Come February and it's hell in the trenches

4th February 2000 at 00:00
AS SUN TZU said: "Strategy is the great work of the organisation." And as those of us involved in developing strategy for an organisation know, there is no greater work - although perhaps great labour would be a more appropriate term.

Yes, it's that time of year again - when you wait with barely concealed excitement and eager anticipation for the circular, previously from the Scottish Office, nowadays from the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, explaining what the college must do to satisfy the requirements for the formulation of the college development plan.

Every year we are urged to make the plan more strategic, and every year we are required to include more non-strategic details. Every year the layout has altered. Every year we are urged to keep the plan short and every year the list of requirements has increased.

And one year we discovered that the plans were graded, and asked what the grade was, but we were refused. So much for openness. This year we are hopeful a more enlightened approach will prevail. The SFEFC is in charge and seems to have a few reservations itself about what happened under the previous dispensation.

Anyway back to Sun Tzu. In The Art of War, he goes on to state that "the study of strategy cannot be neglected". But where, I hear you ask, is the relevance of warfare to colleges when the name of the game now is collaboration? The Collins English dictionary defines strategy as the art or science of the planning and conduct of war or . . . generalship. A second definition is a particular long-term plan for success especially in business or politics.

Business strategy grew out of military strategy: its primary purpose can be seen as guiding management decisions towards establishing and sustaining competitive advantage. So far the models being used for FE colleges have been predicated on the business model. If (when?) the spectre of mergers returns I am sure the military model will return to fashion - though perhaps not literally. So we do not need to do our studying a a military academy: a business school will suffice for the moment. We should also acknowledge that there are many people who do not consider a business school to be correct either. Some simply wish a return to local government control.

In any case we are all collaborators now, or at least we are being urged to be. But it's not as easy as that: we have just emerged from a period when competition was the name of the game and colleges are still competing with each other for students, albeit at the margin in some cases. So is it collaborative competition or competitive collaboration? We're back in oxymoron country.

Strategy is not a rule book, a blueprint or a set of instructions. It should be a unifying theme giving coherence and direction to the individual decisions of an organisation. This distinction is perhaps the key to some of the problems faced by colleges in development planning in recent years.

What they have been asked for is based on a "rational model" of planning with an emphasis on planning rather than strategy. It is essential that the processes whereby the strategy is formulated, changed and implemented be acknowledged as important.

The early indication from the funding council is for a strategic plan, closely followed by a fully costed operational plan, which seems fine so long as they are properly linked and we do not start to dichotomise strategy and operation (or formulation and implementation for that matter). I know that this is starting to become technical, but who said strategy was easy?

The danger is that unless a strategy actually assists a college in moving in its chosen direction, it is worth little no matter how good it looks. In any case, as Clausewitz warned, "no plan survives its encounter with the enemy". Yes, back to war again.

And listen again to Sun Tzu: "In situations of life or death strategy is the Tao of survival or extinction."

Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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