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December 6 , 2004
Introspective strategic planning process yields its own rewards for schools
BY Michael Terrazas
Each of Emory’s schools, units and divisions was asked to prepare its own individual plan as part of the University’s overall strategic planning process, knowing the work they did would feed into a broader rubric that would lend direction and definition to all.
But even if that hadn’t been the case—even if there were no Emory University Strategic Plan waiting at the end of the day—the effort displayed in the planning process and the rigor it imposed on its participants still would have made the work worthwhile. It revealed mechanisms and processes that will have utility beyond the confines of the plans themselves—and there simply is something invigorating about taking a fresh, comprehensive look at oneself.
Consider Emory College. “We hadn’t done a college-wide strategic planning exercise in a long time,” said Dean Bobby Paul. “It has happened, but it’s been done in a much more haphazard way and without any sense that anything was really going to come of it.”
But the promise of a major fund-raising campaign to realize the plan’s goals, plus the excitement of a new administration, energized college faculty to participate. One immediate reward has been a renewed focus on departmental reviews, a practice that had languished somewhat in recent years but whose necessity was brought into stark relief during the planning.
“If we’re going to make decisions about programs and departments and how they’re going to fare—either in the course of a fund-raising campaign or in the normal development of the college,” Paul said, “we have to have much better data, both in terms of where they are now and where they could go in the future.”
On the other hand, there is the School of Medicine (SOM), which had been engaged in an ongoing series of planning initiatives since the late 1990s. The SOM had done a strategic plan on research, another on teaching practices and is engaged in others on clinical operations at Grady Hospital and Emory Clinic. The school was just gearing up for a new effort on curriculum development when President Jim Wagner took office and set the entire University on a strategic planning course.
“For the School of Medicine, the process was not at all new,” said Dean Thomas Lawley. “It was very straightforward for us to take the existing plans, re-review them, have the chairs and faculty look at them and then amalgamate them into one document that focuses on the University as a whole.”
One benefit of the Emory-wide planning process, Lawley said, is having an interested but somewhat detached body in the steering committee review SOM’s plans. “It’s always better to have someone, or a group of someones, who aren’t closely connected to take a look dispassionately and say, ‘You’re doing well here, but you need to improve here,’” he said.
Critical to the success of the planning effort, both deans said, is its transparency, a need to be honest and upfront with faculty about strengths and weaknesses and what measures can be taken to make improvements, and the strategies to be pursued to move their schools forward.
“We have some departments that aren’t yet as good as they could be,” Paul admitted. “Emory College’s faculty is relatively small, smaller than most of our peers; we’re not as effective as we could be in combining excellent teaching with cutting-edge research. We need to develop a sense of shared responsibility that these are things which often the administration can’t just ‘fix.’ Just throwing money at an issue, or adding people to a department or program, is not a cure-all; reorganizing or reconceptualizing is much better.”
“Transparency is not only important, it’s very healthy,” Lawley said. “It allows one’s leadership in the school and the faculty to carefully examine strengths and weaknesses, not try to hide them at all, but lay them out there and get input.”
Transparency about strategic goals also means being upfront when there are tough choices to be made in resource priorities. Part of the purpose of strategic planning is to determine the areas in which the University can truly make its mark.
“All of us in the administration,” Paul said, “have welcomed the opportunity to be as candid as we can amongst ourselves about what our strengths and weaknesses are.”
In the meantime, as Emory continues its planning and moves toward the upcoming comprehensive campaign, the ancillary benefits of the planning process continue to present themselves. Lawley agreed with Paul that one reason the current environment is generating enthusiasm is that people believe they will see results, and those results must be measured through a clearly defined set of benchmarks.
“You have to be quite specific about goals, timelines and objectives, about who’s responsible for doing what, and—if you can figure it out—how much money it’s going to cost,” Lawley said. “You have to keep score of how you’re doing, because if you create this wonderful plan and keep it on the shelf, that’s counterproductive.”
Wayne Alexander, R. Bruce Logue Professor of Medicine and a veteran of several SOM strategic-planning initiatives, including the current one on curriculum development, said the process should lead to a practice of “mission-based budgeting,” in which available resources are aligned with strategic goals.
“The development of a totally new approach to medical student education is not a viable plan without consideration of new ways to spend the educational dollars that flow into the institution,” Alexander said. “Ideally there will be a congruence between what you’re trying to do and the dollars that support it, and it’s the same with research and clinical operations.”