Planificar en la universidad: de regreso a Mintzberg
Febrero 2, 2022

Captura de pantalla 2016-06-01 a las 16.49.46University Strategy Safari

January 27, 2022 | Alex Usher
I recently had the pleasure of reading the book Strategy Safari by Henry Mintzberg, Bruch Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel. It’s both an interesting overview of the history of strategic planning and a taxonomy of strategic planning styles. Of course, I read it with a view to thinking about how planning works in universities and colleges and found it says some interesting things about how universities and colleges think about planning and where there is room for improvement.
Strategy is not the same thing as “Strategic Planning” and still less “Strategic Plans”. Strategy is a pattern of behaviour undertaken by individuals or groups to maximize whatever it is they are trying to maximize. Strategy often emerged without planning, but over the last couple of centuries – first the military, then politicians (mainly on the revolutionary side) and then businesses began to conceive of strategy as something that should emerge deliberately through a process of deliberate planning. Three main original schools of planning – the “design”, planning” and “positioning” schools – are all top-down schools which assume that strategy is something issued on high by charismatic leaders or diligent planners/analysts. These strategy schools stem from a more military-influenced conception of strategy (not unnaturally, this was common in the couple of decades after WWII) in which strategy was the job of the top general alone (the Design school) or the corporate equivalent of a military general staff (the Planning and Positioning schools). They also all assume (more or less) that decision-making is rational, potential external environmental factors can be foreseen and analyzed, and that institutional cultures are mostly irrelevant.
In their pure form, these strategic styles are not that common. Over the last few decades, several other schools for analyzing strategy emerged (though not all of them are actually schools for creating strategy). These analytic movements – which Mintzberg et al call the Entrepreneurial, Cognitive, Learning, Power, Cultural, Environmental and Configuration Schools of Strategy, concentrate less on the making and more on the interpretation of strategy: strategy as a response to the environment, strategy as a power struggle between factions within an organization, etc.
So, what does all this have to do with higher education planning in universities?
Most universities and colleges implicitly follow a mix of the “design” and “planning” schools of strategy – like the former, they tend to use SWOT analyses and distinctive competencies, but like the latter, they tend to seek incremental improvement, not big strategic leaps (the “positioning” school is more focussed on market dominance, which is of no interest to any educational institution). But core to both these schools are specialized analytically driven professional cadres doing lots environmental scans and working out on the basis of these how to proceed. This is not how university and college strategic planning typically happens.
University and college strategic plans tend to have a major participatory element. This is arguably an outcome of “power” configurations within institutions: faculty and staff at these institutions are generally strong enough to prevent formal strategy from being formulated without them. And the manner in which consultations are usually conducted represents Mintzberg’s “culture” school – heavily emphasizing values and collectivity, and often stifling any radical moves because the desire to achieve consensus makes it difficult to embark on genuinely new paths.
You may have noted the irony that one of the few schools I have yet to mention with respect to strategy at post-secondary institutions: “learning”. Again, this is not a school of planning, but rather a way of finding strategy through conscious attempts to derive meaning from experience (e.g. experimenting with new product lines).   But this implies that universities and colleges have habits that i) encourage them to try new things, ii) gather information about the success/failure of said new things, iii) admit failure and iv) learn from failure to generate insight into future strategies. In practice, post-secondary institutions are ok at i), hit-and-miss at ii) and with only very rare exceptions, ill-equipped to achieve either iii) or iv).
What this highlights is that post-secondary institutions are mostly bad at is synthesis, which is not surprising because no one is formally tasked with doing the synthesizing (I suspect in practice that Presidents probably synthesize quite a bit, but in most cases – at Canadian institutions anyway – they have limited ability to turn their synthesis into action on their own). How many institutions have actual formal processes where key decision-makers and people of influence actually sit down every few months and ask questions like: “where have we had success in the last few months? Where have we had failures? How should these things inform what we do going forward?” These kinds of structures exist at the department/program level, but a) they often operate on a scale of 5-7 rather than 6 months and b) they are not replicated at the level of the institution. At one level, this is because many academic staff don’t believe that institutional priorities have much to do with them and so simply don’t invest a lot of attention to change at any level above the local; but at another, it is because there are a lot of pressures within institutions not to learn, and not to change.
All of which leads to a few conclusions:
  • In practice, most universities’ strategies amount to “keep doing what we are doing now, but with more money”, which is why most universities’ strategies are in one way or another about income generation (this is less true of colleges, which in general are less tied to the status quo).
  •  Institutional strategic plans, which are distinct from strategies, are – for a variety of reasons but above all the use of consensus-driven consultation techniques which tend to drive strategy towards the status quo – usually more about planning than they are about strategy.
  • Given that plans are more about (incremental) planning than they are about (larger) strategic visions, it is remarkable how weak the integration is between strategic plans and budgets.
  • It is wild how little attention universities in particular pay to actual structured institutional learning as a way of honing strategic direction. Like, absolutely freaking wild.
There’s an old quote attributed (probably wrongly) to Dwight Eisenhower about how plans aren’t worth a damn, but the act of planning is invariably helpful. Similarly, post-secondary institutions put too much effort developing plans, and not enough into continuous planning and the learning that accompanies it. Instead of being weirdly shackled to some century-old Communist doctrines around five-year plans, it would be interesting if one or two institutions simply stopped doing big, set-piece, consultation plans, and started doing continuous planning.  It’s a worthwhile experiment.

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