Sobre planes estratégicos en las universidades
Mayo 30, 2019
 
May 27th, 2019 – Alex Usher
As our company’s name suggests, we think a lot about strategic planning here at HESA Towers. And after a decade of doing this job, I have come to the conclusion that while most institutions do not spend enough time planning, too many of those that do issue plans are under the mistaken that these plans are in any way strategic.
Let’s start with the first half of that sentence: there is not enough planning in Canadian institutions. Remember, planning is not the same thing as plans. Planning is the systematic scanning of the horizon for possible change/advantage/disadvantage and discussion/gaming of options are in various circumstances. Plans are specific sequences of tasks meant to get an organization from point A to point B.  Dwight Eisenhower is reputed to have said: “plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. Why? Because reality is brittle. Plans can fall apart in the face of small changes in environment. Or, to quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get a punch in the mouth.”
So planning > plans. But is all planning necessarily strategic? Well no. Strategic planning is fundamentally about change. If an institution does not intend to make significant changes, then it probably does not need a strategic plan. It may still need some kind of plan by which senior management can guide and evaluate the work of senior staff, but such a plan is not properly “strategic”. An awful lot of institutional plans out there, to my mind, come under this definition.
(Which is fine. Institutions don’t always need to change. Sometimes they need to consolidate. The trick is knowing whether you need to change or consolidate at the outset of the process.)
Now, precisely because Strategic Planning is about change, the definition of the future state – that is, the end goal to which everyone is working – is the most important part of the Plan. The actions to be taken under the plan can and must be adapted to accommodate ever changing and unforeseeable circumstances (see the Tyson quote above). But the desired end goals need to be clear and very well defined, so that everyone in the organization knows what they are working towards. In turn, what that means is that in a truly strategic plan the vision and mission statements – this is the bits that many institutions (and most universities) treat as the disposable, pro forma stuff – are actually the most important bits.
(This is, in fact, a general rule of thumb in reading strat plans: if the vision/mission statements are boring/uninteresting/cookie cutter/contain the word excellence, nine times out of ten it’s a worthless strat plan).
Unfortunately, “change” in higher education is usually seen as requiring gobs more money. This is why many strategic plans don’t amount to much more than “we are going to do X to get pots of money and we are going to turn around and spend it on Y”. But, with respect, you don’t have to be all that bright to buy change in an educational institution. The point of strategy is to effect change in the most efficient manner possible – that is, without pots of money (or perhaps just with very little pots). It is about finding ways to concentrate the efforts and resources of an institution in specific ways so that it can achieve greater results than it otherwise would. This means making specific and sometimes quite difficult choices in terms of prioritization.
Again, not every plan needs to make choices. There are lot of good managerial reasons to draw up plans to guide the work of an organization that wants to maintain the status quo. That’s fine. It’s just not strategic. And organizations shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that it is.
(I can hear some objections now: and yes, sometimes for marketing/government relations reasons an institution may want to call a plan “strategic” so that it looks to the outside world like something is happening when in fact it isn’t. I get that. I just think that since you can get ordinary plans done a lot faster than you can get strategic plans done, you could probably save everyone a lot of time and energy internally by not pretending something is more grandiose than it actually is)
Finally, strategy is about narrative. The point of a Strategic Plan is to keep everyone in the organization focussed on a handful of targets regardless of what they are doing. That means there needs to be a version of the plan which is short (so that everyone in the organization can explain what goals they are trying to fulfill) and compelling (it resonates with the what Burton Clark called the Organizational Saga – that is, incorporates a story of change and improvement that resonates with staff based on their own experiences with the institution). Work plans do not need Sagas; but strategic plans do, if they are to achieve their mission. If the employees don’t buy the Saga and the story it tells about the organization’s people and its culture, it ain’t getting done, no matter how much the Board and the Administration like it.

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