Multiple ways to continuously shape the future

Campus Review, 25 February 2003

Flexible models for strategic planning could enhance the development of a national strategy for VET, argues JOHN MITCHELL

ONE of my major research and consulting interests is identifying appropriate ways to develop strategy in the vocational education and training sector. I pursue this interest below, in discussing the current process being used by the Australian National Training Authority for developing its next strategy for vocational education and training for 2004-2010.

I attended the Sydney regional forum for the ANTA strategy consultations in February this year and my following comments relate mostly to the discussion paper, not the forum.

Breadth over depth

Like a number of other commentators in Campus Review on the ANTA process for developing the next strategy, I would like to start by acknowledging the open consultative process being used to develop the strategy. I admire the way the forum program is structured to give most of the time to collecting views of the participants. I also admire the stamina of ANTA CEO Moira Scollay who announced at the Sydney forum that she is participating in 20 of the 25 regional forums: an impressive commitment to the consultations.

I agree with some other commentators in Campus Review that the strength of the ANTA public consultations is the garnering of many views and the unavoidable weakness is that no one topic is explored in any depth. For instance, at the Sydney forum, a wide range of interesting topics was touched upon by the 10 people who reported back on their small group discussions. One thread of comments related to the need for VET to focus on skill development, not just qualifications, but this was not the place for an indepth discussion of this line of thought.

At the Sydney forum, the speakers who reported back on their small group discussions were given a few minutes each to address three key points arising from their group’s deliberations. According to my notes, five of the 10 speakers identified training packages as being one of their three key issues. The views varied dramatically from – on the one hand – those who believed that training packages inhibited excellence to – on the other hand – those who believed that the packages are interpreted too narrowly.

My group’s reporter took a third tangent: that the packages should allow for the awarding of grades. In her summary presentation in Sydney, Moira Scollay acknowledged the participants’ ongoing and primary interest in training packages, and that there needed to be more flexibility and less bureaucracy surrounding them. But there was no time at the Sydney regional forum to discuss the issue in depth.

To be fair, ANTA has other structures for such full-scale discussions, such as the policy engagement forums conducted by Reframing the Future each year, but such mechanisms for indepth, public analysis of single topics – by experts on the topic – do not seem to be a common part of the consultative process for the national strategy, which is a pity. While preparing this paper, I was invited to participate in an ANTA think tank in March focused on incorporating e-business into the national strategy, due to my various reports on this topic, so some experts groups are being called together.

ANTA last year received a report on attitudes to training packages and also supports the Reframing the Future program, which assists several thousand VET staff each year to come to grips with training packages. It is regrettable that the specialist knowledge from these various sources is not debated as part of the regional forum consultative process or reflected in the discussion paper issued to coincide with the regional forums.

It would seem that, in choosing to stimulate and collect a breadth of views, depth of insight into many of the issues in VET could not be taken on board, at least in the public consultations at this stage of the planning process. Hopefully specialist knowledge will significantly inform the final strategy.

Entertaining but broadstroke

At first glance, I was impressed with the breezy, let’s-get-on-with-it marketing language of the “discussion starter” publication Shaping Our Future, but on closer inspection I found it raised several concerns, discussed below. As it is only a discussion paper, not a draft strategic plan, I hope I am not being unfair in my expectations of it. My comments are tabled in the hope that they might constructively influence the development of later documentation that might substantiate the final set of strategies tabled with the ministers in mid-2003.

Before analysing the discussion paper, I would like to say what I like about it. It is attractively presented and the many sub-headings help the reader quickly understand the direction of each sub-section. The paper covers many topics and is a good read, like relaxing with a copy of Newsweek on the plane.

While the discussion paper is entertaining, it has some flourishes that are perhaps too broadstroke. For example, the key issues section starts inauspiciously with the observation that “The precise nature of change is largely unpredictable” (p.3). The key issues section then provides a summary of the environmental scan conducted in 2002 that might “give us a head start in predicting the world of the future”, including some predictions that – based on my much earlier adult life as an historian – I know could have been written 100 years ago, ranging from “we are becoming an even more urban society” to “many people will be healthier for longer” to “ways of doing business, too, will continue to change” (p.3-5).

Rational vision

My main interest is analysing the strategic planning framework used in the discussion paper. The paper uses a strategic planning approach that is entirely legitimate but it is only one way among many to approach strategy formulation. Despite its disarmingly informal and conversational language, the logic of the discussion paper fits with the Planning School of strategic planning: a school which sees strategy formulation as a rational process and assumes that the environment is sufficiently stable to prepare plans for many years ahead.

The Planning School sees the development of strategy as a formal process that proceeds logically from the initial development of ideas to the production of very detailed plans incorporating specific and measurable goals, specific responsibilities and mechanisms for control. The rationalist “planning” approach to strategy formation has its strengths and weaknesses.

Features of the discussion paper that are typical of the rationalist Planning School approach to strategic planning include the opening sections on vision and aims and the overall assumption in the document that it is possible to make plans in 2003 for the seven years from 2004-2010.

The “vision” section of the discussion paper suggests that the vision of the future will result from a logical sequence of activities: the vision … will become clearer as consultations continue and the strategies, guiding principles and themes lead us to the objectives for the system. (p.7)

The discussion paper then provides five sample vision statements and invites the reader to think about “what is your vision for the future of vocational education and training?”. When I reflect on the Sydney forum I attended, I believe that no one sentence about vision could summarise the manifold views of the audience and logically contribute to the development of agreed objectives for VET for 2004-2010.

Vision statements are a characteristic of the rationalist approach to strategy: the statements provide a simple, single rallying call to action. It is comparatively easy to frame a vision statement if an organisation is focused on one field, say retail or hospitality, but it is a challenge to find a single, agreed vision statement for a complex national education and training sector. Is a single-sentence vision statement necessary in the national strategy?

Metaphors snowball

The section on ‘Aims for a National Strategy’ proposes seven aims for the sector and uses a two-part structure to discuss each aim: “why it matters” and “the issues”. The “why it matters” section of each aim attempts to persuade us about the urgency or significance of the topic: to convince us of the rationality of the matter. Here again the discussion paper, in striving to persuade and to be easy to read, occasionally stumbles, preferring literary style over rigorous analysis. In the following memorable sentence, search for the evidence and witness the mixed metaphors: “The bottom line is there is a wealth of talent within our nation waiting to be tapped by employers.” (p. 9)

The issues section of each of the seven aims continues this same approach: the use of lively sentences, an appeal to our reason and the discussion of complex topics in quick grabs. For instance, it is argued that a key issue – the first one discussed – for making VET a preferred pathway and for stimulating lifelong learning is promoting the VET brand:

“In an image-conscious age, the benefits of a strong brand are clear: it is an integral part of the ‘success snowball’. The more the system’s clients are perceived by their peers to be part of a success story, the more interest and clients the system will attract.” (p.14)

This suggests that making VET a preferred pathway is a rational marketing challenge, which presumably the brand-making marketers can solve. The discussion paper enthuses: “Learning generally (and national vocational education and training specifically) represents a powerful marketing opportunity.” (p.14)

Is marketing the key to making VET a preferred pathway? In Campus Review, the AEU’s Pat Forward alluded to some recent marketing disasters in the sector. Non-marketing factors affecting the development of VET as a preferred choice – that are not mentioned in the discussion paper – include seed funding for bodies offering new routes to qualifications, industrial relations changes that encourage the development of new pathways and dialogue between VET planners and planners in other educational sectors.

Marketing VET pathways might need to wait until more pathways are put in place. Chris Robinson, in Campus Review, underlined the need for the sector to develop a variety of different pathways into VET to suit a range of potential clients and advised that “We can’t have a one size fits all VET system to cater for these different needs”.

Alternative approaches

The Planning School of strategic planning – which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, came to prominence in the 1970s and continues to be popular around VET – has its merits, but it is only one way to proceed. There are many other approaches to strategy making which deserve attention. For instance, one alternative approach is to take a pluralist view of the VET system and to acknowledge the multiplicity of stakeholders, all with different views: a system where objectives need to be determined necessarily by time-consuming negotiation and where strategies emerge over time, incrementally. A second alternative approach treats strategy as a continuous discourse – a flow of ideas and justifications: and with this approach, the concept of a national strategy would always be under critical scrutiny.

These alternative approaches could help meet the hope expressed by Jim Varghese in Campus Review that VET develop a strategic policy framework with the capacity for inbuilt realignment as conditions change. Strategies for the future can be re-shaped continuously. A flexible strategic planning framework could also accommodate the call from Peter Veenker in Campus Review that the national strategy acknowledge and address the many roles that VET plays with both industry and the community.

ANTA has obviously collected a rich store of valuable information from the consultations to date and is to be congratulated on its leadership in this matter. How this data is translated into a strategic framework is the next challenge. I suggest that the version of the Planning School approach modelled in the discussion paper is too restrictive as the sole framework for the national strategy. Without a modification to the existing strategic planning framework, it is doubtful that the next national strategy will meet the goal set out in the discussion paper: “to be flexible enough to anticipate and meet changes as they arise”. (p.3)

The use of alternative, complementary approaches to strategic planning in the next phase of its activities will enable ANTA to table outstanding documentation with the ministers in the middle of this year, and the documentation would provide more flexibility about how strategy could continue to be formulated, reviewed and enriched over the period 2004-2010. The appropriate use of a number of strategic planning approaches suits this wonderfully complex VET system of ours.

John Mitchell is managing director of John Mitchell & Associates and a VET consultant