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The never ending search for strategy in a changing world

Campus Review, 29 May 2002

Every Registered Training Organisation in the vocational education and training sector in Australia needs managers who can design effective strategies, according to new research. JACQUI ELSON-GREEN reports

EARLIER this year David Windridge and his staff at MEGT spent a day developing a strategic plan to guide the small, progressive, not-for-profit private provider for the next 12 months. The next day a competing private provider approached Windridge with a number of ideas that would fundamentally change the company's direction. The result - Windridge relegated the day-old strategic plan to the rubbish because overnight it had become obsolete.

Windridge was called on last week to tell this story at a forum in Sydney on strategic and change management and the national training framework because it illustrates both the volatility of the training environment and that designing successful strategy is a "never ending quest".

The forum, which attracted 40 leading public and private VET practitioners from across the country, was organised by the national project director for Reframing the Future, Susan Young and John Mitchell, of John Mitchell and Associates.

Mitchell is the author of "The never-ending quest: effective strategy-making and change management for high-performing VET organisations", a report on the findings from an evaluation of pilot projects from the Reframing the Future sub-program on strategic management and change management, 2001-2002.

The sub-program is a direct result of research undertaken by Young and Mitchell for the report "High-skilled, High-performing VET". Their research found that one of the keys to achieving a fully integrated national training system was to encourage the development of high-performing organisations which are characterised by creativity, innovation, flexibility and competitiveness.

The forum marked the launch of more than 25 new projects with participants gaining direct insight from the three project teams involved in the pilot, the Institute of TAFE Tasmania, TAFE NSW's North Sydney College and MEGT.

Project team leaders expanded on findings in Mitchell's report which illuminates important issues such as the value of strategic management and change management for RTOs and the value of RTOs pursuing the goal of becoming high-performing VET organisations.

Mitchell says that while there is no one accepted definition of strategy, a common theme in the literature is that strategy involves making choices about which customers to focus on, which products to offer and which activities to perform.

The shifting environment that has characterised the VET industry since the introduction of the national training framework calls for RTO's strategies to be constantly updated, says Mitchell, adding that

"effective strategy-making needs to be acknowledged as a critical function for all RTO managers".

According to Mitchell, the role of the strategic manager is critical in responding to the strategic context which includes all the external factors impacting on the organisation's business.

Further, because RTOs need strategies that are appropriate both now and in the future, the emphasis in strategic management needs to be on flexible strategy-making, not fixed plans.

Each of the three RTOs in the pilot study sought to make changes that would be sustainable and were mindful of exhausting their managers by trying to achieve too much, too quickly.

"Change management requires VET managers to use a mix of wisdom, judgement, sensitivity, patience and flexibility," says Mitchell, noting that each of the three RTOs in the pilot addressed both cultural and structural change by using change management strategies customised to suit their contexts.

Cultural changes included developing improved relationships with industry and an improved client-orientation and a move away from a classroom mentality into a newer, more flexible mode while structural shifts were the creation of new roles and the development by one, of fast-acting 'operations response teams'.

Mitchell emphasises that, to improve organisational effectiveness, RTOs need to analyse their own cultures and structures, identify appropriate change management methodologies and expect different results from their counterparts.

Mitchell and Young have written a three-page summary containing core ideas on strategic management and change management and the national training framework to guide VET practitioners.

They say the strategic management and change management sub-program of Reframing the Future enables VET organisations to, firstly, review whether the strategy or strategies they have are the ones they really want. Secondly, it allows for the formulation and fine-tuning of strategies to enable them to become high-performing organisations.

The authors note that the challenge for managers to develop successful strategy is relentless and the speed with which new strategies are required is increasing. Further information about these sub-programs is available from the Reframing the Future website at www.reframingthefuture.net