The Need for Strategic Planning in Academia
Strategic planning is defined as the process of determining a company’s or an institution’s long-term objectives, then identifying the best approach to achieve those objectives. It is a continual improvement process that effectively monitors performance against goals, analyzes achievements and shortfalls, and adjusts activity to accomplish the desired results. Corporate America has used strategic planning models since the 1950s, modifying and adapting them over time to meet new challenges. Yet only in the last decade has it become a cornerstone for decision-making at educational institutions.
More people than ever are enrolling in colleges and universities. However, with greater decreases in federal funding, as well as increasing demands for student services and aid, faculty services, technology, and learning options, the pressures to manage all of these factors fall on the institutions’ leadership. Higher education institutions need strong strategic planning to keep them optimally performing in today’s competitive environment. The same challenges affecting institutions overall also hold true for information technology departments; thus, raising the demand and need for strategic planning in higher education, especially for IT.
Higher education leaders are increasingly looking to IT departments to solve problems and be the strong force behind changes. In the EDUCAUSE annual research on current IT issues within higher education, strategic planning for IT ranked fourth. One of the reasons stated for this shift is that “information technology is vital to the effective operation of the institution” (Spicer et al. 2004). Therefore, it is critical for an institution’s strategic plan to be supported and made successful by a strong IT strategic plan.
Vermont State Colleges (VSC) recognized the need for a strategic plan to align the five institutions that make up its system: Castleton State College, Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College and Vermont Technical College. Within the overall strategic plan for the system, VSC also needed a strong and adaptive IT strategy that would keep its schools competitive, as well as allow them to provide services to their constituents within their resources. After an IT evaluation was done by the IT Task Force representing the five schools and the chancellor’s office, recommendations were made for areas of improvement. With strong executive support and overall institutionwide support, VSC’s need for an IT strategic plan was evident.
One major challenge to VSC was that each institution had a separate IT department. There was no integration of data, and the college system’s office was unable to receive the reports it needed to make critical decisions. Each institution also had an outdated administrative system, so the need for total integration became overwhelming. VSC knew it had to standardize the IT personnel at each institution by categorizing their titles and responsibilities, so it chose a new enterprise resource planning solution - one that would meet the needs of its five institutions and 12 locations. It then restructured the way services were provided and set up a central virtual help desk.
VSC had many positive outcomes from its strategic planning process. It changed the way that IT projects were prioritized, making sure resources were best utilized. The system used a “pyramid ranking system” to help define services. Projects that fell into the bottom of the pyramid were the most common and standardized. VSC also supported using a “shared services” approach, which gave individual schools little autonomy in the choice of products and services. Projects at the top of the pyramid were institution-specific (e.g., support for a precise academic program), uniquely supported, and subject to great autonomy at institutions. In addition, VSC started allocating different IT divisions responsibility for certain tasks, such as a portal or help desk.
Developing the Plan
In July, VSC created six IT Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to benchmark its strategic plan. It found that with the new integration, pulling reports for data analysis and focusing on metrics was much easier. VSC will use this data to focus on the nature of problems, where they originated from (the institutions or office), as well as the time and resources needed to solve the problems. By reviewing these KPIs, VSC will be better able to adapt its IT plan to provide the best services and technologies to the system.
A critical issue with any strategic plan is the way an organization embraces the process. If it is viewed as a goal to develop “the plan,” then the plan will be developed and will end up in an electronic folder or on a bookshelf collecting dust. But if it is viewed as an ongoing process in which individuals are engaged in the continual improvement journey, the plan will become the road map to follow (and modify as the environment changes) to successfully achieve its goals.
A strategic plan needs to be systematic and measurable, with decisions based on precise data that allow for creative adaptations. Three simple questions should be answered in a strategic plan: Where are we? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? VSC used these questions to better understand its needs. VSC successfully created and deployed a systematic approach that incorporated all areas of its institutions. This approach carried an objective and flexible view that supported the institutions’ overall goals.
Strategic planning can be compared to sailing: If you set sail without a planned destination and the wind changes, it will not affect your plans - you will just go where the wind takes the boat and enjoy the day. However, if you set sail with a destination in mind (mission, purpose and goal) and the wind changes (monitor environment and performance), you will compensate for the wind and re-chart your course to reach your destination (measure performance, adjust activities and achieve your goal). With strategic planning, an institution is positioned to monitor the environment, measure performance against goals, adjust yearly plans and achieve desired results.
In the end, it is the constituents that will ultimately benefit from effective strategic planning, reaching the ultimate goal of a higher education; then, in turn, educating their posterity.
Spicer, D., P. DeBlois, and the EDUCAUSE Current Issues Committee. 2004. “Current IT Issues: 2004.” EDUCAUSE Review 39 (3). Online: www.educause.edu/pub/er/erm04/erm043.asp.
7 Steps for Developing a Strategic Planning Process
- Identify mission
- Develop goals
- Develop cross-functional team
- Initiate environmental scan
- Assess internal resources
- Review external data
- Continually analyze the strategic plan and outcomes
This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.