A Plan for a Strategy

Plans should usually be made after a strategy has been formed, but to achieve a good strategy with broad support and vision requires significant work, and a plan for that work is needed. Here is a suggestion:

Take groups of people drawn from all parts of the University at all levels - a few Heads of Department, some lecturers, postgrads, undergrads, and support staff - the more varied the group the better. Put them on a bus to somewhere away from their normal place of work and arrange to feed them a good lunch (bribery can be very effective sometimes!)

Show some futuristic applications of Information Services, quote some science-fiction intermixed with the more blue-sky parts of the University Strategic Plan, ask the group to free their minds and think of the distant future. Maybe put on a short play...

(Music swells and fades away)

Narrator: The opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, known to millions as the theme tune for 2001: A Space Oddysey by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick - a film far ahead of its time. The real year 2001 is only a few months away, and although we have no computer to match the HAL9000 we have made greater progress in other ways. Let me show you some - we will join a tutorial on the Brunel-Berkeley-Shanghai Applied Maths Masters programme....

(Obvious student appears on one side of stage, with portable computer and large sign saying `Baltimore'. Similarly equipped tutor on the other side, with sign saying `Windsor').

Student: I have been thrashing this equation for hours and I still cant break it - it wont integrate, differentiate, or fractionate. The deadline's tomorrow and I need the credits, what am I doing wrong?

Tutor, scrolling through piles of tangled algebra on screen: Think back to your first level course in partial differentials, do you remember this module? (selects something on screen and presses a key with a flourish).

Student (uncertainly): Yes, but how do I use it? Dr Yakamoto said the same thing when I called her earlier but I just cant see the link.

Tutor (drawing lines on screen with a stylus): Think about the similarity of this part of the problem with this part of the example, and also this and this....

Student: Okay, I'll try, but can I come back to you later?

Tutor: of course, but I think you should get some sleep first. Yakamoto noted that you had talked to her twice, and Williams in Berkeley before that. Follow-the-sun tutorials are not meant to mean students working 24 hours at a stretch!

Student: But the deadline!

Tutor: Of course the deadline - but why do all the work in the last day? I'll be here for another four hours if you need more help, but get some sleep first. You can always talk to Prof Williams at Berkeley later on.

(student and tutor leave)

Narrator: Some things will never change! Now let's look at something that has changed: ( cut to next sketch - another slightly futuristic scene but based on research or administration - give everyone something to identify with)

Brainstorm 1:

Divide into smaller groups - 5 people in each at most, and give each group a separate room. Provide big post-it pads, flipcharts, and pens. Give each group a random selection of cards with statements from the University Strategic Plan, and ask for projections. What could flow from those statements? What benefits? What problems? The groups can use or ignore any of the cards, but should end up with a collection of post-its with one projection on each (kept to general level by small size of paper!). We are looking for problems to solve here. Each group to prepare a 5-minute presentation on their thoughts for the others.

Return to main area, give presentations. Gather all post-its onto the walls and let people read them during coffee.

Near futures session:

Present two or three concepts or almost-products from places like BT Martlesham, Xerox PARC, and MIT Media Lab. Show that other people are working to make new modes of work and study possible.

While this is going on, event staff transcribe all post-its and presentations onto Web pages, and sort the post-its into roughly similar groups on large sheets of paper.

Brainstorm 2:

Small groups again, possibly using different combinations of people (but preserve a mix of HoD, Lecturer, Student etc in each group) Give each group one set of post-its from the earlier session and ask for solutions to some of the problems. Again, they can use or ignore any individual note and should not worry about cost or feasibility of the ideas they generate - after all, a University exists partly to do research, and research can make all sorts of things possible. Ideas onto post-its as before, and group makes short presentation of its thoughts to the others.

Again, event staff transcribe everything produced onto the Web.

Final session:

Whole group discusses findings and works towards some statements that could be incorporated in the Strategy Document. Some measure of realism should creep in here, so that ideas can be placed into a timeframe: do immediately/do soon/plan for 3 years time/start research. event staff transcribe all this directly to Web.

Run several such events in as short a time as possible so that a large number of people are involved quickly. Make all output available on the Web, and provide an online discussion forum open to all members of the University to discuss strategic matters. Moderate the forum to reduce irrelevant arguments and slang-matches.

Over a period of a few weeks starting after the last group session, start putting the framework of the strategy document together on the Web. It should be a dynamic process of evolution: start with some headings and link them to relevant bits of the group output. Ask people on the forum to supply wording for sections and to propose changes. Link all contributions in initially to encourage comment, then start editing towards a final document. Always update the Web copy of the document as work progresses - preferably more than once per day so that people are not commenting on old words. Ideally, find a way to link comments to the version of the part of the document that they refer to so that the whole history is available for inspection.

It may be necessary to hold meetings to get concentrated input from groups that do not easily communicate in online fora.

At the end of this process the complete strategy will be on the Web along with the complete history of its formation. Everyone will have been able to contribute and will feel that in some way it is their strategy. It will have been discussed in common rooms and bars, offices and council chambers. The combined vision and brainpower of thousands of Brunel people will be encapsulated in it. The strategy will be a true basis to move forward.

Andrew Findlay
10 February 1999