A Quick Guide to Strategy in Research

Culture eats strategy for breakfast is a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker 1. And although I agree that the culture of a research group will have a large impact on overall performance, I am not overly convinced that researchers pay strong attention to strategy or culture. Indeed, you only need to look at social media, and you can see that research culture varies widely. Not just within groups or disciplines or departments or faculties, but entire universities 2. Furthermore, and although culture eats strategy for breakfast, I believe strategy, process and planning are fundamental to setting up the right culture. And finally, I also feel that when many people talk about research culture within a university what they actually mean is increasing things like journal publication, grant submissions, and overall performance on ranking schemes. All of which are strategy issues to me.

So, with that in mind, here’s a quick intro to strategy. Hopefully you can apply it to your team, department school or faculty. That is, I hope it’s scalable. Let me know what you think.

Firstly. Strategy, plans, and process are hierarchical and nested. Strategy takes into account what others are doing. It’s the equivalent of using real-time trip planner (e.g. GPS, public transport and weather apps) to take a trip from home to work. Even though the route is well known, using real-time data allows you to take a detour if/when something unexpected happens (e.g. accident, cancellations, changes to the weather). And strategy is often set with the overarching goal in mind. In the case of getting to work, the goal is getting to that location. The strategy is how.

Thus, for any strategy session you need to know what your goals are. The more specific the better as that means you’ll know when you have achieved them.

The real time data equivalent in strategy is knowing what is happening within your working environment. This is often called an environmental scan. Strategy sessions, and strategies in general can spend a lot of time here. However, my experience suggests most people will understand enough without needing to do detailed research. And, if your strategic plan is small or short, that is probably all you need. That is, the people participating in the planning likely know enough about the environment they operate in to make future decisions within those constraints. Examples might be publication approaches, research targets, research foci, budgets, time scales, equipment; not to mention the desires of the university/faculty/school/department, etc you operate within. If you’re going for a minimal approach (i.e. just thinking through the environmental scan), make sure you document the things you note so you can factor them in later. Using the work travel metaphor, the environmental scan will be the weather, traffic, accidents, etc.

The next part of strategic planning is to look at yourself. What are your strengths, and weaknesses? And, looking outside, what are the opportunities and threats? Together this is called SWOT analysis. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis. Going back to the work trip example. SWOT might cover time taken, what transport you have access to, what your preferences are, what others are doing, if you will travel together or alone. And, as might be evident from this, your SWOT and environmental scan may be iterative.

With these data to hand (environmental scan and SWOT) it is now time to plan the achievement of your goals. What can you do to get to your goal that will leverage your strengths, and opportunities? What will get you to your goal minimising weaknesses or reducing threats? Back to our travel example, you might decide to ride a bike to work because you’re a good rider, it will increase your fitness, the weather is great, and you’ve got enough time. Or, if it is raining you might decide that driving is better because it will get you door-to-door faster and drier.

But the plans are nothing without enactment. Planning to ride, but taking the train or driving is pointless. And that’s where culture trumps strategy. The culture of driving has beaten the strategy of riding. You need to make riding easier and driving harder. That might mean buying a better bike, clothes and bags, and planning your cycling route. It could also mean putting your car keys in your bike helmet (reminding you to ride) and cancelling your parking permit. In a work context you’ll need plans and policies with implementation or enforcement. So, if you change research strategy, the implementation aspect must include a change to staff performance plans, and the measures and targets therein. If you want more journal articles, don’t increase staff teaching time. If you want more grant applications, manage staff workloads around key due dates. Now, this can all be done in a few hours. By one person. And that will result in a pretty good strategy covering a small group. But I’d advise involving the entire group. But it can still be done in a few hours. Like anything, it will expand to take up the time you allow for it. So, keep it tight and make sure — more than anything — that you execute. Make sure you put your plan into action. And if it is not working, change it. Just like you’d change travel route if you were faced with an accident, so to change your strategic plan if faced with a change to the environment.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans). Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

1Quote Investigator, Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/05/23/culture-eats/, accessed 22 July 2019

2Growing a research culture, University of Western Sydney, https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/7119/Item_3.6_Building_a_Research_Culture__Tabled_Doc.pdf, accessed 22 July 2019

Originally published at https://www.drrichardhuysmans.com on August 12, 2019.

I’m a careers coach. I help people with PhDs or getting their PhDs answer the question — What next? This is a research strategy question as much as a jobs one.