Dynamic strategic planning in a professional knowledge-based organization.

Author:Olivarius, Niels de Fine


"Hitch your wagon to a star, "Ralph Waldo Emerson

During the past two decades, research in most of the Western world, especially publicly funded research, has changed radically as a result of greater political interest in the practical value of research, in the effective utilization of limited resources, and in the importance of making research visible to the public (Erno-Kjolhede, Husted, Monsted, & Wenneberg, 2001). A new approach to research administration and management is therefore necessary to cope with the increasing focus on the application and capitalization of research, even in university settings (Erno-Kjolhede et al., 2001). In this situation even small organizations must develop research profiles and action plans that are consistent with their clearly formulated vision and strategy. These tools are crucial for permitting research administrators to improve and promote good quality research and be successful in obtaining grants and contracts for their institutions. However, professional knowledge-based institutions have a unique organizational form and culture that makes special demands on strategic planning (Erno-Kjolhede et al., 2001; Husted, 2002).

To meet this challenge, research administrators at The Research Unit for General Practice (RU), a small knowledge-based organization, used a model for dynamic strategic planning based on a pragmatic utilization of the multitude of existing models (Ackoff, 1987; Johnsen, 1994; Lynch, 1997; Peters & Waterman, 1982). The methods and experiences that emerged at RU may benefit other research administrators and managers who seek to involve their staff in work on vision and strategy.

Working with Strategic Planning in a Professional, Knowledge-based Organization

A carefully prepared strategy is important to the success of enterprises and institutions (Erno-Kjolhede et al., 2001), but strategies must reflect the particular circumstances of the individual organization. In 1983 Mintzberg referred to universities as "professional bureaucracies," in which professionals enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy in their work and administrative decisions are made on a collegial basis (Mintzberg, 1983). The research staff is hired because of its expert knowledge and, to a great extent, manages itself. For example, the individual researcher is more knowledgeable about the potential in his or her own field (Husted, 2002). As Mintzberg (1989) writes, a professional organization is "the one place in the world where you can act as if you were self-employed yet regularly receive a pay check" (p. 173). This extensive autonomy and specialization pose particular management challenges, as traditional top-down management does not function well in professional bureaucracies in which the staff tend to pursue the interests and values of their professional community rather than those of their managers. How can management involve the staff in the strategic planning of a professional, knowledge-based organization?

Most employees of professional organizations are not accustomed to working with visions, strategies and action plans. In a university environment, most of the staff consists of experienced researchers who are trained and eager to doubt accepted truths. Here, where definitions and models are usually negotiable, care must be taken not to present strategic planning as a set of fixed terms and concepts, as this could potentially create opposition and stagnation. An alternate approach is to employ a strategic planning model without strictly defining the terms vision and strategy. Hence, the staff can make the loosely defined concepts of vision and strategy operational, and develop the model intuitively, rather than within a hide-bound framework. However, the framework cannot be completely discarded, as it must provide structure to the discussion. Keeping the concepts fluid allows the strategy to remain flexible, thus enabling management to act and enable individual staff members to take ownership of the strategy.

The Process of Strategic Planning at RU

About RU

RU was established in 1978, on the initiative of the Danish Medical Research Council. Its mission was to carry out research in family practice and to guide and assist individuals and other institutions that wished to do so. RU is located on the University of Copenhagen's campus relating to the Section of General Practice under the Department of Public Health. RU's initiative phase (Glasl & Lievegoed, 1997), when the staff was comprised of only two researchers, lasted five years. A subsequent growth phase was marked by gradually increasing financial resources. In 2002 RU reached a full-time equivalent of 17.4 staff. Included among 35 researchers, many of whom work part-time, are doctors, sociologists, statisticians and nurses. RU is now in a stabilization phase (Glasl et al., 1997), where development is characterized by discussions of values and goals, the promotion of internal cooperative relations, and adjustment to a new, reduced financial and structural framework. Research administration with strategic reflection is vital.

The Perceived Need of Strategic Planning

In 2002, a strategic planning process was initiated at RU. There had been previous discussions about strategic planning, particularly prior to an international peer review of the institution in 2001. At that time, many preparatory meetings were held to clarify concepts such as strategy, strategic planning, action plans, research areas, values, visions and goals. These meetings reflected the underlying engagement of the staff, but a formal structure for the discussions remained elusive. There was a growing consensus, that, to ensure the continued existence of RU, the institution's strategy had to be addressed, but there was no common concept of either the nature of strategy or what was involved in strategic planning. Discussions about values briefly touched on what should be retained and what should be discarded, but without a clear idea of the vision, this work seemed futile. Therefore, a process was initiated with the following aims:

1) To prepare a written vision, strategy and action plan for RU;

2) To develop awareness of the meaning of vision and strategy among RU staff members;

3) To start a process of integrating strategic planning with RU's on-going activities.

The main focus of this paper is on the first two of these aims; the third is touched upon in the discussion.

The Model for Strategic Planning

There are many definitions of strategy (Mintzberg, 1987). Strategic planning for the RU was based on pragmatic definitions (Johnsen, 1994). Strategy was tentatively defined as "the specific development...

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