What is the point of a strategic plan

“We make plans based on our assumptions of the future,” Trachtenberg says. “Man plans – and God laughs.”

Formulating and implementing a strategic plan is core to the modern university leader’s job description. But amid complaints that such documents are vacuous, generic and irrelevant to the wider community, John Ross asks how the process can be improved.

When Dublin-born chemist David Lloyd became Australia’s youngest ever university boss in 2013, he resisted marking his arrival with some bold new statement of strategic direction, quietly developed in the confines of chancellery and polished to a glossy sheen by the marketing unit.

Instead, Lloyd unleashed generational change befitting a 38-year-old vice-chancellor. He enlisted not only the university community but also its global extended family to help the University of South Australia hone its mission. “Unijam” made use of IBM technology to inject thousands of people into round-the-clock online conversations structured around themes, with registered participants logging in whenever they liked to gatecrash existing discussions or start new ones. The university says nearly 8,000 people from 56 countries registered for the 38-hour event, posting almost 18,000 comments across more than 1,300 conversation “threads”, overseen by IBM-trained umpires.

Special guests recruited to lead discussions included the South Australian premier at the time Jay Weatherill, former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, former UniSA vice-chancellor Denise Bradley and Nasa administrator Charles Bolden. Lloyd says the event reminded him of a charity telethon, the highlight of which was Bolden’s segment about the importance of organisational culture.

“Charlie is talking in his kitchen in Washington DC,” Lloyd recalls. “A graduate student chimes in to ask a question, and the conversation builds. Suggestions float up through the jam technology. At this stage, it’s a social network. People start to like the ideas.”

For example, a professor proposed cultural awareness training for all students. “Lots of people would like that idea. Then there would be a conversation about what that means in the context of getting a strategic plan. How would you operationalise this? What’s the benefit of doing it? How will we know it’s successful?...It’s risky because you’re asking people what they want. And if they don’t get what they want, they’re not going to be happy.”

Lloyd’s approach, which culminated in his 2013-2018 strategic plan, Crossing the Horizon, was perhaps the antithesis of the managerialism increasingly decried in endless academic complaints about agendas imposed from the top – and often outlined in strategic plans that contain “a lot of fairly empty words”, according to Melbourne economist Jamie Doughney.