September 2009

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Can a Strategic Plan’s Performance Be Improved?

Joan Cortadellas Angel - Technical Director of the UNESCO Chair on University Management of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC)

In a study which we conducted a couple of years ago at the UNESCO Chair on University Management of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia on the state of strategic management at the Spanish universities, we reached the conclusion that over 80% of these universities were making their way within the frame of a strategic project. Indeed, at that time some were already unfolding their second or third strategic plan, many were carrying out their first plan and some were preparing it.

The decisive question which we posed ourselves was "Is the fact of having a strategic plan serving any purpose?". In order to obtain a reliable answer, we began an investigation which we are now concluding, analysing the impact that the strategic plans have had at each university. We have by now observed numerous signs which allow us to affirm that in many cases (and we hope to be able to concretise the number) the strategic plan has only served to make a diagnosis of the current situation, to identify possibilities of improvement in the future, to put the organisation into a bit of order, and that is all. Perhaps the strategic plan has mobilised a considerable number of persons and has helped to renew their enthusiasm, but the effects have faded away very quickly and in no few cases it has left a wake of scepticism and disappointment because, while many expectations had been raised, at the moment of truth almost everything has remained undone.

Unfortunately, this does not happen at our universities alone. Kaplan and Norton assure that only 10% of the organisations which come to establish a strategic plan are capable of implementing it effectively. Faced with this affirmation, I believe that there are only two possible conclusions: one is that the strategic plan is a magnificent tool in theory alone since in practice there is no way to make it work well. The other conclusion would be that there must be something which is being done quite poorly when it comes to applying the tool, something which causes it not to be useful and even to be counterproductive. Having collaborated with a considerable number of Spanish universities on the preparation of their strategic plans, I am inclined to think that the second conclusion is the right one. In this respect I am in agreement with the analysis made by Lawrence Hrebiniak in his book entitled Making Strategy Work.

What are we doing wrong? I will try to offer some clues.

In the first place, at our universities it is necessary to assure a total institutional support. It is necessary to verify that the crystal-clear wish and firm and explicit intention of the organisation's management on deciding to establish a strategic plan is to apply it and not only to possess it.

Although this should be obvious, it is something that goes wrong at many universities. In expressing this I have sought to use quite forceful words so as not to leave any room for doubt: total support, crystal-clear wish, firm and explicit intention. The institutional support must be total because if the process of preparing a plan is a long and delicate one, the process of its implementation is even more so.

On some occasions I have mentioned that it would be necessary to apply the well-known motto which is shared by all the "human tower" groups of Catalonia: "Força, equilibri, valor i seny" (strength, balance, courage and good sense). The management team must apply strength on making decisions and it must be seen to be strongly convinced so as not to confirm the objections adduced by a substantial number of people who have doubts about the plan or of the people who do not at all believe in its usefulness. Balance must be assured on promoting the various strategic lines in order to avoid falling into the trap of unduly inclining or biasing the university, something that may perhaps cause ground to be lost in sectors in which it had already been won, without guarantees of compensating it in new sectors. Courage is necessary to face all the difficulties which are encountered along the way, above all in the implementation phase of the plan. It is necessary to rise up again each time one falls and to begin again without flagging. Lastly, when we speak of good sense, we mean that things cannot be done in just any way at all... the plan must be prepared well so that it may subsequently be implemented and so that its implementation will entail a clear improvement of the organisation. It is essential to do things in a competent orderly way, without haste and without trying to take on more than one can manage, in order not to arouse false expectations since, if the plan is not prepared sufficiently well, it is hardly probable that it will later be implemented well.

Now, applying the value of good sense, I would like to explain the methodology that we follow when other universities entrust our Chair with the job of providing help and advice on the process of preparing a strategic plan, and I hope that the following guidelines may be useful.

We always request a meeting with the top managers, that is to say, the vice-chancellor and his or her team, because we consider it absolutely indispensable to learn the reason for which it is wished to establish a strategic plan and to verify the degree to which these people are convinced that the plan will be a useful tool. If we find that the main reason lacks firmness, along the lines that "all the universities have one", or that it stems only from an external imposition, along the lines that "the Government is compelling us", or even that these expressions are accompanied by remarks such as "I know it serves no purpose" or "I do not believe in these things", on more than one occasion we have chosen to advise clearly against the preparation of the plan because the truth is that it is almost sure not to serve any purpose. Not to have the involvement and the complicity of the top managers would mean that the university community is like an unorganised body of troops in which the soldiers discover that their commanding officer does not believe in the operation which they are to carry out.

If we were to speak of "prior conditions", the first of all would be the commitment of the top management, but there are others, including the possibility of forming a working group, which we call the Planning Committee, in which all the collectives are represented; the willingness to devote a number of hours of work over the course of period of about six months; the establishment of a small technical team which will accompany all the steps of the process and provide help in the implementation phase; the availability of financial resources which can be used to stimulate the units and persons who undertake a commitment, and lastly, the circumstance of being coherent with the conviction that the most important and most difficult aspect of a plan is its performance.

The first activity that we carry out with the Planning Committee is a training symposium opened by the vice-chancellor, who underscores the importance of the process which the university proposes to begin since, in the end, "its future is at stake". It is very important that the vice-chancellor should state publicly his or her commitment to become involved, requesting quite seriously that all should do the same. We provide information on how the whole process will unfold, explaining each of the steps which we will take, concretising the calendar of the working sessions, and specifying approaches and terminology in order to assure that we will all speak the same language, while seeking to establish a relationship of mutual trust, something which is very important so that we are not perceived as intruders.

Some institutions have succeeded in sensitising the whole university community by means of an open session at the start of the overall process, affixing posters everywhere and providing information on their websites.

In the first working sessions with the Planning Committee, we centre ourselves on the mission and the values of the university. The mission is the university's reason for being and the values are the features which characterise its way of working. This may seem an unnecessary and rhetorical exercise but we are becoming increasingly convinced that it is indispensable and we have been able to verify that leading organisations at world level make this action a fundamental line of their activity and a reference point for the making of their strategic decisions.

Then we do four exercises: first, a SWOT analysis, that is to say, an identification of the main Strengths and Weaknesses of the university and of the main Opportunities and Threats which may be observed in the surroundings. Secondly, an identification of the requirements of the "interest groups" or "stakeholders", in which we reach consensus on which are the internal and external agents interested in the good functioning of the university, such as teachers, students, families, businessmen, professional associations, the public administration, the social leaders, etc., and we seek to discover what they expect of the university. The third exercise is an analysis of some of the critical factors which may influence positively or negatively the development of the university, specifically in political, economic, social, technological and legal aspects and in those characteristic of the university system. Lastly, the fourth definitive exercise is the definition of the scenario which is considered most probable in the evolution over the coming years. Even though it is impossible to be completely right about it, this is a reference point for changing the strategy if a significant change is observed in the scene.

Before beginning to prepare the vision, we distribute all the university's activity into a few strategic lines, of which there are usually between five and ten. There are two, in particular, which always come up: training and research. Others may be university extension, management, services, people, students, financial resources, relations with society, internationalisation, information system, etc. All the strategic lines are always inter-related but it is practical to approach them separately as long as each one is not turned into a closed aspect impermeable to the rest.

Once the strategic lines have been concretised, we draft the vision for each one, that is to say, we consider what we would like the university to be like in that aspect in five years, and then we seek to combine them and synthesize them into a single vision. This is the time for imagining, dreaming or sketching out a university in which it would be a pleasure to work.

The vision, however, should not remain a mere dream, but rather it must be assured that it is attainable, even if it would require a large effort. For this reason it is necessary to begin to concretise what the university will do to achieve it, identifying in each strategic line one or two major strategic objectives which will form the centre of attention on specifying operative objectives and actions.

Up to here we carry out all the work with the Planning Committee. On reaching this point, however, we open the process to the whole university community and organise, for each strategic line, a workshop for which everyone may register. These workshops have two parts: in the first part information is provided on the work carried out, even though the main elements, such as the mission, the values, the vision and the objectives, have already been made available to everyone on an intranet from the outset. In the second part the participants are asked to suggest actions through which they think it will be possible to achieve the objectives. This is when we begin to think that the strategic plan will indeed be a useful tool, because the university does not only know which objectives it wishes to achieve but also starts to know what it will do to achieve them, and on this path the top management is no longer alone.

All the proposed actions are gathered while still in rough form and then a small group of four or five persons for each strategic line must begin to structure the balanced scorecards. To this end the first thing that they have to do is to rearrange the proposed actions, placing them under the most appropriate objective, eliminating repetitions, and joining those which are similar, in order to structure small projects and then make a selection by applying an IUF analysis, that is to say, assessing each action according to its importance, urgency and feasibility. In this task it may happen that the team which carries out the review is overly optimistic and includes an excessive number of actions, but in the concretisation of the following elements of the scorecard it will find two filters which will oblige it to be completely realistic. The first filter goes into operation when the team is to concretise the person who will be in charge of each selected action, because we do not allow any one person to undertake more than two actions. Clearly enough, this ends up being a limitation on the scope of the plan but reality imposes itself in this way: to pretend that persons who are already busy are to deal with more than two additional activities is almost the same thing as assuring that they will not be able to handle it all and that the activities will remain undone.

Once the Planning Committee has decided which actions will be started up and who should be put in charge of them, each little committee for each strategic line will call these people and explain the task involved, proposing that they take charge of it. It is very important that these action managers should accept the task, not with resignation but with hopefulness. If the respective person does not accept the task because he or she considers it to be an excessive load, does not feel sufficiently prepared or does not have the minimum necessary time for it, it is preferable for the team to find another person or to eliminate the action because it is quite obvious that an action of which no one is in charge will not come to be carried out in the end. For this reason this is the first reality filter.

If the proposed person accepts the task, he or she is requested to submit a short project in a brief period of time, explaining what will be done, when it will be done and with who it will be done, as well as which indicators should be measured, which goals should be achieved, which monitoring and assessment methodology will be applied and which resources will be required. All these elements form the balanced scorecard, extending from the strategic and operative objectives to monitoring and assessment.

The resources column acts as a second reality filter. Unfortunately, when all the necessary resources are added up and valued monetarily, the result is often an unattainable figure. If this is the case, it is necessary to make a painful but necessary decision: the goals must be reduced, certain actions must be eliminated or the calendar must be extended. Logically the reduction should not begin with the costliest actions but rather with those which are least important or urgent.

Lastly, the team presents the complete proposal of the balanced scorecard of each strategic line to the whole Planning Committee in order to assure that it can be approved after obtaining an overall vision of it. This marks the end of the task of the Planning Committee and all that remains is the approval of the plan by the pertinent governing body. We always recommend that it should be given the maximum formality and that there should be the greatest commitment on the part of the top management, and this is why this part of the process often ends with another informative session open to the whole university community.

We also believe that, as far as it is possible, the plan should receive the maximum dissemination, not only within the university but also outside it, informing the most interested social agents, not so much to obtain their opinions but rather to go about strengthening the commitment of performance and assessment in order to achieve the highest level of fulfilment.

If all this is done well, with rigour, being very careful not to advance in leaps and bounds or to leave inconsistencies along the way, we believe that success is assured. If it is done poorly, attempting to progress very quickly, or contenting oneself, as we have been told on occasion, with a "lightweight plan", failure is assured and this would be serious both from the organisational standpoint, because the institution would remain adrift, and from the ethical standpoint, because one will have played with people's hopes, which are the only element possessing a true value in the universities.


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