Like many other businesses, universities face stiff competition. They have to find original ways to respond to the needs of the populations and regions they serve. They also have to find a way to stand out, which means establishing a strong identity based on the institution’s values and culture.
The strategic planning process is the perfect time to define those distinctive values, draw up a succinct number of strategic orientations and rally all the stakeholders who are closely involved with the institution. Unfortunately, the traditional strategic planning processes, which are usually entrusted to outside experts, are often carried out in an overly technical way. Far too often, university leaders tend to play passive, observer-type roles, waiting for the experts’ recommendations. This is not the best way to define an institution’s true DNA, nor is it the way to get immersed in it.
During its most recent strategic planning session, the Université de Sherbrooke, a Canadian school with more than 31,000 students across three campuses, decided to do things differently: the rector and his team introduced an original, simplified and agile process designed to stimulate dialogue between university leaders and all stakeholders. Without calling in outside consultants or creating new task forces for the process, the board of directors and an academic council were given key roles in the process. The planning process lasted less than a year and gave the representatives of over 70 internal and external stakeholders a chance to weigh in on the institution’s future.
Rather than carry out a detailed diagnosis of the institution and its environment, which can be long and complex for a university, they started off with the priorities proposed by the rector when he ran for office. Those priorities were distilled from a needs analysis conducted among 2,442 members of the university community in 2016. Using those figures made the process much simpler and cheaper and avoided the need to focus on the past, as most conventional diagnoses usually do. The university’s strategic planning process thus became an opportunity to design the future rather than repeat the past, while at the same time implementing its mission. The rector made that intention very clear: “Let’s look at what we want to accomplish in the long term, which direction we want to follow, and how we can best respond to the needs of both society and our students.”
The rector’s priorities led to the creation of five themed workshops. Each one had 13 to 19 members (deans, vice-deans, students, professionals, teachers and members of the academic council, as well as internal and external partners) and a mandate to develop and validate the directions, strategies and actions that would make up the future strategic plan. In order to do that, the workshops had to bring in appropriate stakeholders, asses the information they collected, draw up proposals for action, identify performance indicators and submit recommendations to the strategic planning steering committee.
There were close to 80 people in those workshops who met 20 times or so, with an average total meeting time of 10 hours per workshop. That is very little meeting time, considering the extent of their mandate, and it bears witness to the dynamic efficiency of the process.
Apart from the workshops, 914 consultations were held with internal and external stakeholders in the form of individual meetings, think tanks, online surveys, letters and phone calls. Special attention was paid to the students, who played a real role in influencing the strategic plan. In addition to all those consultations, we maintained regular communications via online tools as well as videos done by the rector.
The role of the executive team
One of the elements that certainly contributed to the special dynamics of the process was that leadership was assumed entirely by the rector and his executive team. Not content to merely launch the administrative process, the rector and his team had a hand in the very smallest details, from planning to analyzing the information as well as all the consultations. Considered a task force, the team members met every two weeks for updates, not counting all the informal discussions that enabled them to create the process and shape it as it developed.
That leadership was solidly validated by the fact that the rector and his team attended all consultation events. Along with the rector, the team members also took charge of all the workshops. The steering committee’s commitment was so strong that the rector himself summarized the workshop reports first, later followed by input from the vice-rectors.
That participation at all steps of the strategic planning, without bringing in intermediaries, was immensely beneficial because it allowed them to:
- take ownership of the strategic plan as it was being drawn up,
- obtain first-hand access to information,
- make direct contact with an entire group of stakeholders,
- adapt the process in real time based on the issues raised,
- explain and justify their choices, and
- increase the plan’s legitimacy.
Building bridges between the board of directors and the academic council
Rather than creating a new steering committee for the strategic planning and bearing in mind the commitment to using existing structures, the board of directors partnered with a larger version of the academic council that included representatives of the support staff, management and one professor. That group, known as the Strategic Planning Steering Committee (SPSC) was led by the rector for the duration of the process.
The SPSC’s role was to make sure the process was disciplined, to monitor the progress of the work and to make sure all documents produced were valid. If necessary, it could decide on which direction to follow at decisive moments. It also ensured consistency among the different workshops in order to streamline and unify the strategic planning.
The SPSC held two retreats during the process, bringing together a total of 51 people, including six students. It got particularly involved in defining the university’s values and setting out its vision. The value of combining the board of directors with the academic council — a first for Université de Sherbrooke — is indisputable, and the initiative will be repeated every year.
An experience that challenges received notions
At the end of the process, the executive team is proud of its results and especially proud of having mobilized the university community around a new strategic plan that truly reflects it. It was an unheard-of process, inventing itself as it went, and was therefore bold, creative and sometimes humbling for the executives. They would do it all again, but next time they would be more confident that they were doing things right. The experience came with some valuable lessons that disproved some preconceived notions:
- Although the hiring of consultants is often seen as a safeguard against criticism or undesirable influences, the executives consider that their direct involvement in the strategic planning gave them a much faster take on the needs of the university community.
- Although relationships with the students and their associations are often based on a logic of demand, making them less inclined to cooperate, their active participation here was clearly seen as an incentive for enhancing the content, mobilizing and for onboarding. They thus become full partners.
- Although it is taken for granted that the planning process for universities has to be long, having a tight deadline (about seven months) promoted concision and set a pace that supported mobilization across both stakeholders and leaders. The end result is a succinct finished product (the entire strategic plan takes up just four pages) which can become a true governance tool: a roadmap that is easy to follow at all levels of the institution.
In the end, the Université de Sherbrooke leaders came up with an agile strategic planning process in only seven months. The process highlighted the values that truly unite the entire university community and has opened a dialogue aimed at developing a culture of reflection, learning and continuous improvement, all of which serve to once again affirm the university’s distinctive nature.
The university community and its stakeholders are now working to implement the Université de Sherbrooke 2018-2022 strategic plan: Dare Transform.
The above text was jointly written by Université de Sherbrooke administration and professors: Anne-Marie Corriveau, professor of management and human resources management, Pierre Cossette, rector of Université de Sherbrooke, Jocelyne Faucher, secretary general and vice-rector for student life, France Myette, associate vice-rector, and Annie Bernier, administrative assistant to the general secretariat.