For a benchmarking exercise to be of value it must have clearly defined objectives from the outset. These objectives will be most effective when properly aligned with the strategic aims of the institution.
This essential linkage is illustrated below:
Benchmarking objectives will usually be derived from the decomposition of strategic plan objectives into delivery and operational objectives at functional level within the HEI. This process will often result in the setting of specific targets for improvement over a pre-defined time period, which may be informed by evaluation of the results of preliminary benchmarking.
However, benchmarking isn’t always about improvement. A valid benchmarking objective may simply be to establish the relative position of an institution as compared to its peers or competitors on some characteristic. This may provide reassurance to managers or governors if the relative position is deemed acceptable or may generate a requirement for improvement if not.
The University of Lincoln case study illustrates this point.
Having identified the objectives of any benchmarking process, the next requirement is to investigate the context within which the objective is sought. This must include a thorough and honest self-appraisal of the organisation’s current position. The following questions may help guide such a self-appraisal:
- What is our current state of maturity with regards to the objective?
- What evidence is available to establish our starting point or baseline position?
- What environmental factors may impact our ability to meet the objective? Are these static or changing over time?
Environmental scanning and awareness is an essential part of strategic planning. It may be the precursor to a benchmarking exercise when information suggests the need for investigation or action.
“Benchmarking makes a valuable contribution to operational and strategic development but it must be aligned. Context matters in understanding business performance.”
Ken Sloan, Director of Universities and Higher Education, Serco