Strategic Planning for World-Class Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Research and Experience

Charles A. Goldman and Hanine Salem of The Rand Corporation elaborate on the lessons they have learnt from research and experience while implementing strategic planning for varsities

The basic strategies for colleges and universities seeking to maintain or increase their prestige are becoming increasingly known and accepted. These strategies include recruiting faculty with excellent research records or potential, supporting research and publication, and seeking to increase student demand and thereby allow the university to be more selective in its admissions.

Such efforts may falter if they are unfocused, have insufficient resources, or are too general. Universities most successful at these efforts typically follow strategies that focus on a few academic disciplines at a time and do not try to address all curricula at once. They build prestige incrementally and selectively over time.

Formal strategic planning methods offer colleges and universities techniques to focus their efforts in improving their prestige. These methods offer an organisation many benefits, including maintaining a stable leadership vision to guide organisational activities. They also lay the foundation for performance measurement and resource-allocation decisions. But for all their advantages, there are also concerns about adopting these methods. If they create too many rules or protocols, strategic planning methods can cause organisations to become bogged down in paperwork and rely too heavily on data that might not address key problems. The increased bureaucracy associated with strategic planning can also stifle organisational creativity.

Research on strategic planning

Modern strategic planning has its origins in U.S. military planning. The forprofit sector adapted these techniques in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, rapid economic, demographic, and technological changes prompted U.S. public and non-profit organisations, including those in higher education, to adopt them, building on methods used in private businesses. Since then, these methods have spread around the world. Yet universities differ from businesses in having loosely linked departments and more intangible goals. As a result, each university requires a unique plan including a comprehensive participation strategy. In particular, research literature indicates strategic planning for universities should follow five key principles.

First, the strategic planning process should recognize specific motivations and respond to them. The reasons any university undertakes a strategic plan will influence the focus, scope, and definition of the effort, as well as the likely success of implementing it. A recent strategic plan we helped develop for one national university, for example, evolved in response to a new national development strategy, which set the tone for the universitys strategic plan.

Second, strategic planning should strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches. Top-down guidance is necessary to focus efforts, given the decentralisation of many higher education institutes. Yet decentralised structures also require bottom-up planning, including com- prehensive participation in strategy development by individual departments, their faculty, and other stakeholders. Institutes must balance both perspectives in their planning efforts.

Third, a clear, formal process should guide planning but not stifle creative approaches to elements of the strategic plan. Common components to successful strategic planning include analysis of the institutes external environmental and internal strengths and weaknesses. Planning structures should identify broad goals, more specific objectives, and plans to reach those objectives. Participants typically need formal training about planning methods to be effective.

Fourth, strategic planning should strike a balance between covering important indicators while avoiding inclusion of too many. A key reason for developing strategic plans is to improve decisionmaking by providing accurate, focused, and carefully selected information. Providing too many indicators can be distracting to management and members of the institute.

Fifth, while developing the plan, the organization should prepare for implementing, monitoring, and assessing it. Strategies will not have their intended impact unless they are implemented effectively. Characteristics of successful implementation include an organisational structure in line with the strategic plan, resource allocation that clearly supports the plan, change management in critical areas such as human resources, project management for the strategic planning effort, and open and informal communication. Plans must be realistic and must have explicit approaches for communication, training, and performance monitoring.

Lessons learned from strategic planning experiences

We have worked with colleges and universities around the world to facilitate, develop, and implement strategic plans. From this experience, we have learned that success in implementing a strategy depends especially on participation, alignment of resources, and maintaining focus on strategy goals.


The point of strategic planning is not to simply develop a plan. Indeed, too many plans end up not influencing the activities and structure of the university. The whole organisation and all its members have roles to play in executing the strategy once developed. It is therefore essential to develop strategic plans with broad and meaningful meaningful participation. The planning process should also incorporate staff feedback into any revisions. The team charged with developing strategic plans should be particularly sensitive to the importance of planning the engagement of all key functions and units. Carefully drafted messages should be clear about the goals and outcome of the effort.

Participation should be substantive. Those charged with developing strategic plans should watch against symbolic representation or drawing representation only from certain portions of the institution.

Aligning resources

Colleges and universities face two challenges in aligning their resources to their strategy. First, institutions must formulate strategies that are feasible within their resources. Organisations in their early years of strategic planning, especially those embarking on strategic planning for the first time, need to remember financial limitations and establish goals and plans that are reasonably feasible given their resource constraints. Some ideas generated during the strategic planning process may be nontraditional and may not fit into existing budget structures. This can lead to the challenge of finding the proper lime item or budget structure to support an idea. Publicly funded organisations especially may operate under a rigidly defined budget line structure that does not easily accommodate new initiatives and plans, even when overall funding is adequate.

One approach to this challenge is to use a welldrafted strategic plan to justify requests for additional funding, or changes in the budget structure. The second challenge in aligning resources is to ensure they match the priorities of the strategic plan. Some institutes adopt performance-based budgeting to help align resources to strategies. This process is often complex. If strategic plans are developed without sufficient attention to resourcing, they may not be clear enough to help leaders sort competing requests for funding. Even when priorities and objectives are clear, it may be difficult to estimate which expenditures will have the greatest impact on achieving objectives. Nonetheless, some basic steps, such as asking departments to justify their budget requests in terms of the approved strategic plan, can help align resources and implementation.

Maintaining focus

Strategic planning methods typically follow one of two broad philosophies. Methods that emphasise linear flow from higher objectives to departmental and sectional objectives. Methods that coordinate action toward more abstract shared goals but do not emphasise breaking down objectives from one level to the next.

Both have their advantages and limitations. Given our experience, we tend to favor the first approach in institutes that are going through formal strategic planning for the first time or have limited experiences and structures to support it. Nevertheless, it can be hard to coordinate across broad goals that require support from many units, especially when the goals cannot be separated neatly. As institutes gain experience in formal planning, we find them increasingly able to address broadly shared and important goals because leaders do not have to give as much attention to essential management and supervision of their hierarchical structure.


Strategic planning can help a large complex organization like a college or university to focus on and achieve its aims. To be useful, strategic planning should recognise the circumstances of higher-education institutions. Such efforts should start from a clear motivation, strike a balance between topdown and bottom-up approaches, be guided by a clear and formal process, cover important (but not too many) indicators, and prepare for implementing, monitoring, and assessing the plan. They should also foster broad participation, have active leadership, align resources, and maintain a focus on broad goals.

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