Now is the perfect time for thinking about strategy and strategic positioning…

Professor Ron Hill

University of Stirling

Setting the strategic direction for a college is a core task and prime function for the board and now is the perfect time to be thinking about college strategy. Colleges have completed their self-assessment reviews for 2017/18 and the 2019/20 college year horizon is coming into focus. College governing bodies usually hold their ‘away days’ and ‘creative time’ sessions from now on.

Governing is a dynamic process whereby ‘the formulation of strategy leads to policymaking and planning, with the board then monitoring and supervising executive performance, before subsequently providing accountability, which forms the basis for reviewing strategy’. (Tricker, 2012, p. 173). A key element of strategy formulation is strategic positioning, differentiating the organisation from other service providers. Chew and Osborne (2009), identify a range of opportunities for strategic positioning which I have adapted for colleges below, including:

  • Specialised services and opportunities e.g. programme specialisms beyond the ‘general’ course listing
  • Relations with key stakeholders e.g. employers and apprenticeships, progression to partner universities, courses linked to local employers’ workforce requirements
  • Recognised and reported quality of provision e.g. recent inspection commendation(s), employer feedback, student feedback
  • Nature of the college’s mission e.g. the articulated intention to achieve a specific purpose such as to be the regional college for the construction industry; the articulated intention to serve a particular geographic area.

The development of strategic plans should be seen as stimulating strategic positioning thinking and thus the achievement of coherent and imaginative thinking about planning.

But how to reach the next big plan for the college? The starting point should include thinking about the success or otherwise of the current plan. Has it delivered what was expected? If so, great. If not, why not? Either way, it is important to plan your way to the approval of the next plan.

So, the processes and practices to think about now should include:

  • Undertaking a scheduled review of the current (or previous) strategic plan taking in and listening to the views of students, staff and stakeholders
  • Information gathering and synthesis
  • Listening to key stakeholders’ expectations for the future
  • Timing governor meetings and events to consider early drafts of new plans
  • Evaluating the implications of any significant innovations e.g. extension of blended learning methodologies, increase in on-line learning etc.
  • Arranging consultation processes (including focus groups) on proposed plans
  • Deciding when the formal decision making to approve the next strategic plan will take place
  • Communicating and sharing the board-approved strategic plan

The benefits of thinking about the processes and practices for formulating college strategy now gives governors, the governing body clerk/secretary, college senior staff and stakeholders a schedule of intent to work to.

The key tests for governors at the end of the process include answering the following questions:-

  • What are the key features of the approved strategic plan?
  • What are the key risks inherent within the strategic plan and how will they be mitigated?
  • What improvements to strategic planning should we be making for the next planning phase?
  • How are the objectives of the strategic plan connected to senior staff performance expectations?

And crucially,

  • As a governor, have I participated in the processes of creating the strategic plan and what was my particular contribution?

Giving careful, considered and timely thought to the processes and practices leading to the board’s approval of the next strategic plan is one way in which the governing body can actively contribute to the leadership of the college.


Chew, C. and Osborne, S.P. (2009) Exploring strategic positioning in the U.K. charitable sector: emerging evidence from charitable organisations that provide public services British Journal of Management 20(1), 90 ‘ 105.

Tricker, B (2012) Corporate Governance: Principles, Policies and Practices Oxford: Oxford University Press