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Who Are Our Planners—and What Do They Read?

Published March 17, 2022
By Roy Mathew, PhD
Challenges: Planning Alignment
Planning Types: Strategic Planning

SCUP’s Planning 50th Anniversary Blog Series

Editor’s Note: October 2021 marked Planning for Higher Education’s 50th issue! To celebrate, we’re looking back at earlier articles in Planning to reflect on how things change (and, sometimes, how they don’t).

After reading many articles and books related to organizational planning, I have come to appreciate the importance of SCUP’s Planning for Higher Education journal; it’s likely the most comprehensive resource for literature about higher education planning. In this post, I make the case that planning practitioners, planning analysts, and planning theorists would benefit from reading Planning. I also describe planning insights that would benefit each group of higher education planners.

Who Are These Planning Practitioners, Analysts, and Theorists?

At first glance, you may assume that planning practitioners and analysts are professionals like me—those who have earned a degree in planning, or who have administrative titles with the word “planning” in them. Similarly, you may assume that planning theorists are faculty members in business disciplines, or consultants who provide advice on elements of organizational planning (for example, strategic planning). If these assumptions are correct, the journal articles would only have value for a small group of administrators and scholars. This is not the case! In fact, Planning is an essential resource for all higher education administrators, planning analysts, and theorists from many disciplines. Let me begin by describing each group and then identify the types of information each group could glean from the journal articles.

Defining the Role of Planning Practitioners, Planning Analysts, and Planning Theorists

Who are planning practitioners and planning analysts? “Planning” refers to deliberations that influence action. John Friedmann, a leading planning theorist, defined planning as applying knowledge to action. Friedman’s definition implies that every administrator in higher education is a planning practitioner. So, what is the role of administrators trained as planners (like me)? We are planning analysts; our function is to monitor and improve the effectiveness of the planning system. Specifically, planning analysts focus on evaluation and provide actionable insights to practitioners to improve the effectiveness of the deliberated action. Let me make the distinction clear: planning practitioners deliberate and take action in their functional areas of responsibility, and planning analysts focus on understanding and improving deliberated actions within the organization.

Who then are planning theorists? The academy is familiar with theorists. We know theorists delineate structures in the physical sciences, human sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. However, planning theorists are different from the “pure science” theorists. Planning theorists fall into a category that I would classify as action theorists. Planning theorists focus on explaining structures that influence action. The main difference between “pure science” and “action science” is that the latter theories do not predict outcomes. Planning theory cannot predict outcomes, because practitioners take independent action that ultimately determines outcomes. Instead, planning theory provides a framework to diagnose emergent administrative problems (i.e., system disruptions), and it identifies actions that are necessary to stabilize the system to ensure progress in goals and outcomes. All disciplines that prepare students for administrative positions tacitly or explicitly rely on planning theory.

What Type of Insights Can Planning Practitioners, Analysts, and Theorists Glean from Planning Articles?

Planning practitioners benefit from articles that describe actions related to each element of organizational planning (e.g., tactical planning, strategy planning). In particular, practitioners can garner insights about actions that improve efficiency and effectiveness in the production of outcomes. It takes some practice to isolate the planning elements in most articles because authors primarily describe operational issues (like enrollment management). Nonetheless, it is doable. My colleagues and I have identified and cataloged more than 60 Planning articles based on the planning elements addressed.

Planning analysts benefit from articles that clarify how different subsystems within the organizations work together to produce outcomes. These types of articles primarily focus on conceptual or empirical models. Examples include models that explain changes in key metrics, such as enrollment, degree completion, research expenditures, or total revenue. Analysts rely on these models to refine their understanding of how components of subsystems work together to produce outcomes. Another helpful group of articles focuses on diagnostic frameworks and tools that provide insights into the status of the planning system.

Planning theorists are interested in articles that describe vexing problems. These are problems that result from complexity. In most cases, practitioners can’t isolate the underlying problem and, as such, they tend to focus on mitigating symptoms rather than resolving the issue. Planning theorists have an essential role in solving vexing problems. Theorists can reframe the practical problem using a theoretical framework, which will yield actionable insights that can help practitioners take iterative actions to resolve the issue. In addition, planning theorists will benefit from articles that produce better-than-expected outcomes. In most cases, these changes result from tactical innovation or a refined understanding of subsystem dynamics (e.g., having more insights about factors that influence student success outcomes); the latter insights are helpful to refine planning theory.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Reading Planning Literature

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have read an extensive list of publications produced in the previous century about higher education planning. During our literature review, we encountered conceptual pitfalls that each group of planners should avoid when reading the literature.

The most problematic pitfall for practitioners is the “best practice” trap. Case studies are beneficial literature for practitioners, but they are also the most challenging. Case studies generally describe actions (or initiatives) that produce positive outcomes. As such, practitioners tend to view case studies as best practices that would yield similar results at their institution. However, the conditions that created the problem must be equivalent at both institutions to produce the same results. For example, if the best practice intervention addressed a tactical problem, then the practitioner must determine if the same problem exists at their respective institution. If problem conditions aren’t the same, then implementing the “best practice” intervention would have no impact or, in some cases, could undermine the effectiveness of the current system.

The most problematic pitfall for planning analysts is the “subsystem optimization” trap. Articles tend to explain problems and outcomes associated with a specific subsystem (student success, for example). However, all subsystems within the organization are interrelated. In higher education, the subsystems related to teaching/learning, research, service, and administration are linked, and changes in one system will impact the other subsystems. For example, changes in enrollment will have an effect on teaching/learning (e.g., enrollment in courses), research (e.g., faculty time on research), service (e.g., graduates for the workforce), and administration (e.g., net revenues). Although the articles may describe models that optimize outcomes in a single subsystem, the analyst must consider the implications across the entire system. This analysis is essential because the conditions that produce optimal performance in one institution’s subsystem will not likely generate the same outcomes in another system.

The most problematic issue for theorists is the “discrete theory” trap. It’s increasingly common to find articles that describe elegant frameworks to explain complex organizational problems. The limitations of these frameworks are only evident when considered in the context of broader planning theory and higher-order “pure science” theories. For example, a new theoretical framework that explains strategy or prescribes action must be consistent with the broader planning theory and structures described in the social sciences (e.g., political science, psychology, sociology, and economics).

Concluding Thoughts

SCUP’s Planning for Higher Education offers a half-century of insights about organizational planning in higher education, and the articles provide valuable insights to practitioners, analysts, and theorists. The most remarkable fact is that the journal coincided with the development of planning theory, so the Planning articles capture the evolution of theory and practice of higher education planning.

About the Author


Roy Mathew, PhD, is associate vice president for planning at the University of Texas at El Paso. From 2004 to 2018, he served as the director of UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research, and Planning. He currently is responsible for CIERP and for UTEP’s Center for Metrics Based Planning. Previously, he served as the senior planning and policy analyst for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mathew earned a baccalaureate degree in economics, a master’s in urban planning and policy, and a doctorate in public policy analysis and planning from the University of Illinois at Chicago.