Posted tagged ‘strategic planning’

University strategy – UCD

April 22, 2010

It is always good to see a university launch its strategic plan – and this week University College Dublin has published its new strategy for the period 2010-2014: Forming Global Minds. The launch itself may have been low-key, or at any rate I wasn’t invited (mental note: make sure to invite UCD President Hugh Brady to DCU’s strategic plan launch on May 10!). But UCD’s plan is a substantial one, and I hope nobody will take offence if I say that it has strong echoes of  DCU’s strategic plan launched in 2001, Leading Change. The latter plan first introduced the idea of academic themes to inform research and teaching priorities, and highlighted the importance of innovation as a key objective of the university. Both of these strategic perspectives are contained in UCD’s new plan, and they work well there also.

What the strategy now published by University College Dublin has in common with DCU’s last two plans, and our new plan to be launched shortly, is a concern to ensure that the university’s priorities reflect its desire and its capacity to enhance national economic, social and cultural regeneration. DCU in its new plan will emphasise the importance of the ‘translational’ impact of its research and teaching, and UCD refers to the significance of making an impact.

The times we are in also influence the content of UCD’s strategy, with references to the need to adapt the profile of the student body to maximise revenue. And of course there are passages on the TCD-UCD ‘Innovation Alliance’, the strategic partnership between these two institutions intended to support the potential to create an economic impact.

It has always been DCU’s intention to have the best possible relations with our friends and colleagues in Dublin (and of course throughout the state), and I personally wish UCD well as they develop this new strategy for the next five years.


Is strategy just a waste of time?

June 17, 2009

In the early autumn Dublin City University will unveil its new strategic plan. This strategy will, we hope, chart the way through some very challenging and uncertain times. This will be DCU’s fourth strategic plan, and the third of my presidency. It will provide some direction for us, and allow us to show a common purpose. It will also satisfy several formal requirements that affect us, including section 34(1) of the Universities Act 1997 (which provides that the President must prepare a strategic plan for consideration by the Governing Authority), and the rules of certain funding programmes (such as the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions).

But the significance of strategic planning is not always accepted by everyone. When I was in the University of Hull in the late 1990s I was a member of the working group that drafted the plan which was to be adopted by the university. I recall attending a meeting of senior officers at which we presented our draft. When the chair of our group had completed his presentation there was a pause to allow some discussion. After a few moments one of the senior officers sighed and said, ‘Well OK, if you must, but as far as I am concerned there is far too much strategy around here. It’s all such a waste of time.’ There were some sharp intakes of breath, but then others chipped in with their more strategy-oriented responses and, a little while later, the strategic plan (or ‘corporate plan’ as it was actually styled) was published.

But the scepticism of this senior university officer was not totally unprecedented. In fact, shortly before that one of the godfathers of strategic planning, Henry Mintzberg, had written a book (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning) in which he had called the whole thing into question. His criticism was based on a number of points, but amongst them was his view that strategic plans tried (and failed) to predict discontinuities, politicised the organisation, destroyed commitment, and created a spurious formality for something that should be much more spontaneous.

I suspect there are more than a few members of the academic community who might share that view. But for all that, a focus on strategy has also helped to transform some institutions by allowing (or forcing) them to make choices about how to prioritise the scarce resources of money, time and people. Strategic planning has – when done imaginatively  and effectively – helped higher education institutions make quantum leaps beyond where they could have gone with incremental steps.

But it is also true that many universities have responded to formal requirements to adopt strategic plans (which apply in Ireland and other countries) by issuing long documents that never  really make it into the collective consciousness of the institution and that, often, contain excessively long action lists that don’t really amount to a strategy. Others adopt well-meaning documents that don’t have the consent of the community to which they apply because they were developed in a top-down manner.

So it is probably true that strategic documents are not always useful and sometimes do just amount to a distraction. The challenge is to ensure, both in the content of the plan and the method of its implementation, that this is not the case. My own approach has been to make the process inclusive, keep the document short, fix the focus on selected priorities driven by a shared vision, and ensure that the outcome is memorable.

Strategy in a cold climate

November 6, 2008

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.

Foresight – what will we need in 2028?

September 9, 2008

According to some of those who enjoy trying to interpret the writings of Michel de Nostredame (better known by the Latin name of Nostradamus), the year 2028 could be significant for all sorts of reasons. Some say he predicted that the Third World War will begin (or end) that year, others that he expected the second coming of Jesus then, and others again that the world will end on that date. In fact, while many of those trying to interpret his work come up with very different predictions, the year 2028 appears in many of them as a critical date.

Well, it is a critical date for DCU, because for the past year or so we have been conducting a ‘Foresight’ exercise which is designed to suggest some possible scenarios for the world in 2028 which we might need to take account of in our strategic planning. We consulted a number of experts and ran a working group in which we involved some key people, both from inside DCU and from elsewhere. In the event the group concluded that there were several possible ways in which the world could develop by 2028 – in terms of politics and geo-political trends, in terms of technological progress and innovation, in terms of the environment, in terms of social trends, and so forth. We will be publishing the outcomes from this in November.

Of course none of us can see into the future. If we had asked a similar selection of people in 1988 to predict what the world would look like today, many of them would have got it quite wrong. But for all that, some of the decisions taken in DCU around that time relating to research and teaching priorities turned out to be well judged, and as a result DCU was able to make a very substantial contribution to Irish society over the past decade or so. We hope to be able to do that again in the years to 2028.

However, if you are reading this blog and have some views as to what 2028 might look like, and what the main concerns will be with which universities may be able to help, I would be very interested in hearing them. When we publish the outcomes of this exercise, I shall summarise them in this blog and link to the overall document, so you will be able to compare your predictions with what we came up with.

I don’t believe that the DCU group made much use of Nostradamus, however.

University strategies

August 7, 2008

Ten years ago, when I was a Faculty Dean there, the University of Hull adopted what it called a ‘Corporate Plan’. This was not the university’s first strategic plan strictly speaking. Like all universities in the UK, it was obliged by funding council rules to produce regular strategic documents, but in reality these documents were not strategic plans: they were drafted by someone working in the university’s administration and nodded through by one or two committees; their rather lengthy content essentially set out what the university was doing and what it was already committed to doing under a variety of headings. Nobody in the wider university community was really aware of these successive plans, and certainly no strategic or resourcing discussions were informed by them.

Ten years ago, there was a slight change of procedure in Hull: a working group was established to consider whatever draft plan might emerge, and I was made a member as the representative of the Faculty Deans. A draft plan duly emerged and we had a meeting to discuss it. The draft was very long, and was divided into several sections, each dealing with the key elements of university business: teaching, research, physical infrastructure, and so forth. The discussion, as I recall, was not animated and mainly focused on fairly minor adjustments to the text. When I was invited to comment, I suggested that the whole approach was wrong: strategy was not about trying to describe existing plans and commitments, it was about creating a vision and setting out a framework for prioritisation and action. A plan should use language that was accessible to a wider audience but that would also energise and motivate the university community, and it should be much shorter. The result of these discussions was that, on this occasion, the University of Hull adopted a plan that was quite different from the previous norm.

What I was able to learn from this process influenced my approach to planning in Dublin City University after I became President in 2000. My major hope was that we would have strategic documents that would avoid too much detail and would look to the future in terms that would allow the university to prioritise its decisions on resource allocation, and also tell a story to external partners and stakeholders that would persuade them to back us. While this was still a learning experience – and in particular it was a while before we had a fully effective implementation programme – I believe that the last two DCU strategic plans have had a major impact on how planning is seen in the Irish university sector.

The problem with university strategies is that they have to address the balance between the need for an overall organisational purpose and direction on the one hand, and the need to respect academic autonomy on the other. This is a very difficult balance to get right, but unless it is got right the whole planning concept cannot work. But in all sorts of vital contexts, including the need to be successful in bids for competitive funding, the ability to demonstrate that the university as a whole has a coherent strategic direction and that it will be able to reflect that in prioritising the allocation of its resources (including the ability to withdraw resources where appropriate) is a condition for success.

At one of the very first meetings of Irish university Presidents that I ever attended I suggested that we should all issue a joint statement on an issue then (and now) of vital interest to the university sector. One of the other Presidents declared that he would not be able to declare, on behalf of his university, what its policy was on this issue (or actually on any issue), because there would be no consensus in his university that it should have any overall university-wide policy on anything. Strategy was a matter solely for the departments. We have come some way since then, and I doubt that any of the Presidents would say that now. But there is still a not yet fully developed shared understanding of what a strategy should look like in a university or across the sector.

DCU will be adopting a new strategic plan towards the end of 2008 to follow the last strategy, Leadership through Foresight. The new strategic plan is likely to be short, to contain a small number of key objectives with metrics that will guide implementation, and will address both university and national needs and trends. One of my hopes is that we will receive help from the wider public in the planning process, and I shall certainly be interested in a wide range of views and suggestions as this unfolds. My email address is