Voice of Experience: the strategic planning process: applications to research universities and predominantly undergraduate institutions.

Author:Molfese, Victoria
Position:VOE - Company overview


It is likely that most, if not all, universities and colleges, hospitals and medical centers, and other for profit, nonprofit, and government organizations have engaged in strategic planning. Indeed, many organizations have their strategic plans readily accessible on their websites. The importance of strategic plans to organizations is their definitional qualities--basically the organization's purpose, goals, and plans for achieving those goals. Research administrators play a prominent role in the strategic planning process of any organization that includes "research" in its strategic plan's purpose and goals. The purpose of this article is to describe the strategic planning process as it relates to research and research administrators and managers. Examples of strategic planning to achieve research goals are described for emerging research universities in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and China. In contrast to the better known aspects of strategic planning at research universities, examples of strategic planning to achieve research goals and plans at predominantly undergraduate institutions also are described. By contrasting types of institutions, the commonalities and differences in the application of strategic planning to achieve research goals become clearer.

Question: What is Strategic Planning?

The strategic planning process provides an opportunity for all partners to invest in a common goal and to work through the necessary steps for achieving that goal. Research and its administration and management are ideal environments for applying strategic and other planning processes. Both day to day and hour to hour, research administration may feel like a completely reactive profession. However, it is our responsibility, in concert with the leadership of our organizations, to set direction and proactive implementation processes. Research administration or research management must always add value to a research enterprise. As research administrators, we must demonstrate that the costs of our effort produce benefits that outweigh those costs. Benefits might include increased external revenue for research and increased research productivity measured by numbers of publications, numbers of active projects, and even numbers of proposals submitted, an especially effective measure if coupled with increased funding rates. Benefits can also include subjective measures such as customer satisfaction and increased motivation to seek external support. A good strategic planning effort will focus on establishing the value-added contribution of research administration and establish both objective and subjective measures of benefit by which the effort can be evaluated in the future.

Question: Is there value to Strategic Planning?

The three examples cited--Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and China--represent very different histories, cultures and economic environments. The common elements among the three are the political will and strategic decisions to forge a culture of innovation and exploration in their countries. Nigeria relies heavily on the philanthropy of foundations, such as Gates, MacArthur and Carnegie; Saudi Arabia on the wealth of natural resources; and China on political determination. The universities in these countries had the new charge to figure out how to reinvent themselves and to become what we in the western world deem "research universities." Absolutely critical, then, is a long-term planning process that will establish strategic goals and direction and a roadmap for how to achieve them. In Nigeria and other African nations, donors such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation require that the institutions they support develop and follow a strategic plan for the growth of their research programs. Saudi Arabian and Chinese universities are engaging in similar processes. All have promise for amazing results.

Question: What do we do with the Strategic Plan once we have one?

Few research organizations in the world say they do not want to expand their research capacity and awards. It just does not happen very often! This means that each of us, and the organizations to which we belong, should have a strategic framework and action plan that overlays our daily "reactive" life. We start, as did the universities in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and China, by making the commitment to build a strategic plan and roadmap and follow it. What happens all too often is that we engage in an elegant planning process only to put it on the shelf and dust it off when someone asks if we have a strategic plan.

A strategic plan is a dynamic document that should drive resources, process improvement, staffing plans, and organizational structure within our offices. For example, if our organization decides that we are going to set up an Institute for Curing Breast Cancer, that would be a wonderful goal. What does it...

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