Strategy, events and the rocky road ahead

It’s cheap these days to say that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” given lack of stability in politics, economics and wider society. One response to this complexity and uncertainty can be passivity: do nothing until the landscape becomes clear.

A more proactive approach is to identify strategies that have longer-term validity, and refine them tactically as the environment changes. As Durham University’s John Pritchard put it in the planners’ guide: “While the future is necessarily uncertain, establishing a more thorough, professional approach to institutional strategy development will be essential if the journey ahead is to be navigated successfully.”

Strategic thinking

Wonkhe, HESPA and EY-Parthenon collaborated on an event in December 2017: Developing university strategies – why is it different in the new world, and what new approaches do you need? When we asked participants what was concerning them most about the world of strategy, short- and longer-term uncertainty was a key theme, as was the capacity and resources for strategy development within institutions. When we asked about the barriers to developing strategies, delegates added that institutional values, the importance of culture change, and differentiating a university’s offer from others’ were key challenges.

When we heard from the vice chancellors of the universities of Lincoln and Durham, the overriding conclusion was that strategy must be appropriate for the institution’s specific context: does the approach serve the geography, history, culture and trajectory of the university? How can institutions make the most of their unique qualities to maximise their advantages? While younger and older institutions may have different needs and priorities, they can be equally ambitious for the communities they serve.

This mirrors lessons from other sectors: strategy development represents choices about what to do and – just as importantly – what not to do. These choices need to be grounded in evidence-based judgements about where the sector is heading and the purpose and strengths of the organisation. Typically in HE, institutions will subsidise their weakest activities with their strongest: often the boldest choices are to stop doing something to allow you to really invest in your strengths.

Scanning the horizon

When HESPA members met for the association’s 2018 annual conference at the University of Strathclyde in February, key themes emerging from the discussions included:

Elevating strategy: Strategy and planning have often been seen as synonymous, and in the absence of a market they often can appear so. However, in a more volatile market, strategy and planning diverge along different timeframes: you can’t plan in detail for five years or longer from now but you’d better have a clear strategy over that timeframe. The choices and decisions at that level are typically taken at the top table: strategists needs to be at that table to inform, provoke and problem-solve

Informing strategy and decision making with data-driven insight: Understanding the notion that data can lead to information, and then to knowledge was seen to be critical to the way in which strategic plans are informed, developed and carried out. Raw data alone was referenced as useless if it was not synthesised into genuine insight. Planners have historically been responsible for collecting and returning data, but the role of strategic planner carries with it a more analytical and communicative function. The strategic analysis of data and subsequent presentation of knowledge and insight is integral to developing strategy and informing decisions and the increasing number of strategy professionals in the sector do well to carry some of these skills as well as the ability to see the more top level bigger picture.

Culture and staff engagement: It was discussed that understanding of and belief in institutional strategy must be felt across the whole institution if it is to succeed. A strategy is more than a document or a plan to do or achieve something. It is a culture to be adopted and supported by everyone, no matter what their role or how closely connected they are to actually devising or implementing the strategy. This is a challenge for universities, which are large complex institutions containing a wide variety of staff types, levels and remits.

Managing aversion to change: Universities are operating within a state of political flux and change is afoot, whether they like it or not. Many universities are large, traditional institutions for which comfortably managing change is not an inherent trait. Even for smaller or more modern institutions, change can be difficult. Whether due to fear of the unknown, or a loss of control, instinctively humans resist change and the sector therefore has its work cut out to ensure that staff are equipped with the relevant skills and feel confident to manage the changes ahead, many of which are unavoidable.

Keeping perspective: Getting past the day-to-day grind to see the bigger picture, and why it’s important, can be difficult. Many staff who are responsible for implementing strategic plans and monitoring their progress may be aligned to short term work and projects, so keeping perspective and seeing the long road ahead is difficult, but essential. Even for strategy professionals, increasing external pressure and burden can make keeping long-term perspective very hard. Political change can happen overnight, but a strategy needs to be resilient to this and contain the fundamentals for the success of the institution, however uncertain its environment.

While the forces of marketisation may force universities to be more competitive and less collaborative, these are cross-cutting themes on which the sector can work together to identify innovative solutions. Looking ahead, the external context for universities may not get simpler in the next few months. In England, the post-18 funding review looms large and the burdens of OfS’s regulatory framework will eat up significant capacity for “big picture” thinking in universities. Funding, Brexit and the spillover effects of change in England are key themes for institutions in the devolved administrations.

With all this happening, do you need a good strategy? Yes, now more than ever.

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