[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Strategic Planning: Cut to Pieces

Joe Barnhart

--Joe Barnhart
Joe Barnhart

Across this great nation, higher education institutions are embarking on the mystical, and to be quite frank, boring mission of strategic planning. They may have launched similar endeavors as recently as last year--but it's a bright new day with smarter students, cleaner restrooms, and, most certainly, a change in administration.

What is this planning process? While on the surface it might appear as a complex mechanism of committees, consensus meetings, brainstorming sessions, administrative directives, and group hugs--deep inside it's as simple as making a nourishing bowl of oatmeal. Let's tear the sucker apart and see what makes it tick.


Higher education

Halls of advanced learning have been around since wool underwear was the rage. They are often referred to as universities from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning, "the tests are hell but the coffee is good." Such institutions are multi-faceted labyrinths of departments, administrative units, committees, foundations, and, for lack of a better term, students.

Universities represent a large boiling caldron, where the interests, concerns, and endless platitudes of diverse groups get chucked together to simmer. Producing a...uh...thick goo that bonds the fragile framework of academic freedom. Quite often meaningful insight comes bubbling out of hardworking campus committees that include:


Administration \n: a loosely formed group of older people, liking to hear themselves talk and absolutely enamored of meetings.

Administrations use the strategic planning process as a tool for getting the university on the stick, probing every nook and cranny for bits of insight, focusing the plebeians toward a common set of goals--like those chimps hunting for ants in Africa. Highly intelligent, meeting-oriented chimps, scouring the jungle for suitable sticks to poke in their mouths, making them sticky, and then probing giant anthills. The similarities are amazing except the chimps can grip things with their feet.

Administrations utilize time-honored management techniques to control the scurrying hordes that comprise the campus community. It's a lonely, grueling, time-consuming profession but someone has to do it--and, what the heck, the pay is only slightly less than what God makes.


Strategic planning's pièce de résistance is the acquisition of appropriate data. This truly beautiful French phrase paints colorful imagery of selecting a valid methodology for acquiring data that, unfortunately, bogs down in the institution quagmire as it stalls for months, possibly years, waiting for committee and administrative approval.

But devising valid methodology is almost easier than purchasing your next set of studded snow tires. Just gather a set of seemingly insightful questions into a questionnaire and scatter piles of them across the campus. Many universities also employ the "High Tech" touch and post questionnaires on web sites, where a careful screening process lets transients from Detroit's eastside voice opinions about the institution's future.

Carefully crafted questions avoid pesky response biases and add to the festive atmosphere. Here's an example of a well-devised question:

T F: Faculty sabbatical requests are best evaluated during the winter solstice when Lars chases the fatted greased pig across Lake Marviken.

That was a rather focused question, but broad-based reaction questions are also suitable, for instance:

How can Podunk U best assure a stable financial status for the future?

Such questions might actually produce valid data, but who cares? The primary objective is getting a bunch of answers or, as statisticians tell us, increasing the size of n. Get a bigger n and your findings are more valid--kind of like Viagra for statistics.

Administrative personnel types are especially taken with a large n as it lends credibility to the strategic goals they'll eventually chart for the institution. Such objectives may or may not reflect actual responses, but that's why the head honchos get paid the big bucks.

Statistical measurement

Mathematics plays a major role in strategic planning, with most formulas derived by using Euclidian means. Euclid was very popular back in Greece and [his] true persona was dramatically played by John Belushi in the Nobel Prize winning movie, Animal House.

Delving into this topic with the internal fortitude it richly deserves is beyond my bladder capacity. So, let's focus on the foundational formula for manipulating strategic data--a product of Pythagoras, the illegitimate child of Euclid. Simply put:

a2 + b2 = c2

A work of wonderful simplicity, yet laced with cultural ramifications still being unraveled by archeologists. Taking this formula and its many permeations, along with the total from column G4, enables a strategic planning committee to carefully analyze cleansed data at less than a 3% margin of error--with careful administrative guidance, of course.


When it comes to planning there are two types of people. Me and my wife. I'm spontaneous and she's more, "would you still love me if my hair fell out?" I don't understand why she asks tough questions late at night when my brain is functionally dead and my response is incongruent with my life in general. Like many strategic planning committee members, I just grunt, "Huh?" and go back to sleep.

Foreseeing the future is a dominant force behind strategic planning even if the variables over time are numerous and hard to define. Well, pretty much impossible, but that's the fun. Such foresight is like a proverbial crystal ball without mystical connotations while maintaining the same essence of constipation and humility.

Quite often charrette-style brainstorming sessions are held to answer the question, "What if?" It can take multiple meetings, without breaks or decent refreshment, occurring almost daily until the state's supply of flip charts is exhausted and a plethora of responses, verging on absurd, get transcribed into a James Michener-sized volume. Combined with the questionnaire data, these planning sessions will give credence to the Amish saying, "My son ain't dumb. It ain't that he can't learn, it's just that after he learns it, he forgets it."

The final product

Higher Education + Administration + Data + Math thingy + Planning = Direction

We've come a long way on our journey through the mysteries of strategic planning. Dislodging unfamiliar idiosyncrasies that scare the woolies out of common folk. But let's face it--strategic planning is not as complicated as it sounds. Why, fifth graders in North Korea conduct such projects daily. Yep, the same kids enriching the uranium.

So the strategic planning process will yield heart-warming results, motivating administrators to lick the stick and probe the vast piles of issues facing your great institution. It's nothing to fear, but embrace, as one would a well-marinated turkey before jamming it in the oven. One thing's for certain--if an administrator asks you to serve on the "newly formed" strategic planning committee, it's best to craw into the fetal position and play dead.

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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