What do we mean when we talk about strategy and how does it differ from operational activity? There are lots of different understandings of strategy and strategic thinking. In the past, many approaches to strategy conceptualised as a fairly constrained activity in which a plan was written, then reviewed on an annual basis. More recent writing in the field conceptualises it as strategy as practice (SAP).
So what is SAP and how does it differ from previous approaches?
SAP shifts attention away from focus on the effects of strategy on performance, as in other approaches and leads us to think about what takes place and who is involved in planning and implementation of a strategy. It also visualises strategy as a continuous process that evolves at different levels of a school or organisation and responds to internal and external influences.
Think about strategy in your own school by answering the questions below.
What does strategy mean to you? Read the definitions of strategy below and decide which best fits with your approach.
- Strategy is a collection of actions that add value (Kotter, 2007).
- Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities (Porter, 2011).
- Strategy requires you to make trade-offs … to choose what not to do (Porter, 2011, 4).
- Strategy involves creating a ‘fit’ among an organization’s activities (Porter, 2011, 5).
Adding value is a key element in creating education strategy, and central to public sector planning. Time to think and consult on strategy that will add value for your pupils, staff, and other stakeholders, is vital, in order to plan for the future. Mintzberg, one of the leading researchers in strategy, famously describes it as, ‘seeing ahead’, ‘seeing behind’, ‘seeing above’, ‘seeing below’, ‘seeing beside’, ‘seeing beyond’, and significantly ‘seeing it through’. (Minzberg et al., 1991: ,p.111). This sums up the 360 nature of strategic thinking and planning, emphasising communication with different levels of the organisation in order to gather insights. An important part of this is also to horizon scan the external environment: this is a systematic examination of information to identify potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities. Many people know this as a SWOT (Leigh, 2009), analysis- strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This is explained in further detail in Section 4.
During COVID-19, research by Baxter et al. (2022), revealed that leaders and staff were able to address areas of development and creativity which had previously been side-lined due to policy and accountability pressures exerted in schools This has then been taken up by some school leaders, in order to inform future strategy. This and other examples from this work, emphasise how important it is to create that ‘fit’ amongst activities and to consider the ideas that emerge from teachers, in light of future planning.
An interview that appeared in Management in Education, (Baxter, 2021), during COVID-19 talks about the ways in which school leaders were forced to analyse their curriculum and make hard choices about what could be delivered well online. This type of analysis is being taken forward by schools who are examining what can and cannot be taught well online.and think about some of the key elements that Dr Campbell mentions when talking about his experience of leading learning during COVID-19.
As a document that is created at a strategy meeting and reviewed once a year.
As a document created at a strategy meeting then reviewed and changed at regular intervals.
As a starting point for our development, a flexible plan that responds to internal and external influences.
The correct answers are a, b and c.
Research in the business world reports that 70% of strategic plans are never implemented (Carucci, 2017).This is due to the fact that the plans are not regularly reviewed or responsive enough to cope with changing internal and external environments. Research carried out in 2019 in multi-academy trusts, indicates that many boards don’t have effective enough processes for gathering information from their school communities, that can then feed through into their strategy (Baxter and Cornforth, 2021).
Research during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that communications between parents/carers and schools were often more intensive than before the pandemic, but that they learned a great deal from these interactions, and many intend to carry on using online communications to improve consultation with parents/carers, staff, and governors (Rouleson et al., 2021 ).
Many schools now include strategy as a key part of their governor/trustee meetings, revising it regularly and consulting with staff and other stakeholders (Baxter and Cornforth, 2019).
In a strategy as practice approach, the strategic plan is a ‘living document’ that is used as a stimulus for discussions and debate at all levels of the organisation. Take a look at Interactive Figure 1 to see how you conceptualise strategy in your organisation.
That said, reviewing and monitoring your strategy is key to ensuring that you are taking account of the changing environment in which you are situated, whilst also looking forward to future opportunities, and considering the threats. You may be familiar with the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Challenges) (Leigh,2009), approach to planning, which helps you to analyse what your organisation does best at present, whilst helping you to think about how you can develop in the future.
How often do you review and change your strategy?
- Once a year at an away day or meeting
- We review it at regular intervals throughout the year
- We review it as and when, in response to internal and external drivers and influences
Successful strategies are those that alter to take account of the climate within the education system.During the pandemic, schools that had factored in the use of digital learning in emergencies, were better able to respond to the COVID-19 crisis (Jewitt et al, 2022).
How do you see your role in devising and operationalising strategy?
- I lead in devising and creating it and am responsible for operationalising it
- I lead in devising the strategy but consult annually on shaping it
- I lead in devising the strategy but consult regularly on its development
- I share responsibility for devising the strategy, with other levels of leadership
How you see yourself in relation to strategy and strategic thinking, is not only key to developing a strategy, but is an important part of your leadership and organizational identity (Sveningsson et al., 2012). Your school vision is likely to have been shaped by you and your senior leadership team/s, and any change in this vision, needs to be as carefully orchestrated as any change management programme in an organization. Neilson and colleagues (2008), writing in the Harvard Business Review, carried out research with staff into how well organisations carried out their strategies. The results indicated that staff, in three out of every five organisations, rated their organization as weak at execution, when asked if they agreed with the statement ‘important strategic and operational decisions are quickly translated into action,’ the majority answered, no. (Neilson et al., 2008: ,p,143). The same article points out four levers to executing successful strategy.
Putting ideas into practice
- Decision rights: Ensure everyone in the organisation knows which decisions and actions they are responsible for and encourage senior and middle management to delegate operational decisions.
- Information flow: Make sure that important information about the policy and cultural environment flows quickly to decision makers that way all levels of management identify patterns and promulgate best practices.
- Facilitate information flow across organisational boundaries: Engage with other organisations on a regular basis to promote interorganisational learning to inform strategy.
- Help employees to understand how their day to day choices affect your school/MAT: Excellent practices in, for example, a single department can be scaled up, but only if that department chooses to share that learning and understands it in relation to the overall strategic vision of the school.
Before we go onto the next section, think about the following questions.
- How did you respond to COVID-19 in relation to strategy?
- Did COVID-19 change your vision of teaching and learning in your organisation?
- Are you able to build on learning during COVID-19, or will this engender a major cultural shift in your organisation?
Research carried out by Baxter et al (2022), via interviews of 50 schools and analysis of 200 websites, indicates that COVID-19 did alter the way that school leaders think about digital learning in relation to their schools, but only some have plans to integrate it into their medium and longer term strategy. Reasons given included; too much of a culture change for staff, (staff not convinced of the efficacy of digital learning); not enough resource; difficulties engaging students in areas of high socio-economic deprivation where hardware, space for private study and /or parental support may be an issue.