One of the most common detours that colleges and universities make in strategic planning is to focus prematurely on emulating peers or finding solutions to short-term challenges. Such strategic planning may be thoughtful, but the temporal horizon is often too short, with the plan’s goals representing a collection of best practices that virtually all competing colleges seek to achieve.
An examination of the post-Great Recession strategic plans at a half dozen competing independent colleges in the Midwest reveal many of the same “strategic initiatives”:
- Develop a 21st-century curriculum—including professional and graduate courses.
- Develop online courses and degrees.
- Manage enrollment growth.
- Foster an engaged campus community.
- Increase campus diversity.
- Create more active learning experiences for students.
- Enhance campus interactions and community.
- Seek new sources of income and stabilize the budget.
- Enhance the reputation of the college—its brand.
The specific activities designed to achieve these goals also look similar. [...] While best practices are necessary for improving operational effectiveness and efficiency in today’s competitive environment, they are not sufficient to provide a sustainable strategic advantage over peer institutions engaging in the same practices. Enhanced operational effectiveness may be efficacious in the short term but not strategic in the long term because best practices are easily copied, and the more benchmarking encourages imitation, the more all peer institutions’ programs and activities converge, not diverge.
To be clear, the pursuit of best practices in all areas of a college’s complex operations is desirable, but not at the expense of strategic thinking that can orient some of those same practices toward a more distinctive and coherent institutional vision.