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Moving Forward with Intention I - March 8, 2006


Reprint: Measuring Strategic Plans and Planning

Author: Brian Nedwek

Source: (2005). Becoming a Learning Focused Organization: Organizational Distinctiveness and Effectiveness. A Collection of Papers on Self-Study and Institutional Improvements. Chicago: Higher Learning Commission. Pp. 35-37.

Academic leaders and those who judge their performance are focused increasingly on the capacity of an institution to fulfill a mission and realize an ambitious vision. Plans and planning processes in higher education are emerging as crucially important tools to make priority-driven decisions. Good planning drives fundamental choices and presses the commitment of resources for chosen priorities. Effective plans inform human resource, space and technology choices. Effective plans are also consistent with and reinforce other key decision cycles within the academy, e.g., the academic case statement and capital campaigns.

Measuring the quality of plans and planning processes is central to institutional self-studies and accreditation. Each of the five criteria for accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission addresses some facet of strategic planning, especially Criterion Two, i.e., “the organization’s allocation of resources and its processes for evaluation and planning demonstrate its capacity to fulfill its mission, improve the quality of its education, and respond to future challenges and opportunities” (Higher Learning Commission, Handbook of Accreditation, Third Edition, 3.1.5).

Planners, self-study developers, and site team consultant-evaluators have several ways to gauge the quality and effectiveness of strategic planning. While there is a body of strategic planning literature, relatively little attention has been directed at measuring the quality and consequences of the effort. Three opportunities seem especially useful to focus such assessment.

The first opportunity addresses the evaluability of the products and processes, i.e., the maturity of the planning process, quality of the plan, and quality of data driving the processes. Effective organizations have clear linkages among mission, vision, and human resources. The mission and vision statements have undergone review in preparation for the current strategic plan. The institution is brutally honest about its strengths and weaknesses (Collins 2001). It has in place a method to monitor the external environment for either threats or opportunities. Institutions with effective strategic plans and processes rely heavily on robust information. In addition, there is a history of effective data capture and analysis services in support of strategic and operational planning. Taken together, effective organizations develop a strategic plan that includes realistic goals and feasible objectives.

The second assessment area is concerned with actual plan implementation and what happens when dreams are turned into deeds. Of special interest is the faithfulness of the institution to the initial plan, how adaptable it is to changing conditions, and how well planning meshes with other key decision cycles. Poor planning exists when strategic priorities are not sufficiently funded or when the actions are not logically sequenced. A classic case of poor planning can be found when newly approved academic programs fail to meet enrollment targets and little is done to correct the situation.

The third opportunity centers on the results of planning. Because planning is an intensely political activity, evaluators need to know whether short-term successes were realized to sustain momentum and the support of key stakeholders. Moreover, planners and critics need to know the extent to which planning data produced actionable information to measure attainment of critical success at the institutional and unit levels (Nedwek 2004). Taken together, these design and assessment opportunities provide evidence of the degree to which planning is an essential component of the institutional culture.

For evaluators and designers alike, any institution is somewhere along a planning continuum. At one end are organizations who either dismiss strategic planning as a passing management fad or who “create” a symbolic plan to satisfy external constituencies. Senior managers at these institutions often resort to incremental or decremental across-the-board resource allocation decisions to avoid the tough choices. At the other end of the continuum are institutions that embrace planning as a habit of mind, i.e., seeking ways to change thinking about the organization in strategic ways and not merely write a plan (Rawley, Lujan, and Dolence 1997). At this end of the continuum, the focus of strategic planning for these mature institutions is on making fundamental and integrated sets of decisions (Bryson 1995). Leaders of these organizations are not trying to be all things to all people. They set programmatic priorities based a clear vision what will make the school achieve distinctiveness (Dickeson 1999).

Below is a checklist of items that taken together can assist academic leaders and evaluators in positioning an institution of higher education along the planning continuum. These items are not ranked or weighted; they are simply intended to serve as a heuristic device for designing an effective plan and process or for making field notes about the quality of planning within Criterion Two during an accreditation visit.


  • Is a formal planning process in place?
  • Are there clear lines of authority and responsibility?
  • Does an environmental scan exist?
  • Did the institution engage in a systematic assessment of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
  • Is the formal plan disseminated widely, understood and embraced by key stakeholders, e.g., senior managers, deans, chairs, faculty, board members?
  • To what extent are the goals, objectives, strategies and outcomes clearly articulated and linked to institutional mission and vision? Was the mission statement revisited within the past few years? To what extent is the vision shared among key stakeholders?
  • Are the objectives and strategies in the plan financially and politically feasible given the recent history of the organization?
  • Are the unit plans (e.g., schools, support units) linked directly to the enterprise-wide goals?
  • For actions to be taken in the current and future years, are timelines and task specifications clear and accountability assigned?
  • Are existing databases adequate to support program analysis and future planning, e.g., completeness and accuracy of institutional data, effective data management practices in place?

Plan Implementation:

  • Do actions taken reflect fidelity to the approved plan? If a change in strategy occurred, were there documentation and a rationale for the departure?
  • Is there consistency with institutional governance guidelines and external mandates?
  • Were initiatives rolled-out within the start-up window of opportunity?
  • Were allocated resources adequate to meet the objectives and strategies?
  • Were action steps properly sequenced?
  • Is there evidence of not maintaining commitments to high priorities in subsequent years?
  • To what extent do unit plans reflect budget priorities, e.g., faculty slot authorizations?
  • Were institutional budgets consistent with plan priorities?
  • Were special funding mechanisms to support creativity and innovation in strategy setting, e.g., strategic initiative set-asides, in the operating budget?
  • To what extent does the strategic plan coincide with the timing of major capital or comprehensive campaigns?

Evaluating Results of Planning:

  • Has the institution developed critical success measures; if so, what factors saw gains in recent history?
  • If critical success measures are used, how robust are the items, e.g., stated defensible standards, time limits articulated, comparative to other institutions?
  • To what extent does the organization separate short-term successes from critical success factors?
  • To what extent are critical success measures used in gauging academic quality, e.g., conditions for learning, activities that facilitate learning, and results achieved from such processes?
  • How does the organization respond to critical success factors that failed to show progress toward realization?
  • Is there evidence that institutional results inform subsequent decisions, e.g., budget priorities, faculty slot authorizations, program closures?
  • Is the leadership orientation toward operational effectiveness or strategic positioning of the organization?


John Bryson. 1995. Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Jim Collins. 2001. Good to great: Why some companies make the leap . . . and others don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Incorporated.

Robert C. Dickeson. 1999. Prioritizing academic programs and services. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Higher Learning Commission. 2005. Handbook of accreditation. Third edition. Chicago, Illinois.

Brian Nedwek. 2004. Benchmarking success: Academic and facilities factors. Society for College and University Planning. SCUP-39. Workshop K. Toronto, Canada.

Daniel. J. Rowley, H. D. Lujan, and M. G. Dolence. 1997. Strategic change in colleges and universities: Planning to survive and prosper. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Brian Nedwek is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Maryville University of Saint Louis and former president of the Society for College and University Pla