Communications Management recently produced an insightful research-based report called Shaping University Strategy – How Do Universities Go About Creating Their Corporate Strategies? The research involved interviewing a range of vice-chancellors and other university leaders, and reviewing the published corporate strategies from a number of UK universities.
Whitecap Director Lal Tawney, responsible for Midlands & South, wrote the report working with Communications Management. Lal is a strategy specialist and change expert with vast experience across the education sector. He has worked with The Open University, London South Bank University and The British Council with recent projects in international strategy development, customer journey design, operating model design, and organisational digital enablement.
The convergence of Government policy, the advent of a new regulator (Office for Students), the fallout from the Brexit referendum, and changing demographics has created what some may call “the perfect storm” in which universities are having to navigate their futures with fresh university-wide strategies.
So how do university leaders go about creating their corporate strategies?
Below is our summary of the report. You can read the report in more detail here.
Leadership & Management
All university strategy development processes are led by the vice-chancellor (VC) – both as a figurehead and a shaper of the future vision. The report highlighted that when recruiting for new university VCs, the selection process is a critical point to explore ideas and potential directions for the university.
Furthermore, the vision set by the leader should last longer than their own tenure. The report emphasises that VCs should invest in developing a lasting and compelling vision that reflects their ambition for the university.
Stakeholder & Consultation Engagement
Moving into the area of stakeholders, the report highlights that open and consultative processes are vital for generating support and belief in the final strategy, and in general we are seeing a broad range of stakeholders being involved in the development process.
However, it’s important to note that different stakeholder groups need their own approach to engagement – these could be surveys, workshops or one-to-one meetings. Although in general there tends to be a top down view of university strategies, it works effectively, especially when engaging multiple parties vertically down the line of management, spearheaded by the vice-chancellor.
The report expects more investment to be required in stakeholder management areas as universities become more open and accountable institutions – this is especially important from an industrial strategy perspective that will require universities to have larger regional influence and engagement.
Strategy Formation Process
The report highlights that common steps taken by universities in their strategy formation process from the first drafts of vision and values through to the principles of the strategic plan, stakeholder engagement and plan approval. This process is mostly managed internally taking 6-9 months from start to approval.
The report identified how this time length was felt to be too slow by some VCs, especially when comparing to other industries. It recommended that a six-month timeline including the approval process is appropriate for a university strategy.
In terms of the time horizons for the University strategy, most VCs take a five year view as this allows for planning to be both strategic an operational. The report identified some long term strategic horizons (10-15 years) that included stages of capital investment planning and accounting for changes in the broader higher education sector.
The report emphasises that universities should think longer (beyond five years) to account for market and technological factors changing the higher education market, this could be focused on in the next round of strategy development.
Presentation and Communication
Interestingly the report identified a high degree of commonality across university strategy documents and their strategy communication – many documents held the same structure outlining vision, values, mission, purpose and the strategic intent and roadmap.
A noticeable issue across the documents is the mixed inclusion of KPIs – some being very detailed, some with broad targets (but no specific metrics) and many simply not publishing public targets altogether.
Further, there is a need for clarity of communication of strategies with a general move away from the weighty strategy documents to a more practical ‘one-pager’.
Interestingly, universities generally are not focusing on being distinctive. Instead they looked at being more student focussed and communicating the strategy through impactful channels.
The report identified that the strategy development and strategy monitoring process has kept a degree of flexibility across universities, with many ‘tweaking’ their strategies after the Brexit result.
The approach to strategy implementation had a large focus on monitoring through formal reviews such as KPIs, quarterly and annual review, internal reviews with many VCs wanting to regularly review their strategy implementation objectively.
The report concludes that there are specific challenges to consider. Firstly, there needs to be far greater focus for each VC to determine the distinctiveness of their university and this can be only be done with a robust and challenging strategy development process. Secondly, strategy implementation and ‘making strategy happen’ is still the biggest challenge for universities.