Monday 12 July 2010

After all, what does 'strategic' mean?

On the occasion of my participation in a seminar organized by Mapa das Ideias next Thursday, I had another look at the issue of strategic planning.

It seems that nowadays the adjective ‘strategic’ defines any kind of idea, project, initiative. The term is used and abused and I am asking myself if those who use it really understand its meaning. Let´s have a look at the etymology of the word:

Strategy (greek strategia). 1. Part of the military art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations; 2. The art of directing operations and combinations in order to achieve an end.

Thus, not every action is strategic. In order to be, it must be part of a plan through which we aim to achieve an end. In the majority of the cases, we fail in the definition of the ‘end’. We also fail in elaborating a diagnosis that will take us to the definition of the end. Normally, measures and actions are announced without considering the point where we find ourselves and the point we aim to reach. Looking again at the document of the Institute of Museums and Conservation (IMC) Strategic Planning of the IMC: Museums of the 21st century (available
here in portuguese only), on which I first commented in my post on March 15, I consider it a typical example of this way of elaborating plans so called ‘strategic’.

For Thursday´s seminar, I was asked to make a critical analysis of the above-mentioned document. I took the opportunity to look again at two other documents.

In 2005, the british Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) initiated a process entitled Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st century life, that aimed to consult various agents related to museums (we should highlight the absence of the word ‘strategy’ and the presence of the word ‘life’). DCMS identified five main themes for this process:

1. Collections and their uses
2. Learning and research
3. Careers, training and leadership
4. Coherence and advocacy
5. Partnership and measuring value

Based on these themes, 13 questions were formed. The Department presented a summary of the responses in a document available
here. Following this diagnosis:

1. They created a collaborative working group, involving various stakeholders, who then consulted widely with groups and associations to discuss areas of direct concern;
2. They promoted a wider seminar in order to discuss proposals;
3. They published a national strategy Framework, setting long-term goals, entitled
Understanding the Future: Priorities for England´s Museums.

Another process that would lead to the elaboration of a strategic plan was initiated in 2008 by the Municipality of Lisbon. Culture agents were asked to give their opinions on the following themes:


More codified themes, when compared to the british straightforwardness, which were translated into concrete questions that were discussed in open debates. In this diagnostic phase, apart from the analysis of the issues discussed during the debates, there took place the study of existing bibliography, interviews, the analysis of case studies, as well as the opinions and suggestions of all those involved. Based on the diagnosis, they identified the vision, the strategic axes and objectives, which led to the formulation of measures and concrete projects. The result of this process may be found in a document called Strategies for Culture in Lisbon (available
here in portuguese only).

Back to the document presented in January by the Ministry of Culture, we inevitably have to ask:

- Was there a diagnosis and how was it made?
- Were museum agents involved?
- Where can we find the vision of the Ministry of Culture / Institute of Museums and Conservation for the museums of the XXI century?

In other words, where are portuguese museums today and where do they want to be? Unfortunately, we are not going to find the answers in this four-page document. Actually, let´s admit it, this document is not a strategic plan. Presented little after the Minister of Culture and the new directors of IMC came into office, it is not the result of a wider consultation in the sector with the objective to make a diagnosis, in the first place; it does not present a vision; it shows some lack of understanding as to what constitutes a strategic axis, a measure or an action; it does not define priorities; it does not show the way forward. Actually in April, less than three months after it was presented, in an interview to the magazine L+Arte, João Carlos Brigola, IMC Director, defined it as a document that is part of a work in progress, which, after considering all the opinions expressed, would have a definitive version. Well, the above-mentioned examples of strategic planning are enough to understand that the way to do it should have been the opposite.

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