The strategic plan
In our 'Defining and articulating your vision, mission and values' guide we looked at the formation of these three key strategic statements which together should help set the overall tone and direction of an institution’s strategic planning.
What is now required are ways in which these words can be turned into deeds. Most commonly this is achieved through a framework of strategies operating at different levels and encompassing different areas of the organisation but all sitting beneath and coordinated by the institution’s strategic plan.
Though their precise content will vary the strategic plan is commonly a composite document containing some or all of the following:
- Mission, vision and value statements
- Themed sets of high level aims (eg, for research, learning and teaching, estates etc) to be achieved during the period of the strategic plan
- A more detailed breakdown of the goals or objectives which must be achieved in order for the aims to be realised
- Targets or milestones to be able to measure progress and recognise when aims and objectives have been achieved
- A review of progress to date against the aims identified in the previous iteration of the strategic plan
- A summary of the current status of the institution (numbers of students, pass rates, major achievements) plus potentially a more detailed strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) style overview and/or consideration of the current climate within which the institution works
- A summary of the major risks faced by the institution which may prevent realisation of the aims and objectives.
The period a strategic plan should span and how regularly it is updated varies from institution to institution. Most institutions seem to adopt a multi-layered approach with the plan receiving a major review and re-issue every three, four or five years.
Interestingly, a simple desk-based research exercise involving Google searches conducted on 22 October 2012 for ‘university strategic plan’ and ‘college strategic plan’ seems to indicate that most universities favour four to five year planning periods whilst the majority of further education colleges are based around a shorter three year horizon.
Examples of three year strategic plans
- Aberdeen University
- Bridgend College
Examples of four year strategic plans
Examples of five year strategic plans
But between these major reviews typically lies a regular, often annual, process of review and more detailed planning to set the priorities for the year ahead and to keep the institution on track to achieving its goals.
In a survey conducted in 2008 by Jisc, 44% of those institutions who responded update or renew their strategic plans on an annual basis.
There are many sound reasons for adopting such an approach, these include:
- The ability to amend the strategic plan in the light of changing circumstances
- Integrating the strategic planning process into the rhythm of institutional life
- Ensuring due consideration is given to the process as part of a scheduled and monitored process
- Keeping strategic planning and decision making in tune with the annual budgetary cycle, thereby ensuring that funding decisions reflect agreed strategic priorities
- Helping to cascade the agreed strategic priorities throughout the institution by scheduling faculty, team and even individual staff planning processes to continue on from the agreement of institution-wide priorities.
But of course, crises and opportunities seldom confine themselves to the right month of the year to be assessed as part of the scheduled planning process. As a result, institutions who do adopt an annual approach to their strategic planning appreciate these risks and also incorporate procedures which can be used to cope with extraordinary events within the overall context of their scheduled processes.
What we are therefore beginning to witness is a move away from strategic plans as (necessary) documents and towards strategic planning as a set of processes which are both influenced by, and directly influence, the life of the institution.
Guidance on identifying, quantifying and resolving issues and risks
See our guides on 'Risk management' and 'Defining and articulating your vision, mission and values'