Thursday, March 3, 2011

What does strategic planning do?

I have spent the past two days at the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities annual meeting in Seattle.  NWCCU is Westminster's accrediting body.  It also accredits most of the community colleges, universities, art schools, seminaries, and other institutions of higher ed in a broad swath of the North and West of the United States.

The annual meeting gives a  good sense of the preoccupations of higher education, of which there seem to be four: student learning, staying accredited, responding to change, and strategic planning.

These last two are in particular tension.  At a breakout session yesterday, campus after campus reported that it had recently hired a new president who, in his/her first year, had embarked on creating a new strategic plan for the campus. Accreditors, including Northwest, essentially require strategic plans in order to stay accredited. (Northwest requires that all campuses have a mission, core themes, and core theme objectives which are then reported on as part of the accreditation process.)  In fact, the prevalence of strategic planning as the first step in a new presidency or a new accreditation cycle suggests that there is some sort of group-think at play, or that institutions are seeking safety in the form of a strategic plan.

I say this in part because when everyone is doing something, on principle, one ought to choose to do something else.  But i say it also because the other theme at the meeting was the rapidity of change facing higher ed.  State after state is slashing higher ed budgets, student demographics change rapidly, for-profit institutions are rapidly taking up market share, leadership turns over again and again.  These changes force campuses to refigure contracts, rework budgets, seek new markets, adjust capacity--in short, to make things up as they go along.

One wonders how much a strategic plan, which is at its heart an effort to predict a future and then assess an organization's ability to bring that future about, helps in responding to change.  At least some of the literature on strategic planning suggests that the answer is not much.  Strategic plans, in this line of critique, ultimately make institutions look largely the same (witness the convergence of learning goals around the same themes: critical thinking, respect for diversity, civic engagement, etc.).  And they do relatively little to improve the bottom line.

In fact, it may be the case that the most valuable aspect of creating a strategic plan is, well, creating the plan.  It is uncommon for institutions to take the time and convene stakeholders for a meaningful conversation about their passions, interests, worries, and goals.  Strategic planning does this in a way that can, if done well, win some common views about purpose and process.  It can, in other words, help build community.  But that community sometimes slips away once the plan is done, as people fall back into their routines, the institution works out its plan, and everyone hopes that rapid change doesn't upset things.

Erika Beck, the Provost of Nevada State College, made this point in her remarks at today's conference.  She noted that NSC was created in 2002, in the salad days of Nevada's economic boom.  The campus received a large plot of lands and took on an ambitious goal of becoming Nevada's mid-tier university.  Faculty built the place from the ground up.

And then the economy fell apart in Nevada, with state funding for higher ed falling 32% since 2008.  even while enrollments are up by 40%.  Beck noted that NSC had been able to adapt, but not because of its strategic plan.  Instead she pointed to the benefits of being a young, still relatively unformed campus (a 'start-up" she put it).  As a start-up the campus could still play with work roles, combining jobs that wouldn't otherwise go together.  Faculty and administrators worked together on responding to budget cuts because they had built the campus together and shared a sense of common purpose.  And faculty took the downturn as a chance to innovate, not retrench.

This of course does not mean that a strategic plan is useless.  But it does suggest that strategic plans can limit flexibility and take the place of the sort of relationships that allow communities to succeed in the face of crises.  or perhaps it is the other way around.  A strategic plan can be a way to build community.  But it can also be a substitute.  And if it is, then when change happens, the plan won't help.

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