The Benefits of a Strategy for an Institution of Higher Education

by Dr. Scott Moore | April 22, 2020

Estimated time to read: minutes

A university can have a strategy, as can a school, a department, and a program. A school can set a strategy for its online programs. All of this is true, but the question remains: At what organizational level does creating a strategy have the most impact?

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

Top-level institutional leadership

In essence, the effectiveness of a strategy is up to the institution’s top leadership. The strategy is usually set at the institution level, and it can be used to drive other strategies at unit levels (school, department, and program). The impact of this overarching strategy is determined by how its leaders enforce the strategy at those unit levels:

Does the provost insist that all major budget requests be justified with “strategy support” statements, and then have a follow-up effectiveness report the next year? Do deans require annual plans (and, again, follow-up effectiveness reports) from heads of school programs that specify how the program will act and invest to support the strategy? Or, once the strategy is written, does it sit on the proverbial shelf without influence on anyone’s decision-making?

The answers to these questions, and others like them, provide clues as to whether a higher education institution’s top leadership are performing their duties, doing the hard work of ensuring that the institution’s strategy remains a guiding light for everything from daily decisions to multiyear investment strategies.

Tactical decisions are those made at a level of specificity that is not directly addressed by a strategy. For example, what go-to-market plan for a program would be most effective? What information technology investments should be made to support students? Answers to these questions, and others like them, are almost always given at the unit level. This decision-making is simplified by having a strategy to set the boundaries of what is possible. For the go-to-market plan, the organizational strategy would have specified the general makeup of target prospects, the differentiating student experience of the institution as a whole, and other vital components. If the institution’s strategy says that it serves low-income adult learners, then a program should not waste time or resources considering any plans that do not serve this audience.

No separate online learning strategy

This needs to be stated and emphasized:

A higher education institution should not have an online learning strategy that is somehow separate in tone, content, or direction from the institution’s overarching strategy.

A couple of points justify this statement: First, the higher education online learning market is not separate from the overall market for learning. Institutions do not get to make the decision to separate the two; vendors do not get to make this decision. Prospective students make this decision, deciding among a choice of face-to-face degree programs, online degree programs, blended degree programs, and certificate programs of all types (as well as others not listed here). Given that a prospective student cross-shops outside of the set of strictly online learning programs, the broad market for learning must be considered as one market; the institution should not operate as if online learning is some separate endeavor that happens to be carried out under the same roof.

Second, an online program will have a better chance for long-term success the more it explicitly supports and operates in line with that institution’s strategy. These programs should not be rogue operators with different value propositions, differentiators, and target markets than those specified by the institutional strategy. Certainly, early online learning efforts at an institution can be operated as skunkworks efforts, separate from the main decision-making body of the institution, so that leaders can accelerate and simplify decision-making around that effort. (Online or hybrid noncredit certificate programs within a university or school that is new to online learning that possibly use a new pedagogy are prime targets for a skunkworks-type organization.) However, the decision to separate the effort into a skunkworks should be made explicitly by the institution’s leaders with the knowledge that the effort will be folded back into the institution (along with all the lessons learned by that effort) when the experiment has been completed. In any event, online learning programs are simply learning programs with a different delivery media and are not deserving of some special operating space outside the scope of the institution’s broad-scale strategy.

Unit-level strategies

Back to the statements at the beginning of this article:

A university can have a strategy, as can a school, a department, and a program. A school can set a strategy for its online programs.

Higher education organizational chart

I have made the case that a university should have a strategy. I hope that much is clear. But I would also say that the school, department, and program (online or not) should also have strategies. However, these strategies make the most sense and are the easiest to specify when they are created under and in alignment with the strategy of the whole institution. Problems can and will arise when unit-level strategies are put in place either 1) in the absence of an institutional strategy, or 2) in conflict with an existing institutional strategy. It is also the case that unit-level strategies can be necessary in the face of purposefully incomplete higher-level strategies. Below, I discuss each of the problems in turn, and then present my recommendations for how to proceed.

Absence of an institutional strategy

The problems raised by the absence of an institutional strategy are manifold.

  • Any unit strategy that is created may eventually conflict with a new institutional strategy (see the following subsection for the problems with this).
  • A unit strategy may conflict with the strategies of other units, thus limiting the effectiveness of any of their strategies taken alone; further, there is no explicit and defensible higher authority at the institutional level (other than that influenced by the vagaries of politics) that could adjudicate between any conflict among the units.
  • The absence of a higher strategy makes the decision-making process at the unit level more complicated (as described in Section 2.1).
  • The absence of an institutional strategy makes it easier for a new dean at a school or new faculty head of a department to implement a new strategy that conflicts with an existing strategy at the school or department since there is no guidance from above.
  • Finally, the absence of an institutional strategy makes it harder to justify asking the central administration for support for the unit (e.g., funds, personnel, and cross-institution cooperation).

Operating within such an institution would be complicated and carry great long-term inefficiencies and risks.

Conflict with an existing institutional strategy

This problem seems to have more direct, day-to-day costs than those mentioned above. A unit strategy that conflicts with an existing institutional strategy creates these obstacles:

  • The unit minimizes its own effectiveness by raising confusion in the market, with prospects, and with others who are aware of the discrepancy. An institution wants its programs to present a unified face and deliver a unified message to the market so that its overall brand is strengthened by its individual programs rather than muddled.
  • It is hard to justify support for the unit from the institution. If a program or effort is small, then a dean (for example) does not necessarily have to get resources or other support from the central administration; however, once the effort grows larger, the unit will probably need support from the central administration, which would more than likely withhold resources since the unit is working in conflict with the institution.
  • A conflicting unit strategy makes it more difficult for new leadership in the unit to know how to proceed (or to proceed at all). A new leader joining a unit with such a strategy has to proceed cautiously, learning the certainly complicated history of the unit and its relationship with the central administration. Relationships between the central administration and the unit are likely to be frayed, and any efforts to align the unit strategy with the institutional strategy must be approached with caution within both the unit and the central administration.

The success of such a unit would be limited by a threshold imposed by each of the above issues. In order to remove the threshold, the conflict between strategies would have to be resolved, probably through a long-term effort that would distract leadership from other pressing problems. I would encourage any leaders to undertake that effort. Succeeding is hard enough without working against central administration.

Incomplete specification

Let’s remind ourselves of our working definition of strategy:

A strategy is a statement describing where the organization is going to compete, how it is going to compete, how it is going to win, why it will win, and the steps that it will take to achieve success.

Here I will assume that the university has gone through the process of defining its overarching strategy before the program begins defining its particular strategy. However, in this case the university has provided recommendations or defaults for various facets of the strategy and has left it up to program leadership to determine how it might refine or revise a particular facet. This would be a reasonable approach for a large, diverse university to take because the quality, history, and competitive position of all of its programs are bound to range widely.

When the institution originally defines its strategy, it can provide guidance for the unit and program strategies that might be created under its influence, or it can simply leave the facet blank. When providing defaults, institutional leadership should also explain the rationale for those defaults and how or why units might depart from them. Once the structure is in place, institutional leadership must determine how it will be enforced. The following are requests that institutional leadership might make of units:

  • Submit a revised strategy and meet with an oversight committee: Unit leadership should go through the process of writing their strategy, showing how and explaining why it differs from the overarching institutional strategy, and then meet with the institution’s oversight committee to determine how to proceed. A possible policy might be to enter into ongoing consultation to align the unit—with the understanding that university resources (e.g., funding, computing resources, instructional design personnel) would be withheld unless the unit complied. The institution could also decide to make exceptions or provide limited support while the unit is non-compliant.
  • Submit a revised strategy and document how it differs from the recommended strategy: This option starts the same way as the previous but differs in that there is no belief that the institution would react, punitively or otherwise, upon the submission of the strategy. The university leadership might meet with unit leadership to obtain deeper understanding of its reasoning or to attempt to persuade the unit to comply, but that would be the extent of its reaction.
  • Submit annual reports on the portfolio of programs and how their strategies differ from the top-level strategy: This option is chosen when the institution is looking to stay informed of the actions of its relatively independent units. The institution might use the information as part of a learning process so that it can stay up-to-date on its portfolio of programs and gain insight into which ones are successful in the market and why. It could also use this information as input into a periodic strategy revision process.

One other choice is to simply write the strategy and not ask for any compliance information. Certainly, this is only marginally better than writing no strategy at all, but in some institutions it could be seen as the only way forward, a small step toward bringing the units into an ongoing conversation.


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. How does leadership at your institution use a strategy to guide decisions and investments? If you are not part of the decision process, do you see any artefacts that show how it is used?
  2. Do you observe any differences in the decisions made related to online programs vis-a-vis residential programs in the context of the overarching strategy?

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.

Let us teach you about learning.

We'll send you an occasional email with resources from our team of learning experts.

Subscribe to Updates