The benefits of the ‘strategic conversation’
As the previous section acknowledges, one of the principal challenges in this area is to achieve a seamless alignment between strategic planning and operational activity.
Clearly, the strategic framework described earlier in the guide which is responsible for cascading and translating the institution’s strategic direction across the institution has an important part to play in this regard, as do the discussions of committees and management boards.
Operational links are also important and help join the setting of these same strategic objectives with the coordination of activity through a consistent and effective approach to portfolio, programme and project management.
Underpinning all these activities must lie a constant, constructive and creative approach to communication. This requires a continued commitment to actively engage staff from across the institution in an ongoing dialogue about the strategic direction of the institution.
The purpose of this ‘strategic conversation’ is to go beyond simply finding ways of effectively communicating messages to staff and other stakeholders (for example, boards of governors and representatives of the learner/student body) and towards encouraging their active participation in the debate about strategic objectives, priorities and planning considerations at a much earlier stage in the process.
Clearly lines of communication already exist at all levels within institutions and span the spectrum from formal announcements to unofficial chats ‘by the water-cooler.’ Many institutions now have well established communications and marketing teams to coordinate their internal communications.
What we are talking about here is not a replacement of such processes, but an addition to them and one which views each member of staff as a potential participant in the strategic process.
It is interesting to note that within our change management guide, change is generally met with enthusiasm when:
- We propose the change
- We are involved in the design of the change
- We feel that our opinion/views are heard, and contribute to the new reality.
Change in education is met with confrontation when:
- We are not involved in the change design
- We feel that our opinion/views are not considered
- We do not see benefits for ourselves, arising from the change.
The idea of the strategic conversation is, of course, an abstract one. It does not represent a tool, technique or methodology to be followed to achieve a specific end – though, as we shall see, the advent of new technology, especially social software, does open up new possibilities in this regard. Instead it reflects more an atmosphere and environment within which such initiatives are likely to flourish and, as such, represents both part of the cause and the effect of much that we have written about within this resource.
In some respects it may represent something of a leap of faith for management: an acknowledgement that realising successful strategic activity is equally as reliant on the ‘many’ of the organisation’s staff, than the senior management ‘few’. Of course this does not necessarily mean that everyone’s opinion is necessarily of equal weight, nor that strategy formation must suddenly become a directionless free-for-all.
It is still the task of management to set the strategic agenda, to define the nature of the conversation and to set its boundaries. It also still falls to management to make the final decision. Ultimately, the buck still stops where it always has.
What differs, however, is when, how and on what basis staff and other stakeholders are included within this process: giving them access to the process earlier and a voice with which to influence its direction and form.
“But what if they disagree with what we are proposing?” some critics might argue. Well, if this is indeed the case, they are likely to still hold this negative opinion when they are eventually made privy to what has been agreed. The difference will be, however, that their exclusion from the process of arriving at this decision will increase their hostility towards it.
The institution may have missed out on valuable contributions which may have shaped it for the better and that the staff concerned will be less inclined than ever to positively embrace and work towards the desired outcome.
Surely it is better to air potential plans at an earlier stage (with appropriate caveats) and then to work with the interested/affected parties to hone and polish them into a final state of preparation. Not only is the finished product likely to have benefited immensely from the scrutiny and intervention from representatives of a number of different perspectives, but those who did contribute are likely to have an affinity with, and ownership of, proposals that they have already invested energy in.
Our 'Planning a participatory workshop' guide has this ethos at its core and provides detailed guidance on a range of participatory exercises which can either be used in isolation or in combination as the basis of a full dedicated workshop. These exercises are creative, engaging and fun, but most importantly of all: they are also extremely productive and will enable you to identify issues and agree solutions in a positive and collaborative manner.
As such they represent powerful potential tools to utilise in your pursuit of a genuine ‘strategic conversation’ with your staff.