Strategising for a storm of change in Australian education

Gonski 2.0, the Royal Commission, marriage equality, massive school building programs, new flexible learning pedagogies: each is likely to contribute to what could amount to a generational disruption in demand dynamics in the education market in Australia. Their influence will be felt in every school in the country. This new instability in the education sector presents both opportunity and threat for schools, and school systems. It demands calculated strategic response.

Two contemporary organisational strategy phenomena are relevant here: the death of the strategic plan and the rise of culture.

It is likely that this perfect storm of change has been reached by many schools somewhere in the course of a 3- to 5-year strategic planning cycle. Although an incisive SWOT analysis performed at the front end of this might have predicted some of these external developments, chances are they didn’t suggest the whole-of sector-change scenario that schools are facing now.  That means that many schools are now unprepared to weather, influence, and take advantage of the newly fluid environment.

As has occurred in other sectors experiencing rapid structural change, the winners will be those who are able to demonstrate innovation, a responsiveness to the new needs and views of the market, and most, importantly, capacity to pivot in their performance strategically, to stem loss or take advantage. This is not a time for steady-as-she-goes, or for heads-in-the-sand-and-hoping.

The plan vs planning

As schools will freshly be discovering, the fundamental problem with the multi-year strategic plan is that it is does not predict or account or provide accurately (or indeed, strategically) for future conditions in times of rapid change. But the much-hyped death of the plan must not mean the death of strategy.  Quite the opposite — it must mean more, on-going, strategy planning.  We must still have a vision and measurable objectives but, and especially in view of the current state of flux in the education sector, the KPIs and the strategies for achieving them should be revised at least every 6 months if not quarterly. And starting right now if there is a semi-moribund, multi-year plan currently in place.

Culture as strategy

The second notion, the rise of culture, sometimes reflected as ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, (Peter Drucker as reported by Fields, 2006), would suggest a valorisation of culture at the expense of strategy, and indeed, they are regularly counter-pointed in popular literature.  But Peter Drucker’s essential point was that culture is power, not that strategy is nothing. In contemporary agile governance terms, to focus on improving the culture of an organisation is a hugely important and effective operational strategy for the rapid change era.

What does this mean for schools right now? This is not a post for talking about what is good and not-so-good organisational culture, but let’s face it, culture is not rocket science. The usual sin is not in failing to understand what culture is, or even in failing to be able to characterise it in a particular organisation, but rather in failing to recognise that culture matters. And it really does, right now, for schools and community-based organisations, more than ever. Through the magic of the children, a school as an organisation has outstanding normative force to weld hearts, minds, wallets and energies to its mission. But the mission must be clear and the greater school community on board with the way forward.

The discerning consumer

Contemporary parents are proactive consumers of education services. The external changes affecting the sector will be turning heads and a couple of important bits at the other end. For parents will be voting with their feet for schools that reflect their values, that engage them effectively, that are innovative and energised, that are affordable, that are happy, safe places. It is not a time to ignore disaffection in any significant stakeholder group. It is a time to re-group and consider the way forward together in the new era of flux.

How happy are your staff, parents, students, and local community with your school? How old is the  strategic planning instrument? How often is it referred to? Has your school planned a strategic position and response, shoring up the precious capital of the culture of its entire community, to navigate the current turbulence in the Australian schools sector?

by Maree Livermore

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