Reframing turbulence

Campus Review, 27 May 2003

Effective strategy-making now is the best way to prepare for the future. JACQUI ELSON-GREEN reports

ACTIVE, continuous strategy-making is essential for the survival and prosperity of registered training organisations in the vocational education and training sector but the emphasis must be on flexibility, not fixed or static plans.

‘Strategy-making in turbulent times’, recently launched by Reframing the Future national project director Susan Young, is a timely report that provides the findings from an evaluation of 28 strategic management and change management projects managed by Reframing the Future and funded through the Australian National Training Authority in 2002. Reframing the Future is the ANTA-funded national staff development and change management program designed to support the implementation of an industry-led, demand-driven national training system of high quality.

The report provides a number of case studies that reveal how RTOs developed strategies in the midst of turbulence because they were both willing and able to craft new strategies. These studies reveal that the managers of many RTOs are vigorously refining their strategy-making skills which augers well for the future health of the national training system.

Reframing the Future designed the new sub-program on strategic management and change management in 2001 in response to findings from a strategic analysis of the sector. Among other findings, the analysis revealed that one of the keys to achieving a fully integrated national training system was to encourage the development of high-performing VET organisations which are characterised by creativity, innovation, flexibility and competitiveness.

The latest report, written by Sydney-based VET consultant, John Mitchell of John Mitchell and Associates, indicates that in future, high-performing RTOs will be those with the ability to formulate and implement strategies, no matter how much turbulence they strike.

Faced with the uncertainty of what the future will bring and given the impossibility of predicting all trends and developments, effective RTOs tap into the explicit and tacit knowledge of a range of its managers. Further, effective RTOs use a raft of planning strategies and models as there is no one best model for developing strategies – the methodology will vary from one RTO to the next, depending on the RTO’s idiosyncratic range of capabilities, environment, goals and challenges.

According to the report, some RTOs preferred the emergent approach to change management, which views change as a continuous, unpredictable process, while others used the planned approach which looks at change as an iterative, cyclical process. Another option was to use a mixture of planned and emergent change management models to meet different needs within one organisation.

The report contends that by selecting appropriate change management approaches, it is possible for RTOs to change entrenched cultures, for example, to change silos of staff into collaborative networks.

A common characteristic of high-performing RTOs in future will be the ability to confidently craft effective strategies in the midst of turbulence. Turbulence in VET in the period covered by the report, May 2002 to February 2003, was evident in the following ways:

  • A change of government in one state led to a review of TAFE
  • A government in another state released a ministerial paper that encouraged RTOs to align their strategic directions with the innovation economy
  • Commonwealth government funding changes caused some RTOs to urgently seek new revenue streams
  • Industry changes, like a major slowing in jobs growth in the IT industry and a downturn in turning caused by the drought in rural Australia, forces some RTOs to review their programming and resource allocations
  • Amalgamations, and predicted amalgamations, of publicly-funded RTOs, challenged the ability of RTO managers to craft strategy in a period of ambiguity
  • Appointments of new senior managers to RTOs sometimes resulted in changes in strategic directions

A range of generic factors that posed challenges leading to turbulence in the business of providing VET were identified by one stakeholder as:

  • Sustainability and growth rely on meeting and exceeding the expectations of all stakeholders
  • For-profit business, government agencies, communities and consumers increasingly require performance or outcome-based, rather than needs-based, results; necessitating the shift to market-based approaches, social auditing and experimentation with more business-like methods
  • A blurring of sector boundaries and empowered, entrepreneurial thinking by individuals and organisations spearhead the search for more sustainable solutions to social problems and more sustainable funding sources
  • Collaboration – partnerships, alliances, networks, strategic conversations and stakeholder involvement – is a keystone to the achievement of business and community aspirations

A case study involving Eastern Pilbara College of TAFE provides an example of taking a strategic management project in an entirely different direction to that initially proposed. Changes that prompted this redirection included a ministerial decision to amalgamate the East and West Pilbara TAFEs by 2003 and a change of managing director to oversee the amalgamation. Extensions of timelines in relation to ministerial approval for proposed organisation structures and other key decisions was another factor along with unforeseen absences by key members of the strategic management team that caused further delays in the recruitment process.

Instead of abandoning their strategic planning because of these factors, the college management considered what could be achieved and clarified that two key components of the amalgamation process could be brought about through the Reframing the Future project.

The first component was the need to develop an overall plan and timeframe to facilitate the amalgamation. This would entail documenting all tasks, how and who would complete them and when it would be done.

The second component involved developing a strategic plan for Pilbara TAFE that would provide a framework for the corporate, directorate, operational and individual performance plans, for which a framework already existed.

According to the project coordinator at Eastern Pilbara College of TAFE, Jenny Thomas, the project was timely in providing funding to employ an external consultant and that “Reframing the Future was the perfect solution”.

Thomas said that considering the sensitivities that can be associated with an amalgamation, having an external project as the facilitator of these two components allowed all key players to participate without generating the feeling that any one college was in control or “owned” the process.

One of the most interesting chapters in ‘Strategy-making in turbulent times’ explores how a range of RTOs confidently developed strategies while not certain about what the future might bring.

Faced with the challenge of making a raft of strategic decisions, some RTOs involved sub-groups of managers who tackled specific strategic issues. Both the RTO and the individual managers benefited from the delegating of strategic planning to these sub-groups, tapping the managers’ breadth of explicit and tacit knowledge.

And to remain flexible and open to new opportunities, effective approaches to strategy-making in large RTOs with multiple goals and diverse clientele include customising and re-shaping existing planning models, or to use a mixture of planning models.

Chapter 3 takes up these issues in a case study of Swinburne University’s TAFE division which the report describes as an exemplary model of confident, flexible and systematic planning in the face of an uncertain future environment for all of VET. Rather than stumbling forward in the face of uncertainty, Swinburne has placed a positive emphasis on embracing innovation, the report notes.

‘Strategy-making in turbulent times’ provides a rich source of ideas to help RTOs prepare for the future which inevitably will be marked by turbulence. For further details about the report go to the Framing The Future website at