Justifying and Organizing a Sustainable Strategic Planning Process

An Abbreviated Motive for Strategic Planning in Higher Education

The obvious item that may come to mind is that we engage strategic planning simply “because we have to.” To say the least, this is an underdeveloped rationale. Despite my knowing about the pandemic of this attitude toward strategic planning, I still experience surprise when I observe the mindset. In this post, I briefly outline a succinct rationale for strategic planning in higher education, and then discuss methods for effectively organizing the work. I do not discuss the elements or components of the planning document appropriate for articulating institutional goals and priorities, as I save that objective for a later writing.

We can start to justify and understand meaningful strategic planning when we think about the nature of quality assurances. At a time when higher education experiences public assault and accusation of carelessness and extravagance, an integrated strategic planning process allows colleges and universities the freedom to demonstrate their thoughtfulness about the future of their institution and its students.

The emergence of formalized strategic planning in higher education was arguably marked during the 1970’s and 1980’s, which was a period of lasting problematic and unstable enrollment management, a pivotal point in our nation’s changing demography, and a stage characterized by growing financial insecurity. Taking cue from the private sector and to support the larger accountability agenda for higher education, accreditors began to require institutions to meaningfully engage strategic planning agendas. Institutions without a developed and supported planning process continue to find themselves confronted with risk or liability, especially at the point of reaffirmation of accreditation.

But, after unpacking this very brief (and marginally underdeveloped) justification, bringing other folks to Jesus is laborious on occasion. Unfortunately, building ample awareness and desire around certain causes is time-consuming and ensures neither understanding nor support. I’ll leave you to your own devices and creative works when trying to cultivate an appreciation for strategic planning at your institution. 

Organizing the Activities to Avoid the Perception of Drudgery

If you’ve started organizing planning processes, then we can assume you’ve reached sufficiency in garnishing institutional awareness.

Note that building awareness and buy-in takes time, and I’ve seen some institutions take 6 months or longer to reach such a stage. You may not have time for this, if you have an accreditation visit in your near future. If you find that you must focus administrative efforts in other areas due to the priorities of the looming visit, then ensure you’ve evidenced that your strategic planning process is shared. This can be achieved through documentation and carefully crafted meeting minutes. Remember, if you haven’t documented it, then it hasn’t happened.

Consider using these following 5 activities in a stepwise, linear fashion:

  1. Identify appropriate institutional stakeholders. I cannot stress the importance of this action enough. Your institution cannot enjoy the fruits of affirmative planning outcomes if you don’t bring the right mix of people to the table. For instance, suffice it to say that loading a workgroup only with the executive team without faculty representation will bring disorder and commotion (and, no, an instructional vice president or dean does not count as sufficient faculty representation). When organizing this process, you may later discover that some participants becomestrategic planning social loafers. Every solution to this planning pathology will be unique, but consider reading up on the social psychological phenomenon “diffusion of responsibility” before implementing any action. At a minimum, represent these functional areas: instruction, finance, institutional research, accreditation, admissions, registrar, student affairs and services.
  2. Convene the committee. While this point appears to be self-explanatory, it’s quite nuanced. Prior to convening your first meeting, build an agenda so that you strongly illustrate a process overview. The overview helps set the tone and build shared expectations and a common understanding, especially since the workgroup will have members who likely don’t fully grasp the draconian task of strategic planning in higher education. Use Doodle to schedule your meeting andstrategic planning committee understand variability in folks’ availability to contribute (you’ll begin to anticipate certain things which will help you calibrate your personal expectations and planning processes). During this meeting, allow extra time for a Q & A session. It’s not uncommon for the meeting to require at least two hours, especially since the work will take root thereafter. Use active-listening strategies to firmly ground a shared action plan. Some of this might include scripted language in response to team members points of lines of inquiry and should validate the others while very briefly summarizing their commentary.
  3. Develop the strategic plan. There are many ways to do this, but remember that the important thing is that the outcome is mutually shared and understood. If your strategic planning process requires certain subdivisions of work or redistributedstrategic planning higher education responsibilities, bring institutional actors back to the table sooner rather than later. Developing the plan demands certain components, which I will write about in another post, due to the intensity of strategic resource allocation, evaluation descriptions, anticipated outcomes, among other features.
  4. Build consensus. After the plan is developed, and hopefully prior to seeking the approval of the President and Board of Trustees, receive final considerations from major stakeholders. This is a type of “member checking” procedure which permits strategic planning consensus.jpgreassessment and is particularly important for the administrator charged with the eventual monitoring responsibility. Not to mention, this step strengthens your long-term participation and capacity. I recommend writing an engagement plan to allow colleagues the ability to articulate the longevity of their commitments. and take ownership of the process.
  5. Seek approval, implement, and monitor. Just as I narrated accreditation phenomena in passing through my self-care blog post, this is also a pivotal point possibly threatening a congratulatory outcome. Completing the document is not a point when it is filed away and forgotten. The piece must be a living, breathing testimonial necessitating engagement and contact prerequisite for strategic planning implementationimplementation and monitoring. Consider developing an implementation plan (i.e., a plan to plan). Whoever is charged with monitoring the action steps might consider developing a planning calendar, which also monitors the monitoring. The point of this is to engineer a type of fail-safe.

Taken together, these five recommendations for organizing your work represent a series of suggestions for only one facet of the planning process (coordination). They help ensure connectedness, visibility, support, and value for your strategic planning process. Please consider the further readings below for additional high-quality material.

Recommendations for Further Reading on Strategic Planning

Albon, S. P., Iqbal, I., & Pearson, M. L. (2016). Strategic Planning in an Educational Development Centre: Motivation, Management, and Messiness. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching9, 207-226.

Conway, T., Mackay, S., & Yorke, D. (1994). Strategic planning in higher education: Who are the customers. International journal of educational management8(6), 29-36.

Cowburn, S. (2005). Strategic planning in higher education: fact or fiction?. Perspectives9(4), 103-109.

Dooris, M. J., Kelley, J. M., & Trainer, J. F. (2004). Strategic planning in higher education. New Directions for Institutional Research2004(123), 5-11.

Kotler, P., & Murphy, P. E. (1981). Strategic planning for higher education. The journal of higher education52(5), 470-489.

Rowley, D. J. (1997). Strategic Change in Colleges and Universities: Planning to Survive and Prosper. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass Inc., 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104.

Tromp, S. A., & Ruben, B. D. (2010). Strategic Planning in Higher Education: A Guide for Leaders. [with CD-ROM]. National Association of College and University Business Officers. 1110 Vermont Avenue NW Suite 800, Washington, DC 20005.


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