Linking strategic and operational thinking

A long-standing criticism of training provision in some quarters is that it can be detached from the organisation’s overall strategy. That is, if we are not careful, an organisation can be investing heavily in training and development activities that do not support its strategic direction, while important learning activities to support such a strategy are not invested in.

Strategic thinking is ‘big picture’ thinking, looking at why the organisation exists, what it is trying to achieve, what direction it is trying to go in and so on. Operational thinking is about the bread and butter, day-to-day workings of the organisation. One way of looking at it is to see operational thinking as being concerned with keeping the wheels of the organisation turning, while strategic thinking is concerned with making sure they are being steered in the right direction.

One significant danger is that the two types of thinking can become disconnected. When strategic thinking does not connect with the operational realities of the organisation, the result can be empty ‘mission statements’ that can be ridiculed for being so out of touch with reality. In such circumstances people make jokes about how strategy documents should be ‘filed under fiction’ – clearly an unsatisfactory situation, but unfortunately not an uncommon one.

At the other extreme, where we have operational thinking that does not connect to the wider strategic direction of the organisation, we can have problems with:

• ‘Drift’ or lack of focus – energies become dissipated because there is a lack of clarity about what is to be achieved or, in some cases, energies can be directed into wholly inappropriate areas because no-one is sure what areas they are supposed to be dealing with. As the old saying goes, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there’.

No basis for prioritising – in situations where workload demands exceed resources available, how do you prioritise if you are not sure what the important issues are for your organisation? I would argue that, in work overload situations, we need to be more focused on overall strategic issues, rather than less.

Being at the mercy of organisational culture – if the organisation’s strategy is not guiding our actions, then there is a strong chance that the organisation’s culture will be very influential in shaping decisions made, actions taken and so on. If you have a culture that helps you achieve your goals, that is not necessarily a problem, but for the many organisations where their culture is not entirely compatible with their strategic objectives, this can be very problematic indeed.

If we are to play a part in making organisations successful, then we need to consider how we can make sure that we are clear about:

• The overall goals, specific objectives and underlying values that play such an important role in shaping an organisation’s strategy.

• The specific plans for achieving those goals and objectives within the values identified – some people make the mistake of thinking that just knowing what the goals, objectives and values are will be enough to bring them to life. This may sound a naïve approach on paper, but it is surprising how many people fall into that trap.

• Mechanisms for reviewing and evaluating the strategy and our plans for achieving it. A very common danger here is that people may engage in linking strategic and operational thinking in a fit of enthusiasm for taking matters forward, but may not be able to sustain this over time because of other pressures. It is therefore imperative that there are mechanisms for reviewing what is happening and evaluating whether things are working out or not.

What we need, then, is to be able to contribute to making sure that strategic and operational thinking are both taking place and that the two are interconnected in realistic ways. Training and development issues have a foot in both camps, as it were, so those of us involved in promoting workplace learning have a part to play in trying to help link strategic and operational thinking.

Dr Neil Thompson