relevant staff of a new initiative is critical to success of any strategic plan. Even having a compelling vision is not enough; it needs to be communicated throughout the organization, especially to operational units assigned with implementing the plan.  In an organization as large as CUNY, there are many levels of communication that need to be addressed including:

CUNY–wide statements of policy, college-wide, schools within colleges, and programs within schools. For each level and constituency, the vision, plan, policies and process need to be understood and transparent to that community.

A final point for this post is the need to budget for strategic planning in all critical areas. The idea that such plans can thrive via ad-hoc committees with limited time and resources belie the essential and critical nature of this endeavor. Such resources are needed at all levels of the institution for strategic planning, not merely the Central Office. Key among these resources is the trained staff that will implement and monitor new initiatives, including online learning. A budget specifically allocated for strategic planning recognizes that this process is integral to the institution and relieves those with operational responsibility from taking on yet another function added to their responsibilities.

In future posts I will discuss the Balanced Scorecard in terms of a strategic planning process, organizational change and technology innovation, and the need for institutional policies, procedures and systems to support online.


Photo: CC License: MichaelCurdis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/create-learning/5039933454/sizes/s/in/photostream/)

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