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Institutional strategy - a governance odyssey

23 Jan 2020 | Alison Allden Alison Allden explores the role of the governing body in the formulation and navigation of institutional strategy through the challenges of our higher education environment.

Driving performance

The development of university strategy has come a long way in the last 20 years or so. There was a time when the institutional strategy would be authored by one or two senior staff and then be delivered as a fait accompli to the governing body and institution itself. Job done! The strategy would be put on the shelf and barely referred to other than as a document to hand visitors and refer to in job adverts.

Effective strategies are now essential for institutional success and as we move into 2020 many institutions are reviewing their strategy for this third decade of the 21st Century. The development of a strategy is a core responsibility of the governing body. Governors are now major players in the process of agreeing the organisation’s strategy, and indeed, determining its resourcing.

But can we learn lessons from the delivery of strategies gone before? Are we confident the governing body is able to drive performance against the strategic objectives it has signed off?

The approaches to keeping governors fully sighted on progress against the implementation plan can be variable in their efficacy. Risks are identified and monitored, performance indicators are put in place, but these are only as good as the understanding of the nature of the academic enterprise, the response to environmental perturbation and the appreciation of the governance role that is now expected.

University strategy – understanding the nature of the beast

Developing strategy for any ‘not-for-profit’ organisation is complex as there is no bottom-line ‘profit’ target to unite the Board and drive the whole organisation. The governing body of a university needs to understand both academic culture and the complexities of the higher education (HE) environment in order to develop and deliver a strategy that has any chance of succeeding. Crucially, the governing body needs to engage those who will actually make it happen and be insistent that there is massive effort put into communication across the institution.

Herding cats is an acknowledged way of describing management of a higher education institution (HEI) which apocryphally only unites over one thing – dissatisfaction with car parking arrangements.

Typically, academic staff tend to align with their disciplines rather than the institution. The student population is neither customer nor client, universities are both independent and quasi-public bodies and the demands of teaching and research exist in tension. Above all, HEIs are having to become increasingly competitive in the education ‘marketplace’, while research is driven by the need for additional income.

Strong governance and leadership is key to achieving the overall strategy. This can be done through effective change programmes which focus on the implementation of strategy, approving appropriate levels of investment and ensuring the communal ownership of ambition and achievement.


Performance monitoring

The governing body also needs to consider carefully how performance and delivery is monitored, measured and communicated to ensure the desired outcomes are achieved.

Reporting against Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is the most commonly adopted method of tracking the implementation and progress of the strategic plan. These are typically a combination of externally driven and internally important metrics that reflect the priorities of the institution.

For example, the majority of HEIs use the results of the National Student Survey as a measure for the quality of teaching and the student experience. However, these are collected and delivered to a set timetable for those in their final year and, for an institution concerned with student retention, they alone do not provide proper evidence for levels of student satisfaction in the earlier years.

Across the sector there are common KPIs, but governors will want to ensure their metrics are focused on the actions and activities, costs and income, and the recruitment and retention of students in a way that fits their university and their strategic priorities. The process of identifying these should be part and parcel of the strategy development process.

When the KPIs are identified as a separate exercise or retrofitted, more often than not they do not provide a meaningful or reliable view of progress. Good data and analytics are a vital part of the governance toolkit and their quality and efficacy needs to be driven from the top and some universities do this better than others.

Agility is an increasingly necessary feature of HE governance  

It is equally essential the governing body has timely data and reporting that allows for proactive review of the strategy’s implementation, addressing internal delivery issues and at the same time responding to the impact of external dynamics.

The strategy may be blown off course from time to time as the result of new government policy and changing political interests. The governing body may have to balance compliance with institutional autonomy and this balancing act takes place within the context of increasing regulatory scrutiny.

Governance to achieve the successful delivery of a strategy is no longer about doggedly maintaining a pre-determined course at all costs. It is about maintaining institutional expediency within an agreed strategic framework, while being prepared to take risks and make calculated changes. This demands a high level of acumen, awareness and agility in governing bodies.

Governance of strategy implementation is dependent on insightful narrative and analysis that enables prescient understanding of emerging issues. It is also vital that sophisticated scenario planning and proactive risk management is present, underpinned by robust decision-making. Governors equipped with information, intelligence and insight will more ably guide the institution through to successful outcomes.

A strategy charts a journey to achieve long-term aspirations, mapped by a carefully defined implementation plan. However, any governing body must be aware that over the next decade achieving that success may well involve an odyssey of epic proportions.

Alison Allden is a governor at Northumbria University and chair of their Strategic Performance Committee. She is also a governor at Regents University London and on the Bar Standards Board. She was previously CEO of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Alison Allden will be speaking about "The Data Agenda" as part of the GDP: Governor Toolkit one-day event for new, continuing and experienced Governors taking place on 4 March 2020 in London.

Talking Points 2, 26 March 2020, LondonGovernance to achieve the successful delivery of strategy - will provide an opportunity to explore the realities and best practice of monitoring and measuring the implementation and outcomes of your university's strategy. The session will be chaired by Aaron Porter, Associate Director Governance, Advance HE and led by Alison Allden OBE.

Find out more about our Governor Development Programme here.


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