Recommended Process for Defining a University's Strategy

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The ideal process for strategy definition starts at the institutional level. After a broad-scale institutional strategy is defined, the schools define (or refine) their individual strategies, and then the programs follow suit. Different institutions might leave different facets of their strategies undefined (or with a default value defined), but coherence of strategies across units makes it easier for programs to get their messages to the market successfully (and with less expense).

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is the third entry of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and the process of defining a strategy will often depart from the above description. This is where the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Let’s discuss several different scenarios for the launch of an online program

No strategy for either the institution or the school: If this is the case, it would almost assuredly take too long for both the institution and the school to define their strategies before a strategy must be set for the program. (Defining a strategy can easily take 18–24 months in an institution as complex as a university.) The next-best solution might be to define the program’s strategy in coordination with the dean (i.e., head of the school) so that the program’s strategy can at least take into account what the school strategy might become. The dean could then use this process as a way to kick-start strategy definition at the school (and, possibly, the university) level.

No strategy for the institution but strategy for the school: This is a fairly straightforward situation. The dean has a problem, but the program head does not. The program head should create the program’s strategy in alignment with the school strategy. The dean (and the institution leader) has a problem—no guiding institutional strategy as the school continues to build out additional programs (such as the current ones). The more programs the school creates, the more the school is committed to its existing strategy. The more it is committed to its strategy, the more difficult it would be to change its strategy if the university ever defined a noncompliant strategy. The best that the dean can do is to use the school’s experience with its current strategy as input into the creation of the institution’s strategy and hope that the school (and its programs) are in compliance with the newly created controlling strategy.

Strategy for the institution but no strategy for the school: Program leadership should define its strategy in compliance with the overarching institutional strategy. In addition, leadership should collaborate with the dean so that he/she can coordinate with institutional leadership. The dean should then take this opportunity to begin thinking about defining the school’s strategy. The dean could choose to be deeply involved in defining the strategy for the program or could simply choose to receive periodic reports during the process.

A problematic controlling strategy: Suppose that the school’s strategy (or the institution’s if the school does not have one) is seen as inappropriate for the program by the program’s leadership. The school’s strategy conflicts with how program leadership wants to proceed. This is a significant red flag, and all work on planning and investing in the program should stop immediately while conflict resolution proceeds. Program leadership should commence with intensive meetings, discussions, and negotiations with school leadership (including the dean, faculty leadership, and staff leadership — especially finance and marketing) in order to resolve the conflict. Program success is difficult even with full school support and agreement between school messaging and program messaging in the market; such a conflict between strategies would certainly reduce school support and increase confusion in the marketplace, both raising the cost of getting the message out and reducing the chances for success. The conflict might be resolved in one of the following ways:

  • Revise the program strategy to be in compliance. The most direct way to align conflicting strategies is to revise the program’s strategy.
  • Revise the school’s strategy to fit the program’s strategy. Perhaps the school’s strategy is out-of-date and the launch of the new program will force the school to address this. Of course, once the school revises its strategy, other programs within the school should also ensure that they are in compliance (likely over a period of years).
  • Complete the specification of the school’s strategy. It might also be the case that a school’s strategy is in agreement, to the extent that it has been specified, but that several facets needed to complete the strategy (as laid out in the last third of this whole essay series) are unknown. Program leadership should reach out to school leadership and urge the formation of a committee to complete the strategy definition.
  • Add some flexibility to the school’s strategy. Finally, it’s possible that the school’s strategy is overly limiting. For example, in specifying where the institution is going to compete (one of the components in our provisional definition of a strategy), the institution might have specified a narrow geographical area as the only location for target prospects. Flexibility might be added by 1) allowing a target-location specification at the program level as long as it also includes the institution’s overarching target prospects, or 2) specifying target locations at the institution level that are variable rather than global (e.g., location X and Y for adult-focused degree programs, location X and Z for undergraduate programs, and location X, Y, and Z for adult-focused non-degree programs.

In the above I focus on the process for defining a program strategy. Similar problems arise in defining a school strategy, a research center strategy, or any unit strategy that falls under the auspices of a larger institution. In order to conserve space (in this already long discourse), I assume that the reader can make the necessary translations from defining program-level strategy to defining the appropriate unit-level strategy for your needs.


For this series, I will be posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. Do any current conflicts exist between your program or school strategy in the context of the institutional strategy? What can and should you do about this?
  2. Has the COVID-19 pandemic exposed any weaknesses in your institution's strategy? Given any changes that have to be made, will you be taking any shortcuts in order to get to market faster? How will you minimize any negative affects of these shortcuts?

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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