Developing Institutional Strategy

What is Strategy?

The term strategy is poorly understood and is often confused with tactics, goals and objectives.

  • Strategy defines the highest level of initiatives, why they are engaged in, what benefit they bring to the entity, and how they position the entity within the educational spheres it engages.
  • Entity refers to any major or minor unit or subunit that has a distinct vision, a defined trajectory (where it is going), a specific sphere or sub-sphere it influences, and an administrative/governance structure that guides decisions.
  • Entity Strategies define the position it occupies in the educational realm with respect to markets, competitors, disciplines, knowledge domains, communities of practice, research and a wide variety of roles and functional domains an institution or its composite entities may engage in.
  • The term strategy, as used in planning, is a relative term (to the entity i.e. institution, division, school or college, department), and this causes further confusion.
  • Institutional Strategy enables school, college, division, department and program of study strategy to be developed. Each of these strategic entities may have strategies, and they can be either tightly or loosely coupled to the institutional mission and strategies.

Using the SRS Pyramid to Develop Institutional Strategy

Developing strategy is a delicate and reflective process, six interactive framing concepts help to shape all strategy. The SRS Pyramid is designed to provide a reference point for the discussion of the six concepts. We typically begin in the lower right of the diagram with sphere and work clockwise around the outside of the pyramid. You can begin anywhere and work either clockwise or counter clockwise, after one round the importance of sphere as the begin point emerges.

SRS Pyramid, Method for reviewing mission statement and developing strategy in higher education.

The SRS Pyramid depicts the schematic for a formal method for reviewing mission statement and developing strategy in higher education. Mission defines Sphere and Role, Vision relates Role to Strategy, Strategy redefines Strategic Position within and organizations Sphere of influence.

The Sphere of an entity is defined by its geographic reach, competitive and collaborative organizations, subjects, disciplines, and communities of practice influenced by; and whose influence is exerted on the strategic entity. Each strategic entity is defined by its mission within a sphere that defines its role (purpose and function) within the sphere. Environmental scanning and analysis (often referred to as a SWOT Analysis for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) inform and evaluate changes within the sphere and how they impact mission and role. Environmental scanning without an analysis is a waste of time.

Once the Sphere, Mission, Role conditions and interaction are understood strategists, planners and constituents invest in the creative process of determining a vision of the future in which strengths are sustained or enhanced, weaknesses are addressed, opportunities are capitalized on and threats are mitigated. Strategies are then developed to enable the entity to realize its vision. When implemented the strategies modify and sustain the entities strategic position in its sphere of influence.

At the center of the pyramid lies the concept of institutional capacity. Institutional capacity refers to the ability of the institution to engage in a strategy requiring such elements as intellectual assets, process proficiency, systems capability, knowledge pools, skill profiles, physical capacity or legacy position in the market. The capacity of an institution defines its potential. Optimizing existing, building new or developing emerging capacity is one of the most important focal points of strategy development and implementation.


An example is offered to help contextualize and clarify these terms and how they are used. The strategy of preeminence (creating an institutional culture and reputation characterized and acknowledged as being among the best of its type available in the market) is one often bandied about. Clarity requires that the sphere of influence in which an organization means the term, must be defined.

For example, an institution may declare a strategy of being: preeminent among research I institutions, preeminent in health science education, preeminent in art and design, or preeminent in any of a number of specific spheres or domains. Further detail must fill in the capacity dimensions of how this will be achieved for example, facilities will mirror the best available, faculty will be among the leading scholars; placement will be students choice among positions available globally. Tactics would then deter-mine how facilities would become among the best available. This might begin with modify the campus master plan to define state-of-the-art specifications for particular target areas of preeminence. Goals would establish milestones over a 1-5 year (perhaps longer) horizon. Annual work would be broken into specific objectives and assigned to individual and team work plans.

There is one comment

  1. Randall Langston

    First, I think that you are spot on regarding our understanding of the term strategy.. I think that we can sometimes get into a rut thinking that strategy is situational and conceptual, where in reality it is the model (or expectations provided) by which the institutional strategy will either be successful or fail..

    To me the sphere is essentially the context or environment by which the institution operates in. Obviously Harvard for example has a greater reach/sphere than Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt wields a greater amount of influence than Easter Michigan Univ. This is where institutional understanding, clarity, and position in the market place is so important in order to develop credible and attainable goals and strategy. Your suggestion of a SWOT analysis in order to better understanding institutional market position or the sphere is very appropriate. The only issue that I have with SWOT is the lack of rigor. It is of course an easy way to quickly assess institutional strengths weakness, opportunities and threats subjectively, but it relies on an organization that can see itself “outside of the weeds”. I think that this is the most difficult part of the scanning process.. I tend to use the following article to give me context in enviro scanning.

    It would be great to see institutional capacity delineated somewhere on the pyramid.. Capacity is an interesting word that all institutions typically use. In EM, capacity is often seen as a “state” by which we achieve parity in access, revenue, and academic quality, which of course when taken together is difficult, but not impossible to achieve. In your model capacity refers to all of those intrinsic elements that must transpire symbiotically in order for the institution or organization to operate optimally and efficiently.

    Finally, the learner centered questions are very applicable as an institution determines their own identity that should (hopefully) align with the mission vision and strategic position of the campus. From a learner services perspective I think of space utilization issues on campus. Are we trying to stuff as many students as possible in the classrooms or is there a true interaction occurring in a “space” where students feel valued and are comfortable to express themselves? Other things I would look for includes: Is the curriculum flexible and dynamic? Students today (especially the Millennial population) are seeking, rather demanding, that learning not just be Socratic, but rather one that is experiential and fluid. Student today see their classrooms as being in another country as part of study abroad or perhaps virtually as they learn collaboratively with others in the same city or a world away! This probably goes into the teaching methods, but again dynamic, evolving, and fluid seems to suit today’s students much more than Boomers or Gen X’rs. Learning opportunities that can be attained that is global seems to serve as the “self-actualization” moment for many students as we see they take advantage of internships, externships, study around the nation or globally..

    I probably could pontificate much more on this, but I hope that you sense my feelings that the model that you have developed is something that hits a contemporary nerve in today’s student population. This coupled with a strong institutional commitment to learning and its continuous attention to strategy, mission, and vision, can place a college or university in a very optimal position to be successful stewards of fiscal and institutional direction and strategy!


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