The Strategic Planning Process for Higher Learning Institutions Has Never Been More Crucial

Performance outcomes are directly a result of a sound (or unsound) strategic plan

I recently read an article (third in a series) in the November 22, 2019 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Admin 101: Tips on Carrying Out Your Strategic Plan.” The author, David D. Perlmutter, a professor and dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, readily admits that “one of the great paradoxes of higher-education leadership is that most of us who find ourselves in administrative positions have not studied the kind of work we end up doing on a day-to-day basis. We manage budgets without understanding financial theories. We work with people but never learned interpersonal communication principles. And we carry out new strategic plans without even looking at the research on the relationship between planning and performance outcomes.”

Professor Perlmutter goes on to say that “this is a call for higher standards and deeper thinking about strategic planning in higher education.” Furthermore, he stresses the importance of measurable goals and the need for accountability when carrying out a strategic plan.

And while Perlmutter provides some very meaningful examples, I am not sure that a standard strategic plan for a higher education institution will get you where you want to go! So, before we start working on a plan, let’s think a little about the changing educational environment.

Today’s educational environment is radically changing

At Simon Associates Management Consultants (SAMC), we are Blue Ocean Strategists®. This highly successful business approach contends that to be able to compete in today’s world, you need to discover consumers’ (or in this case, students’) unmet needs and then create ways to fulfill them, as the world changes all around you. These changes are especially true in higher education, where there are two very important factors that must be considered.

The first factor deals with demographics. The traditional base of college-ready students is eroding. As a result, higher learning institutions are reaching an inflection point. If they do not recognize this and have not planned for this sea change, they are already in trouble or will be shortly.

The second critical factor to consider is relevancy. The cost of a higher education degree is extremely high. Everyone, including college students, needs a return on investment. Consequently, if you graduate with a degree, can’t find anything but a minimum wage job and are servicing a lot of debt, watch out!

The need for new thinking…now!

If you think about the above two factors, developing a strategic plan without considering the degree to which they are going to affect your institution is probably a mistake. I have always liked the phrase: “It is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Using it here is certainly appropriate so please, if you have blinders on, take them off!

As an aside, several years ago, I was at a conference of college presidents and someone from Google said: “Why do you need colleges? Everything you need to know, you can Google.” Well, perhaps that is an overstatement but there is certainly a need for new and non-conventional thinking to ensure a continuous base of new students in these changing times. In other words, how do you provide today’s learners with relevant skills that fulfill unmet needs which they will be able to use upon graduation?

What we have learned that you probably need to learn as well

Based on our experience working with higher education institutions over the years, if you are charged with developing a strategic plan, this is what you should think about:

  1. Ownership of the plan must be at the highest level in your organization. It is your plan, not the consultant’s. Your consultant can be an important facilitator, but it is your plan and must be your plan at the executive levels of your institution. Any plan written and developed by the consultant without leadership simply will not stand up. I say that because at a higher education institution, there are so many touch points that it really must be the institutional leadership that takes control of the plan for it to be effective.
  2. You must understand the potential of real pain. Most people will not change unless they experience pain. In higher ed, it is institutional leadership that must feel the pain or anticipated pain. They are the ones who must drive the process and advocate for change and, for that matter, make the hard choices that are always necessary as they try to change their institution with limited resources.
  3. The external environment is critical to your internal plan. As I stated earlier, higher education needs to recognize that the demographics of traditional students are changing. There are less of them, and the questions of who you are going to attract and how you are going to attract them become paramount. This is certainly not a difficult concept to understand but you would be surprised how many college provosts, chancellors and presidents are in denial.
  4. Hearing pain is critical to developing a plan. At higher learning institutions, those in charge tend to intellectualize the problem. This is not good enough because it minimizes the sense of urgency. Sitting at a desk and writing a plan just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Listening to both current and potential users (students) and understanding their needs is critical to developing a successful plan. Discover what keeps your potential customer (and I use this term deliberately) up at night.
  5. Everyone’s involvement is vital. Everyone involved in the execution of a plan should be a contributor to it. If it is to be successfully implemented, everyone across the organization needs to buy in and have an opportunity to participate. As humans, we generally hate change because it takes a lot of energy to move away from our comfort zone. It is much easier to get people to change if they are part of the process. So, getting everyone into the same boat is paramount.
  6. Take small steps. Small successes are terribly important. Once a plan is written, agreed to and moving forward, it can’t be put into place all at once. You need priorities. Ask yourself: What is immediately doable, what requires development and what is a big idea that we just can’t do right now? Small successes make people feel good. They are also actionable and point to success. And by the way, as Dr. Perlmutter said in his Chronicle article, the goals must be accountable and measurable.
  7. Senior leaders. Leadership is important. People in charge of the strategic process are critical to its success. Yet, unless the chief executive officer (president) of the institution is leading the charge, the probability of success is reduced.
  8. Keep your eye on the prize. Keep your focus on the deliverable. In academia, there are a lot of things going on each day. Strategic planning or implementing a strategic plan is just one in a stack of things. So, delegate responsibility and understand the capacity of the players.

To learn how Blue Ocean Strategy can help higher ed achieve measurable strategic success, we offer this blog, white paper, podcast and webinar

Want to create a strategic plan that will take you into the future? We can help.

At Simon Associates Management Associates (SAMC), we have considerable experience developing strategic plans for higher education institutions using Blue Ocean Strategy techniques. As well as the blog mentioned above, we’ve written a number of other highly informative blogs on the subject. Let us know if they spark some ideas which you can apply to your organization. In addition, if you would like a copy of a case study or to have a discussion about how we could help your institution overcome the challenges facing you today, please contact us.

From Observation to Innovation,


Andy Simon
Partner, Simon Associates Management Consultants 

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