Strategy in a cold climate

In an earlier post on this blog, I had pointed out that my university, DCU, was embarking upon a strategic planning exercise. Since then we have proceeded with the exercise, and have now come close to where we will be able to produce a draft strategy document. As has been the case with DCU’s previous strategic plans, the new plan will be short, and will be built around a small number of key strategic objectives, accompanied by the performance indicators that will tell us later whether we have succeeded in implementing our aims.

Without at this point wishing to reveal any of the content of our proposed plan, I can however explain some of the issues we have considered in the discussions to date. First, it is important to us as a university to be distinctive. Most university plans I have seen have been, if not identical, then certainly inter-changeable. They all tend to say that the university will be world class (or excellent) in teaching, in research, and in outreach. They find slightly different ways (and lengths) of saying this, but I can tell you now that the last sentence is an adequate executive summary of 90 per cent of all university strategic plans worldwide.

And of course, that is what universities do and aim to succeed in. But a strategic plan is not about summarising the standard mission of the institution: strategy is about making choices, and in particular hard choices. It is not strategically interesting to list all those things that we do and to assure the reader that we mean to do them really well. What is interesting, however, is to say what we will do that is different, either from what others do, or indeed from what we have been doing until now. And equally, it is interesting to indicate what, in the light of the priorities we are setting, we may decide not to do, or do as much, in the future.

This may be particularly important at a time when external resources may be scarce, as is the case right now. The economic downturn has, as we have noted here, driven government to cut the resources allocated to higher education, but the same conditions also make to less likely that generous resources from other sources will be easily available. This means that we cannot draft a strategic document that does not take account of the external environment and relate to it.

The current challenging setting for the universities will, we hope, not last for ever; but it is likely to be the dominant backdrop for the lifetime any plan adopted over the coming months. But that also makes it possible that where it is fully taken into account, its effect may be to produce paralysis. But challenging times are also times in which innovation is both easier and more logical – and so a good strategic plan should be focused, distinctive, aware of the external environment, and highly innovative. These are the tests for a successful planning document.

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