Strategic planning for major research facilities and initiatives

Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.

Good governance is of vital importance for the long-term success and sustainability of large-scale national research facilities and initiatives. This fact was recently underscored by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund for the 2012–2017 cycle. The CFI promoted the improvement of governance through the implementation of strategic planning processes.

The facilities whose operations were funded through the CFI’s MSI Fund for this period included national research infrastructure such as Compute Canada, the Canadian Light Source, SNOLAB, and the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen, as well as some smaller facilities of national significance such as the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy. Such national research facilities such as these have typically ‘grown up’ in an ad hoc manner over time—and their governance and management structures and approaches to planning have evolved in a similarly ad hoc manner.

As part of promoting the adoption of best practices in governance and management, the CFI’s MSI Fund for 2012–2017 required all recipient facilities to conduct strategic planning processes that focused on looking ahead to the long term and developing actionable strategies. Afterwards, the CFI reported on the positive impacts on the overall performance of the facilities in the group in its 2019 publication, “A report on the advancement of research facilities funded between 2012 and 2017”.

The positive impacts of strategic planning on the governance of national research facilities should come as no surprise to anyone involved in Canada’s research community. Strategic planning helps align all its activities with the mission to support its long-term objectives. One main outcome of strategic planning, the performance measurement framework, keeps all organizational activities aligned with the strategy and alerts management and the Board of Directors when action is needed. Additionally, the process of developing a strategic plan frequently leads to the identification of areas for strategic and operational enhancements.

In addition to enabling such improvements in governance, the strategic planning process helps build a community of users and stakeholders around the facility or initiative. The strategic plan can also be used as a key communications piece for government bodies, potential collaborators, and local communities.

Making the Strategic Planning Process Work for You

The strategic planning process often falls to facility managers, senior scientists, and even communications staff—often people who would rather be working in a laboratory, or writing a good news press release. If your facility or initiative has turned to you to help update its strategic plan (the next CFI MSI Fund cycle is fast approaching), don’t look at it as an administrative burden or imposition. Rather, see it as an opportunity for you to maximize your facility’s impact and engage wholeheartedly in the process.

Here are some tips and good practices to consider:

  1. Start by designing an inclusive consultation process. Identify all of your stakeholder groups across Canada. Ask key representatives of these groups to be part of a steering committee to help design the consultative process for the strategic plan. Ensure there is a diversity of perspectives. Identify your internal resources; in particular, ensure the engagement of your executive leadership and Board of Directors. It will also be essential to include your scientific and technical professionals to complement external views.
  2. Get the resources you need. Ensure there is an adequate budget for the consultation and production of the plan. The consultative processes will require a significant investment of personnel time, even if done virtually using inexpensive video conferencing and survey platforms. Ensure everyone understands the time commitment that will be expected of them. Do you have a writer on your team with the skills, experience, and time to produce high-level documents for science funding bodies? (Keep in mind, this challenge is quite different from writing grant applications and most other communications pieces). If the required expertise is not available in-house, you may be able to enlist the help of a consultant for such a project, if you plan ahead and budget sufficient resources.
  3. Position your facility or initiative within the national and global context. Effective strategy in business requires targeting the most appropriate market segment for maximum competitive advantage. Similarly, science facilities and initiatives should choose where they can make the most impact in terms of the global ‘market’ for research. Canada’s science funders are often looking to enhance cooperation across the country to maximize the collective national impact, rather than support overlapping programs that compete to produce similar outcomes. How can you complement and collaborate with similar research programs or capabilities across Canada and around the world to be more effective? What advantages do you have, or can you acquire, to become a world-class facility or initiative capable of making the greatest possible impact?
  4. Allow your scientists to remain engaged in what they do best; leave program management and operational details toprofessionals in these areas. Consultative engagement with scientists should focus on scientific themes and opportunities for the future. Scientists should also be invited to identify any challenges they are facing, which may include operational matters and problems that are hindering research. Refer solutions to operational problems to the appropriate professionals, rather than bog down the strategy discussion in such details.
  5. Learn from others’ strategic planning experiences. Each facility or initiative is unique, but there are frequently recurring goals. For example, all of the MSI-funded facilities in the 2012–2017 cycle had strategic goals in the following areas: enabling leading-edge science and providing state-of-the-art research capabilities through their infrastructure; reaching a wide community of scientific users; and training highly qualified personnel. Many also had goals related to the following: offering top-quality services; enhancing international reputation; being responsive to the needs of non-academic interests, such as industry, health, and security; enhancing the efficiency of operations; and achieving sustainability. Which of these are strategic for your facility or initiative?
  6. Use your strategic plan to ‘sell’ your facility or initiative. If written well, your strategic plan can be an effective communications piece to be perused by government analysts and other stakeholders seeking to learn about what you do. Don’t miss the chance to include information about your facility’s realized and potential impacts in your strategic plan. Celebrate your past successes, and help others get excited about the cutting-edge work taking place at your facility. If this is done successfully, your strategic plan can be a tool for building widespread support. You can encourage members of your scientific community to share your plan with their home institutions, and even with their MPs, to help others communicate key messages about your facility’s work and impact. Your strategic plan can also be shared to engage the support of your local community and to forge collaborations with your international counterparts.

Designing an effective strategic planning process for an existing facility or initiative is a great way to start improving its governance. With a well-crafted strategic plan in place, the Board of Directors or other oversight body can hold management accountable for follow-up actions. The results should lead to both strategic and operational improvements that increase your facility or initiative’s performance, and ultimately increase returns on the public investment.