While the COVID-19 pandemic persists, many leaders are seeking to apply lessons learned in our collective response to how we work, now and into the future. This requires unpacking, evaluating, and sometimes modifying pre-pandemic strategy to best meet the needs of stakeholders and the organization in the “next normal.” In this blog we explore how re-engaging with strategy will help you mature your IT organization and clarify meaningful purpose for your team. We also share actionable steps you can take to move forward and evaluate progress.
Re-Engage with Strategy: Why Now?
As institutions of higher education continue to wrestle with various stages of pandemic response and forecast the future pace of change, a common refrain is that higher education ‘will not be the same.’ Recently, this has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism, as instead of embracing transformation, many institutions are striving to return as close to pre-pandemic operations as possible. For instance, in October 2021, Dr. Jenae Cohn tweeted: “I’m eager to know if any institutions *are* in fact engaging strategically and responsively to what happened with #highered teaching & learning during the pandemic. What materially is changing? What resources have been allocated? What change models are being implemented?” The answers to these questions will vary by institution, where they will be influenced by administration, faculty and student demands, funding models, and external pressures.
It is clear that a successful response – to the ongoing pandemic as well as to questions about the future of higher education – will rely heavily on engagement with IT, and leaders in higher ed IT are anticipating this call. A common theme at EDUCAUSE 2021 was a desire to re-engage with existing IT strategic plans to explore which components of pre-pandemic strategy served the organization and institution well and which components merit reconsideration or wholesale replacement.
What is less clear is how to return to existing plans with a critical lens, how leaders can engage themselves and stakeholders in evaluation and revision amid widespread exhaustion, and how to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic response into a more agile plan for the future and a more mature IT organization.
The Business Role of Strategy: Alignment and Decision-Making
A successful strategy reinforces the value of IT as supportive, integrative, and enabling the mission of the institution. Strategy defines organizational priorities, supporting the mission as the organization works toward achieving its vision. Functionally, a strategic plan should help everyone in an organization – including staff members as well as leaders – align their efforts and guide their decisions around priorities and resources. Strategy should map directly to operational decisions, including setting business goals, identifying priorities, and defining initiatives. Strategic plans are also key to determining resourcing, including staff and budgets for ongoing operational work as well as special initiatives.
Strategic plans, while sometimes aspirational and not necessarily “light reading,” are not meant to sit on a shelf, reviewed only periodically for mandatory reporting. Strategic plans, and their related goals, objectives, priorities, principles, and values (or some combination of those), should drive daily decision-making. While the pandemic pulled focus from many campus and organizational priorities, it may have reinforced others. Re-engaging with and evaluating existing strategic plans can highlight where organizations adequately anticipated and emphasized the strategies that enabled success during the pandemic, as well as opportunities for refinement or revision. This critical process will also help organizations identify what they should stop doing – what services no longer add value or might deliver greater value through strategic redesign.
The Organizational Role of Strategy: Cultivate a Sense of Purpose
Strategic plans that successfully illustrate an IT organization’s contributions to the broader institution, particularly their value to stakeholders, can help cultivate a sense of purpose among staff members. This is particularly important at this moment:
As IT leaders seek ways to minimize the negative impact of massive workforce shifts on their organizations, highlighting individual and organizational contributions to the success of institutions may be increasingly significant. As staff members seek purpose and fulfillment, understanding how their work contributes to higher-level goals provides a sense of purpose, satisfaction, and reward. Strategic plans provide an opportunity to illustrate purpose, particularly through opportunities to engage with them meaningfully, whether in their development, implementation, or a re-engagement and evaluation stage.
Key Steps to Re-Engage with Busy Teams
People across all roles of higher education are exhausted. While re-engaging with strategic plans may seem daunting, remember that you are far from alone. We can embrace – and share – the difficulty of this leadership moment. Re-engaging with the strategic planning process is a fantastic way to mature the organization and develop leadership capacity on your team. Below are five suggestions for how to move forward with your team and campus-wide stakeholders.
Evaluate strategy on a regular cadence
Identify a core team who can serve as your strategy advocates. Have them prompt alignment checks when setting unit priorities, and organize focused conversations about the current organizational strategy – and how well it’s serving the organization – at regular intervals.
Your internal stakeholders probably have a lot of opinions about how well your pre-pandemic strategy served you in both the emergency and long-term pandemic response phases. Ask staff members at all levels of the organization what worked well and what could be improved.
Your external stakeholders are guaranteed to have opinions on what they need from IT. While re-engaging with an existing strategic plan may not be an equivalent scale or scope of work as developing a new one, it is worth having focused conversations with external stakeholders to learn about their experience as well as how their goals and priorities – and what they need from an IT organization – may have shifted. Invite developing leaders in your organization to engage with stakeholders to learn more.
Cultivate capacity for strategic thinking across the organization
Strategic plans can highlight a common pain point: for folks who feel more comfortable in “firefighting mode” and focused on operations, strategic thinking can be a challenge. For these folks, mapping daily operational tasks to strategy is a difficult task. Instead of stepping away or allowing folks to say, “this is too hard,” identify that as a teachable moment where someone can grow, learn, and develop. Charge managers and leaders to develop strategic thinking skills within their teams as well as honing their own abilities.
Characteristics of Steve Burrell’s Quantum Leaders may be particularly useful in these efforts, particularly abilities to foster intrinsic motivations and facilitate team progress “with a shared purpose to a meaningful outcome.”
Don’t lose momentum!
Globally, institutions (including and beyond higher education) learned just how agile, collaborative, and coordinated they could be during the pandemic. An April 2020 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll reported that IT staff members in higher education described “strong relationships and collaboration with faculty” and “greater coordination between offices” during the pandemic. Strengthen new or deepen existing relationships and develop leadership capacity on your team by supporting your staff members in cultivating and further developing those networks.
Consider your institutional context – has your institution arrived at a place of stability, or are you still making rapid changes? Has the vision or methods of operationalizing the mission of your institution changed, or are campus leaders still reflecting on recent experience to determine future direction?
Locate help if you need it
While you don’t want to lose momentum, you also don’t want to ask too much of folks – internal and external to the IT organization – who are exhausted. Find folks internally who are excited about or want to build capacity for strategic planning and leverage their enthusiasm. Design engagements with external stakeholders to meet them “where they are” not only on campus but in levels of energy and effort. Providing options for engagement is one possibility for this: invite folks to choose to complete a short survey or participate in a group discussion or a brief interview.
External resources can be a great help! If you’re not sure how to begin, consider creating a framework of questions around an existing resource such as EDUCAUSE’s 2022 Top 10 IT Issues or 2022 Higher Education Trend Watch, or Forbes’s The Seven Keys to Successful Strategic Planning. Firms that offer strategic planning services can also collaborate with your institution to create a customized approach for re-engagement with an existing plan.
Explore and Evaluate: Guiding Questions
As you explore next steps to re-engage with your strategic plan, consider establishing an evaluative framework, which might include these questions as guides in your process:
- How did your existing strategy fare throughout the pandemic, including both your institution’s and your organization’s response? Which components were obstacles, which enabled work, and which fell entirely by the wayside?
- Do your operational staff members understand the greater purpose of their contributions? If not, is there a gap in the strategy that operational service teams read as excluding their work?
- How does your plan read now? Are the goals, objectives, and priorities you previously defined still those most relevant to your organization? Have external forces and trends nudged the organization in a different direction? Has your institution’s pandemic response initiated a rapid maturation such that your organization has ‘outgrown’ its previous plan?
- What is the organization doing that might not be essential to implementing its mission and achieving its vision? Have you identified legacy services that no longer add value, or which could be modernized for greater value? This topic can be difficult, so consider using a framework such as the 25% plan to guide conversations.
- Is your organization – and/or your broader institution – embracing transformation? Are multiple organizations at your institution re-engaging with strategic planning, and can you coordinate conversations across groups to better align efforts, resources, and plans?
- For example, do you anticipate increased reliance on hybrid, blended, and/or online course delivery in the future? How might that impact the IT organization, including classroom technology support, AV and media teams, trainers, instructional designers, and LMS administrators? How can you leverage recent technology investments (capital and material, as well as social and developmental)? Which organizations will be essential partners in defining a thoughtful, organized, and strategic path forward, such as offices of the registrar, Provost, architect, campus planner, facilities, libraries, and advancement? While IT might not drive these conversations, IT may be the integrative force that brings all of the relevant parties to the table.
- What academic and administrative trends emerged from the pandemic that you might anticipate in the future and prepare for now?
- How agile did your plan prove to be? Anticipating future need for agility, what changes may be required?
- How did governance fare? Was it sufficiently nimble and responsive to address unprecedented emergency response where necessary? Were any voices noticeably absent, and can you incorporate those folks now or in the future?
- What did you learn about access and equity? How does technology contribute to increased inclusion and lower stress, and how might it be contributing to inequitable outcomes for BIPOC students and students with disabilities? How can you be sure to extend those lessons learned into the future, and share that knowledge with your institutional (and broader community) partners?
This post was authored by Strategic Consultant, Shannon Dunn. Shannon has nearly 15 years of professional experience in higher education and over a decade leading complex projects and program development across public, government, and private sectors. She brings a deep understanding of strategic planning and visioning in higher education technology and connects communication, inclusivity, and collaboration to cultivate diverse stakeholder engagement and community building. Prior to joining Vantage, she was an Assistant Director for the University of Florida Information Technology and led the development of the University of Florida Strategic Plan for IT 2020-2025. Shannon’s community service includes a leadership role in the EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Community Group, and she is the recipient of the 2020 EDUCAUSE Rising Star Award.