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Can We Do That? Capacity and Strategic Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pamela A. Mischen
July 17, 2015

Strategic planning has become commonplace and is generally accepted as necessary for an organization to be successful. The goals set during this process may be appropriate given the external environment, the needs of the community and the needs of organizations. Often overlooked in the development of these goals is whether the organization has the capacity to achieve them.


What does “capacity” mean in this context? The most basic definition of capacity is the ability to perform an activity. We can think about capacity at many levels from individual, to organizational, to community and beyond. To some extent, these levels are nested. The capacity of a community is dependent in part on the capacities of the organizations within it. The capacity of an organization is dependent in part on the capacities of the individuals within it. Therefore, the relevant capacities for strategic planning are both individual and organizational.

When we think about organizational capacity, we tend to think about capacity in aggregate terms— financial capacity or number of employees. While these are important numbers, many elements of strategic plans require specific capacities at the level of the individual, such as the ability to create a social media campaign or analyze data for a community needs assessment. Specific capacities at the organizational level include having the databases necessary to collect and store the types of data needed to track progress and identify needs. Whether an organization has these capacities is not reflected in aggregate numbers.

In my work with organizations, I have found that those that incorporate a knowledge audit into their strategic planning process are better able to identify the capacities needed to accomplish their mission-oriented goals. Furthermore, they are able to incorporate any necessary capacity building into their strategic plans.

So what is a knowledge audit? A knowledge audit is a comparison of the types of knowledge that an organization needs in order to accomplish its mission-oriented goals to an inventory of the types of knowledge that an organization actually possesses. Knowledge is a broad term in itself, but a knowledge audit extends beyond existing knowledge and includes the ability to create, store and disseminate knowledge and information needed to create that knowledge.

Knowledge is generally divided into two types—explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge can be easily transferred, stored and replicated because it can be written down or captured by audio or visual means. Types of explicit knowledge are documents (including policy and procedure manuals, books and policy briefs), skills and methods (such as the ability to calculate statistics or develop a social media campaign). Skills and methods are considered explicit knowledge because they can be taught or learned in a classroom setting or from a book or manual.

Tacit knowledge on the other hand is the knowing by doing. Think about riding a bike. How did you learn to do that? Did you read a book or manual or take a class? Could you write a book or manual that someone could read to learn how to ride a bike? Probably not. The best way to learn to ride a bike is to get on and try, fail and try some more until you get it right. Cooking is similar. You can read a recipe book (a form of explicit knowledge), but that is no guarantee that you will be able to cook. If you can cook, you either learned by the trial-and-error or you might have learned from a family member with whom you cooked side-by-side.

I mentioned earlier that a knowledge audit assesses not only knowledge but also the data and information needed to create knowledge and an organization’s ability to store and disseminate it. It is important for organizations to have a good understanding of the types of data they collect and how to convert that data into information. They must also have the appropriate information technology to assist with these processes.

I have worked with many organizations developing their strategic plans. Through the process of conducting knowledge audits, I identified a number of knowledge deficiencies that may not have been addressed in the strategic plan. These deficiencies then get worked into the strategic plan as strategic goals (as opposed to the mission-oriented goals mentioned above). Common strategies involve improvements to information technology, the development of social media expertise and the need to develop or contract out for data analysis skills.

This process provides a bridge between strategic planning and performance management. Ultimately, an organization needs to be able to do more than plan for performance; it needs to manage all aspects of performance from budgeting, to performance measurement and to personnel evaluations in a way that is directed toward the organization’s strategic vision.

Author: Pamela A. Mischen is associate professor of public administration at Binghamton University and director of the Center for Applied Community Research and Development. Email [email protected].

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