Thought Paper by Dr. Jim Moran
After designing strategic plans, we often ask: Are we all on the same page? Or are we all headed in the same direction? One of the key issues that systems or universities face in achieving their intended outcomes is whether all units are working in concert.
As upper-level administrators, we diligently work with our constituencies up and down the organization to set operational and achievable goals. Yet, we must realize that the actual work toward achieving those goals is made “on the ground” by dedicated staff and faculty who have goals of their own. The task, then, is how to gather information and data that recognizes efforts that propels us to larger goals without undermining the goals of individual units. Towards this end, we need to develop a structure that creates strategic plans for the overall system or university and seamlessly integrates these plans with the strategic plans of our subunits, be it institutions, schools, colleges, or departments.
I have witnessed various approaches at different universities. In some cases, the president or chancellor requests each unit to detail what they are doing to meet the intended outcomes set out by the university itself—sometimes requiring the unit to address each of the 53 goals outlined in the university strategic plan.
In my experience, what typically happens in such cases is that units tend to provide brief responses, merely fulfilling the request without truly aligning with each of the outcomes—some of which may not have significant relevance to the unit.
At times, the unit may lack the specific data to adequately respond. In one example, the university articulated a goal to increase federal research funding but didn’t separate federal dollars from other research grants and contracts in their reports to deans and chairs. Furthermore, this goal was only relevant to specific departments on campus that could genuinely compete for federal grants.
Experience has led me to believe that a more effective approach to tracking and detailing progress in the overall strategic plan at the system or university level is to ask each unit to create its own strategic plan and then integrate these plans with the overall strategic plan.
Each individual plan should identify desired outcomes, actions to achieve those outcomes, a periodic assessment of the results of those actions, and a subsequent re-evaluation of the next steps based on that analysis to help generate relevant information.
Using data relevant to the unit enhances the odds of yielding meaningful data and information for improvement. In this way, the outcomes and actions will hold value for the individual unit and, in turn, produce more usable information.
A structure that allows each unit to identify which of their actions and outcomes connect to or have relevance for the larger system’s strategic plan provides the mechanism for adequate reporting on progress towards the broader strategic plan, especially if the relevant information contains both anecdotal stories and hard data. Note that not every outcome for individual units needs to connect to the broader strategic plan, but some are certainly expected to do so. Individual units will, and perhaps should, have unique efforts to advance the success of their units.
However, I have seen a case where none of the individual units have outcomes or actions that connect to a specific goal in the broader strategic plan. In that case, one might want to consider whether that goal is appropriate or whether a communication strategy needs to be employed to demonstrate the relevance of that goal. Nonetheless, the level of connectedness is a data point in itself that should prompt action.
Such a structure becomes even more valuable if it is searchable. That is, if one can search for a term such as “student success” and receive a report of all units working towards that goal, including the specific actions taken and even the demonstrated success of those actions. Such a structure that allows for identifying successful strategies also encourages the sharing of those strategies across individual units to leverage that success. Units can and should learn from each other, despite the sometimes siloed environment within an institution or the competitive nature of units seeking recognition or funding enhancements. The ability to compile both data and select stories enhances the capacity to influence boards and the public about the efforts for real and continuous improvement.
This thought paper aims to propel higher education strategic plans from the shelf to the daily calendar through a focus on higher education data-informed improvement. The structures outlined here are relevant at any level of an organization—for systems, institutions, schools, colleges, student affairs, and other offices reporting to a vice president or director. The intent is to ensure all units, while unique in their individual needs and goals, are also seamlessly connected to the broader effort. The intent is to acknowledge that while upper administration may set broader goals, the work toward success occurs in the individual units. The challenge lies in providing for this connectedness, devising easily generated reports, and yielding relevant information for improvement with a tool that is relatively easy to use up and down throughout the organization.