Almost every institution of higher education has a strategic plan, but how many institutions actually make use of that plan? According to Wayne Smutz, dean of continuing education and extension for UCLA, not many. Yet an institution’s strategic plan can be a powerful tool for spurring it to action. At the recent University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) West 2015 Regional Conference, Smutz detailed a seven-point plan for constructing and using the institutional strategic plan for change.
Step 1: Set the Context
In Smutz’s experience, the strategic plan’s value begins with communicating why the staff should care about the planning process. In the case of UCLA, the university was facing a decline in public funding of and confidence in higher education, escalating student debt, and an erosion of public confidence. It was clear the institution could not continue with the status quo but must be ready to change. This set the context for planning.
For example, the institution faces many societal forces, including the rise of a global, knowledge-based economy in which individuals are likely to have 3–7 careers in their lifetimes. By the year 2020, some two-thirds of jobs will require some college, but a skills gap means there won’t be enough qualified individuals to fill these roles. Higher education also faces a number of challenges, including an increased emphasis on performance and accountability, changes in technology, and changes in student expectations.
Step 2: Define the Process and Build Ownership
Next, UCLA Extension engaged in “planning for strategic planning.” This involved inviting all staff members, some instructors, and some UCLA administrators to participate in the strategic planning process, a step intended to create buy-in. In addition, Smutz called on an outside source, Strategic Initiatives, a consulting firm from Virginia, to help. “Our approach was narrowing down [our options] to what was possible and then making changes over time,” he says. The team started with some 700 ideas contributed from university constituents, which were then developed into four strategic action priorities and 13 individual actions that the university would work on over time.
Step 3: Produce the Plan
These four strategic action priorities surround a central vision statement, “We will engage the power of education to transform lives, business, and communities worldwide.” They also support the mission, “We create extraordinary learning experiences for adults.”
The four strategic action priorities are as follows:
- Collaborate with partners
- Extend our reach
- Serve students first
- Reimagine learning
Each item is given a priority order for when it will be addressed, and each is supported by three or four actions.
Step 4: Package the Plan
Not only was the content of the strategic plan important, but “it was important how we packaged that plan,” says Smutz. The marketing department developed a “colorful, short booklet that builds attention,” he says, differentiating the presentation from many others that appear only as staid documents. “We didn’t want people to be bored,” he says.
Step 5: Implement
“You need to be constantly thinking about what you’re doing,” urges Smutz. Connecting the strategic plan to what’s important is everyone’s responsibility, and it requires involvement from all the university stakeholders. For example, at UCLA Extension, budget managers are required to provide a rationale for the current year’s budget that links need for funding back to the plan. Additionally, each individual action is managed by a steward; these stewards meet regularly to report on the progress toward each of the actions.
Step 6: Monitor
These regular meetings of the action-item stewards are also part of the continual monitoring that ensures the plan stays on track. This is a good time to learn more about the makeup of the organization. UCLA Extension launched the strategic plan at a retreat at which participants took a test that determined their orientation toward change. Everyone tested into one of three categories: conservers, pragmatists, and originators. Smutz notes that understanding the makeup of different offices was important for understanding how the strategic plan would be received and implemented. He also points out that it’s essential to have representation from all orientations toward change; an office comprised entirely of people who love to originate changes could be just as unbalanced as one in which everyone wants to avoid change.
Step 7: Adjust
Finally, Smutz notes that adjustments must be made along the way to the strategic plan. He explains that, initially, the institution tried to create a five-year plan, but that turned out to be an unrealistic time horizon on which to focus. Instead, the institution now reviews the strategic plan after two years and then conducts an annual review thereafter. “Don’t plan in too much detail too far out,” he says.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (hilltopcommunications.net).