Insights from the Interns: Activities for Using a CAS Review for Strategic Planning

Finishing a CAS Review? CAS Staff Assistant Kimberly Kruchen offers ideas for several activities to infuse your results into strategic planning efforts.
As the higher education landscape continues to evolve, programs, departments, and divisions need to adapt and change in order to meet the needs of the students. One tool that will provide a comprehensive and innovative perspective on your functional area is a CAS self-assessment or program review. The program review is invaluable; the process and results of assessing your work need to be integrated into the daily life of your office in an effort to transform the knowledge you gained from the review. This post will give you some suggested ways to apply those findings. The most common forms of integrating results from a CAS program review into the daily life of an office include strategic planning, making programmatic changes, developing priorities, and managing resources and organizational change.

I'd like to offer several tips for using CAS in strategic planning. To effectively use these recommendations, it is important you have finished your internal review and/or an external review (if you are completing an external review), and you are interested in engaging in taking additional steps to close an effective assessment cycle. If you are still working on completing the internal reporting document, I recommend using several of the appendices at the end of the CAS Self-Assessment Guides to lay the groundwork for integrating your findings in one of these future forward documents. Specifically, in my experience, I found the strengths and challenges work form to be most valuable and recommend you begin with this.

Strategic planning can be difficult for any organization. Effective planning requires staff awareness of its value to your functional area, as well as a willingness to engage in challenging discussions regarding available resources and the priorities of your department. The CAS materials, along with the evidence and ratings you collected and identified during your review, will help your organization develop strategies to achieve your program's mission in a more effective and efficient way. Any department can use a strategic plan as a road map for creating an improved experience for the students at your institution. The following are a few activities and tips designed to spur the development of your strategic plan.

Identify Critical Issues – This activity will help your organization, especially if it is large, to determine the areas of focus considered the most important by the entire group. The value of this activity allows every person to have an equitable voice in the process. First, identify several areas on which your program or service might put focus and place these on large pieces of butcher block paper. The areas selected can come directly from sections of the CAS SAG (i.e. mission, program, organization and leadership) or they may be more specific trends you have identified from your CAS review (i.e. creating a long- term funding model or developing a facilities master plan). Each person is given a number of stickers to place on the papers representing areas of the organization during the activity. I recommend giving three stickers to each member of your organization and asking them to place the stickers in the areas they believe are most important to improve and most critical to the future success of the organization. At the end of the activity, the three or four areas with the most stickers from the collective group can be used to focus your strategic planning for the next few years.

Focus on Solutions – At this point, the CAS review has helped your organization identify aspects of your daily work that are strengths as well as those that need to be improved. It is important to have all members of your team working toward solutions. Doing this effectively includes building time into your busy work schedules. I have participated in and recommend an effective solution-oriented activity in which everyone was positively engaged and worked to solve the biggest problems of the organization. At the beginning of this activity, all participants should be informed about the findings of the final internal and external CAS reports. For this activity, break the participants into groups of four or five at the most. After identifying the priorities from among the program review findings, ask each group to come up with two or three solutions to address each finding. Then, invite the groups to present their ideas to the larger group. Write every idea on post-it note or a whiteboard in order to see solutions that overlap. Group these items together as a visual cue to the participants. While not all solutions will be used, an intentional and thoughtful dialogue can begin by identifying pros and cons of the overlapping solutions. Be sure to give consideration to the different solutions presented, and the participants may be able to identify thoughtful solutions by combining multiple ideas into one. At the end of the session, you should have multiple solutions to the key findings of the CAS review. Moving forward, monitor these solutions as benchmarks for changes your organization adopted and assess the effectiveness of these solutions.  

Advocate Effectively – Perhaps one of the trends you noticed while completing your CAS program review was a gap in your organization's daily activities. For example, through committee work you may identify the technology available to your department is not adequate to effectively serve students. The CAS standards can help you advocate for additional funding in an effort to improve the technology. Depending on your situation, it might be possible to suggest that your functional area is not meeting the CAS standards because it is not “using technologies to provide an avenue for students and other constituents to communicate sensitive information in a secure format” (CAS, 2015, p. 286). Use the evidence you have collected during the internal CAS review to identify specifically how this standard is not being met. This is a great opportunity to identify if your institution has resources your department is not using or to benchmark against aspirational peer institutions and consider current technology used by similar departments. To effectively accomplish this type of advocacy, it is critical that you take time to consider in what format your decision maker prefers to receive information. In some situations, a decision maker might prefer a short one-page memo outlining the critical needs of your organization, how or why the department needs these changes to better serve students, and a number of solutions from which to make a selection. In another situation, a decision maker might prefer a SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis in order to make a quick decision. Still, a decision maker may want a comprehensive review of the trends in this area and how your department is preparing for current students as well as the future generations of students. At the end of the day, you will want to ensure you are providing them with information in a format they prefer.

As the next generation of students begins matriculating to our campuses, we must adapt our programs to offer the best experience possible, and CAS can position your functional area to accomplish that goal. Planning effectively, by regularly using the CAS standards, will help you to contend with any number of struggles currently facing higher education.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS). (2015). CAS professional standards for higher education (9th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Kimberly A. Kruchen is a Staff Assistant for the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, and she recently completed her master's degree in Higher Education at the University of Virginia.