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Strategic Management Planning: Nine Steps to Meet Modern Learners’ Needs

Higher education institutions can benefit from strategic management planning, which requires holistic thinking, institutional alignment and stakeholder input.

The rising demand for microcredentials, certifications and vocational education is proof alone that student and employer expectations of higher education institutions are evolving.

The key word being evolving.

Even after an institution embraces a new learning method, that trend will either soon change or have already shifted, depending on how quickly the institution has reacted.

Colleges and universities therefore must become agile. This requires leaders to embrace a holistic strategic planning process, a process that gets revisited annually as opposed to building static strategic plans every five to ten years, and ensure the focus is on improving student outcomes. This is called strategic management.

Strategic Management vs. Strategic Planning

Strategic management distinguishes itself from strategic planning by its holistic approach to improving an institution’s condition. Accordingly, the differences between strategic planning and strategic management boil down to five things.

  1. Strategic management planning (SMP) starts with the end in mind, e.g., Future Environmental Scanning and the Future Vision instead of a SWOT analysis.
  2. For SMP to be successful, your strategies, structures and processes must align. Without that alignment, your strategies, tactics and departmental plans will work against each other.
  3. Structures and processes must be put in place to ensure successful implementation. Without these, your plan will wither on the vine.
  4. Stakeholder involvement—including students—is critical in all steps of the process. This builds the shared vision for the future, brings insights from the front lines into the planning process and mitigates resistance to change.
  5. The SMP process is not a one-off every five years. External circumstances change, and the institution must be willing to revisit the various steps of the planning process annually or semiannually. This ensures the plan remains vibrant and top of mind and doesn’t suffer from the SPOTS syndrome (strategic plan on the top shelf—gathering dust).

Of course, all these points must keep in mind who the institution’s customer is: the student.

Strategic Management Planning

Strategic management approaches planning by answering five questions:

  1. Where do we want to be? (i.e., What are our ends, outcomes, purposes, goals and holistic vision for the future?)
  2. How will we know when we get there? (i.e., How do we measure an institution’s attainment of its ideal future vision in a quantifiable feedback system?)
  3. Where are we now? (i.e., What are today’s issues and problems that this strategic plan will solve and mitigate?)
  4. How do we get there? (i.e., How does the institution close the gap from A to C in a holistic way?)
  5. What will/may change in our environment in the future?

The Process

There are nine steps required to conduct strategic management planning that resemble what some institutions do for strategic planning, but there are subtle (and important) differences.

1. Future Environmental Scanning

Future environmental scanning (FES) entails gathering information on potential future external events. This requires anticipating the future instead of describing current conditions, i.e., trends vs. current events.

Football or soccer can be a metaphor for FES—you don’t pass or kick the ball to where the player is but to where they will be. FES uses those same principles. After all, does it make sense to create strategies that work now but will be irrelevant in two years?

Although there are many ways to approach this, we use the mnemonic SKEPTIC to guide the process.

  • S (Sociodemographics)—What demographic trends does/will the institution face?
  • K (Competition)—Who is our future competition? This can include higher ed institutions, curriculum/certificates, and/or geographic area.
  • E (Environment and economics)—What’s happening locally, regionally, nationally and internationally that might affect the institution going forward?
  • P (Political and regulatory)—What are some potential long-term ramifications concerning politics, funding and regulatory decisions?
  • T (Technology)—Take continuous tech changes into account.
  • I (Industry)—Review the higher ed’s future needs by comparing current programs against society’s future needs.
  • C (Customers)—Does the institution’s customer base consist of students and their parents? Future employers? Both?

2. Brand Promise

Brand promise, also called positioning or branding, is how an institution differentiates itself from its competition. It answers the following:

What is one thing that is unique, different and better about us in the eyes of the customer vs. the competition that has students attending our institution and employers hiring our graduates?”

An effective brand positioning strategy is relevant to consumer needs, unique in its approach among its competition and can be credibly delivered by the institution.

3. Vision, Mission and Values (VMV)

Every institution has a vision for its future, how it will get there (mission) and its values. But what distinguishes SMP from traditional planning is that SMP starts with the end in mind instead of where the institution is right now, which is analogous to the Blue Ocean approach to strategy.

To uncover the future, develop, examine and test the proposed vision against the previously collected FES and brand promise data. This helps institutions understand if the proposed vision is wise, prudent and bold enough to get it where it desires to go.

The same applies to mission and values. Generally, accreditors allow minor changes in the mission without requiring a substantive change submission, so it’s assumed that an institution’s current mission statement will be used (perhaps with some minor modifications). The same goes for values.

4. Key Performance Indicators (Metrics)

Metrics are quantifiable outcome measurements of success that reflect progress toward achieving an organization’s VMV. They answer the following questions:

  • How do you know if you’re succeeding?
  • How do you know if you will run into trouble?
  • If you get off course (into trouble), what corrective actions do you need to take to get the organization back on track to achieve your vision?

If done properly, performance metrics can be distilled into five to seven key measurements (but no more than ten).

5. Current State Assessment

The SWOT is how most institutions understand their current state, but we suggest using a SWOTT, which includes trends. 

Who is the best group to do this? We suggest stakeholders, who are closer to the action than the executive team. This doesn’t mean it has to be done in a vacuum—the core team reviews and approves their input, but the originators for this should be front-line managers who are more in touch with the day-to-day.

6. Strategies, Tactics/Action Steps and Departmental Plans 

One of the key differences between SMP and strategic planning is that strategies, tactics and departmental plans align. To achieve this alignment, departments develop and commit to accomplishing one— and five-year actions that line up with institutional strategies.

Once completed, the plan is set to budget and risk planning is completed. Then come tough decisions about what can and should not be done.

7. Implementation Plan

The implementation is another example of SMP: creating a separate implementation plan. The core team uses departmental plans and compiles an implementation plan with metrics and structures to ensure implementation. 

8. Final Core Team Approval

Before being unveiled to the board, the plan must be internally approved. As part of this approval, core team members agree to be accountable for its implementation. This is the last step in SMP building the shared vision.

9. Initiate Rollout

Once the Board has approved the plan, the core planning team rolls it out to the institution community through a series of meetings. This is an excellent way to continue building the shared vision and to reaffirm with stakeholders what they have already told the core team in SIP sessions.


In strategic management, three things must occur:

  • Holistic thinking—Leadership must focus on the big picture, conduct ongoing strategic planning and measure outcomes.
  • Institutional alignment — The institution’s strategies, structures and processes must work together.
  • Stakeholder input and attunement—People support what they help create. They want a say in things that will affect them before a decision affecting them is made. This is why stakeholder input in the planning process is critical; it leads to a shared vision for the future and mitigates resistance to change

When these things all happen, sustained excellence and achievement occur naturally.

Jack Welsh once said, “When the rate of change outside an organization exceeds that of inside an organization, the end is near.”

Strategic management allows colleges and colleges to meet that change, including the ever-evolving needs of the modern learner.