Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Action Research to Support the Sustainability of Strategic Planning: Action Research Examines Real-Life Events to Understand and Shape Future Organization Action

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Action Research to Support the Sustainability of Strategic Planning: Action Research Examines Real-Life Events to Understand and Shape Future Organization Action

Article excerpt


In the summer of 2007, a new president took leadership of Philadelphia University. The incoming president followed a long-term predecessor who had led the institution through a significant transition from a narrowly focused curriculum for predominantly commuter students to a broad-based, professional curriculum serving 3,600 undergraduate and graduate students in architecture, business, design, engineering, allied health, science, and textiles majors on a primarily residential campus.

The new president, an economist whose practice, teaching, and research field is entrepreneurship, seemed a natural fit for an institution that has reinvented itself several times over its 125-year history. In deciding to come to Philadelphia University, the new president was particularly captivated by the institution's past trajectory and by the still untapped growth opportunities he believed were present "in the DNA" of the university.

Immediately upon arrival, the president launched a 12-month strategic planning process. By all accounts, the process was highly participatory, comprehensive, fast, and challenging. The planning process was both well thought-out and carefully structured. Faculty and staff alike felt that the president allowed the plan to emerge organically from the work of many committees and subcommittees with strong faculty leadership. During the planning process, the president encouraged a higher-level perspective, integrative thinking, and the blending of historical institutional strengths with emerging opportunities. The charge was to focus on the needs of 21st-century professionals and how to prepare these professionals to be leaders in their fields. The president posed questions along the way to encourage a grander, less detailed vision. As he said, "I'm not looking for a 'get better' plan; I am looking for a transformative plan."

Near the beginning of the planning process, external consultants facilitated a day-long workshop with committee and subcommittee chairs. The workshop was designed to explore external trends in higher education and to challenge participants to think beyond their current knowledge of the environment. Participants also were asked to complete an "everyday trade-offs" exercise (figure 1) to raise their awareness of the characteristics of institutional culture that had shaped the university going into the strategic planning process and that might shape the vision of the university coming out of the process. These characteristics included variables such as predominant communication patterns, decision-making processes, external versus internal orientation, risk inclination, and level of collaborative versus silo behavior.

Participants were asked to rate these characteristics as they would expect to see them in an "ideal" institution and then to re-rate them as currently perceived at their institution. Surfacing gaps between ideal and current institutional characteristics was helpful in preparing for the planning process and would prove helpful again during the implementation phase.

Strategic Plan Formulated

Toward the end of the planning process, committee chairs, deans, key faculty, and administrators gathered for a two-day retreat to review the recommendations of the committees. Having first reconfirmed the institutional mission statement, the emergent plan built on the institution's tradition of preparing graduates for professional work and responded to the clear desire to center the institution on student learning characterized by engagement, collaboration, and connection to the real world and infused with a liberal arts curriculum that carried throughout a student's coursework.

In addition, while sifting through input from professionals in the university's fields of study, a new theme emerged. Increasingly, the innovative edge of professional work requires integrated ways of thinking attainable only when people know how to use expertise from fields other than their own and are comfortable working in teams that cross domains. …

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