Sometimes practice is more important than theory

10th July 1998 at 01:00
I was asked to give a presentation on strategic management to a course on educational management. "We've done the theory, now we need someone to tell us how it's really done," I was told.

I did the theory too, but it was a long time ago, before incorporation, and I must confess that the finer points of management theory have been lost in the welter of getting on with it.

I do know a bit about strategic management in real life though. It comes with a strategic plan, which used at one time to be for five years, but is now more frequently for three.

When I was a technical and vocational education initiative co-ordinator and the plan had to be for five years, ours was robust for the first two years and even then a little grey for the third. The fourth and fifth years were set aside for review and evaluation of the first three. Now we do not have time to set aside for evaluation, and writing a detailed plan for more than one year feels like compiling a work of fiction.

Even the annual plan brings problems. Each year we do a needs analysis, set aims and objectives, add the operational plan, review its progress at intervals, review and evaluate at the end of the cycle, and start again at the end of the year.

Of course it is bad management for three or four of you to do this alone, not allowing the rest of the staff to worry their pretty little heads over it - that would be patronising.

The staff - all the staff - should be fully involved in the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the plan. They must be empowered. This is a very democratic concept, but it is also true to say that some staff do not want to be empowered; they want to know what they should be doing, so that they can get on with doing it. Others feel that if management talks about empowerment it is a way of getting others to do its work for it.

It is clear, anyway, that all this has one great disadvantage: it takes more than a year to run through the cycle properly. What with the planning and empowering stage and the winding up stage at the end, implementation is left with about six weeks to run itself through. And that is if, of course, the aims and objectives stay the same throughout the cycle, and none of the targets has to be rethought.

If someone runs off with the goalposts again, as has happened so often, or if targets cannot be met because someone has gone sick with the key to the filing cabinet, everything has to stop while the strategic plan is updated.

This cannot be how it was meant to be. Strategy is a military word, describing the planning and conduct of a campaign. Imagine a general making his strategic plan and then discovering that he has been misinformed about the nature of the terrain, or waking up on the morning of the decisive battle to find that there is a pea-souper and no-one can see a yard beyond his nose.

What does he do? Does he stick to his plan because it has been written, or does he try to call the whole campaign off for a week or so that he can revise his plan? No.

The fact is that, if it ever was, strategic management is no longer the opposite of crisis management. Crisis management is the facility of taking instant decisions when circumstances change, and we have to realise that at this end of the century circumstances will change.

If we improve our services to our students and survive as a college - and the two are connected, of course - we can be held accountable for the way we have achieved this.

If we stick too closely to thedictates of management theory and go under, who will care that we did so according to the rules? It will not do the college, ourstudents, or the communityany good.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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