5 key factors to succeed in strategic planning for higher education

20, Dec, 2016

Isabel Sagenmüller
BY: Isabel Sagenmüller

5 key factors to succeed in strategic planning for higher education

How many plans and processes does your university have? How many of them really contribute to accomplishing institutional and strategic goals? How much money does your higher education institution spend on planning and what is the current ROI that you get?

Planning is essential for any organization and it’s also the safer way to achieve goals. But it can also be an institutional nightmare when, instead of being a work facilitator, it becomes an obstacle for organizational performance and growth. Basically because most people inside the university don’t know how to use it (implementation without proper training), don’t know why they have to use it (lack of internal communication), and even worse, they don’t want to use it.

In order to avoid falling into these deep hard-to-solve problems or successfully beat them, every strategic plan must be accompanied by a very detailed process of internalization, specially designed for each institution and for each internal group of the organization.

Considering this as a general frame of successful strategic planning implementation in higher education institutions, several experts and academics have analyzed and identified the key factors that must be present in an implementation process in order to succeed in achieving institutional goals.

In other words, what does your university have to do to get the job done well using strategic planning? 

1. VISION

Between the key factors, specialized literature states it as the most important factor in strategic planning success and the beginning of the whole process. “The vision statement is an institution’s clear description of what it intends to become within a certain timeframe. The vision statement defines the institution’s strategic position in the future and the specific elements of that position with relationship to the mission statement. In some cases, the vision is that of one leader at the campus. Often this leader is the president, but the vision can sometimes come from an academic vice president or provost. Usually, however, the vision is reviewed and revised by members of the campus community, especially the strategic planning committee,” Karen E. Hinton, Ph.D. and higher education administration specialist, explains in a Society for College and University Planning paper.

“Vision statements – Ms. Hinton adds  benefit the planning process by providing everyone in the institution with the same vision of the future. If the purpose of the planning process is to align mission, vision, goals and resources, it is critical to ensure those who will be called upon to implement the strategic plan are all “pulling in the same direction”.

2. COMMITMENT

Vision can only be valuable if every level of the organization creates a commitment to it. Academic and experts agree that this should start from the highest authorities and then must be extended to every single person in the institution.

In this process, the president of the university’s board plays an essential role. According to consultant Patrick Sanaghan and expert Mary Hinton, “the president needs to be seen as visibly and meaningfully supporting, but not exclusively controlling the planning process. If campus stakeholders believe the president is engaged in the planning process, they tend to participate more. If they don't witness this engagement, they will question the credibility of the process and meaningful participation will be minimal. In fact, if the president is resistant to planning or in any way intimates that the plan will not be utilized once developed, campus stakeholders will pick up on this and will have limited or no investment (…). They should also ensure that all of the planning processes are transparent and that there is widespread engagement in the process. While many presidents may be tempted to divest themselves of the planning process and allow the "planners" to take the lead, this is a mistake. A president must be the leader of the planning process and use the designated "planner" as a key resource.” 

3. COMMUNICATION

Every improvement, implementation or change must be communicated to every involved stakeholder and not only once or twice but always and permanently, specially if it is about long-term processes that require everybody’s effort and the results only can be viewed after several years of implementation.

“The strategic plan – Sanaghan and Hinton explains  needs to be a part of the fabric of the community, from the time it is being developed until the time it is concluded. While many campuses believe periodic email updates about the plan are sufficient, it is important to use a variety of communication vehicles that include both high-touch and high-tech (…). Utilizing a variety of communication tools enables participants to choose their most comfortable level of engagement and increases the likelihood you will hear from a variety of perspectives.” 

4. METRICS

Constant measurement of planning results will help your institution to boost what is doing well and to improve what doesn’t work properly. This also contributes to optimizing resources, focusing them on what really matters and stopping those initiatives that lead nowhere and to concentrate talents and efforts in the goals that truly make a difference.   

“It also promotes discussion and dialogue, both internally and externally, to ensure we are measuring the right things and staying on course,” President of New Mexico State University, Garrey Carruthers, stands in an Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) article.

“Those of us who work in colleges and universities usually find that the data used to benchmark our enterprise against peers is more difficult to acquire than is the case for either the private or government sectors. Furthermore, it is often so dated as to reduce its value. In the private sector, sales, stock prices and other standard business measurements can be tallied on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis. In higher education enrollment, graduation, research and outreach expenditures and other data used to compare to peers is tracked much less frequently and can often be one to two years old. As a result, the private sector and most governments can assess performance data much more quickly than colleges and universities and the turnaround time for decisions is accelerated,” Mr. Carruthers says.

“Perhaps that is related to a fundamental difference between government, private business and universities: the agility factor in the implementation of strategic planning. Successful organizations seek continuous improvements, but some are faster than others, and colleges and universities can be among the most reluctant to embrace change or move away from tradition.” 

5. RESPONSIVE

Prepare your higher education institution for changes, because there isn’t such thing as a static strategic plan that delivers good results.

“There is a myth – Sanaghan and Hinton says – that lives large in higher education that there is a perfect process. This myth is driven by the belief that facts, data and quantitative information are all you need to create a strategic plan. Although good information and clear thinking are essential to effective planning, people's hopes and aspirations, fears and doubts all play an important role. People, not perfect data, develop and execute plans. Great care should be taken to avoid the "plan to plan" syndrome where there is way too much research, planning, analysis and synthesis in an attempt to do planning perfectly.”

“In these instances, there is a lot of thinking but little doing. The plan never really lifts off the ground. Perfection should never be the goal for either the planning process or the plan. Rather, campuswide engagement, a shared vision and ongoing feedback about achieving goals are the priority.”

Undoubtedly, there are more important factors that determinate the success of strategic planning in higher education. Staff competence, campus culture, budget and regulations are also essential elements that can help universities to fulfill their objectives and – even more important  to sustain that success in time to be recognized by society as a fundamental institution for the common welfare.

Which are the main key factors of strategic planning success in your higher education environment? Should the same factors be applied in any country, or it deeply depends on local realities? I invite you to leave a comment and share your opinion and experience.

Academic Planning - A simulation game

About the author

Isabel has more than 10 years of experience developing, leading and executing Marketing and Communication strategies at international level (EMEA, US and LATAM). She has worked for B2B organizations in different sectors such as nutrition, logistics and education. She is bilingual in German and Spanish and fluent in English and French.

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