Written by: Michael J. Rosenberg, Ed.D., Penn State University
This three-part series explores how transfer practitioners can leverage their institution’s strategic plan to advance their ideas and efforts. Part 2 explores how to collaborate with key stakeholders to set a potential direction for your future transfer efforts.
Building Your Vision Through SOAR
In the first part of this series, we discussed the institutional strategic plan—the document that outlines the broad priorities for what a college or university wants to become and how it hopes to achieve those goals. As transfer practitioners, we know that our work helps particular students, but we often do not communicate how our work supports the growth and evolution of the whole university.
Understanding the institutional strategic plan offers you the opportunity to frame transfer efforts in ways that answer this question: “How does our work directly help the institution get where it wants to be?” Before we answer that question, however, we need to define what we actually do in terms of our university’s priorities and to craft tangible goals to support these priorities.
SWOT vs. SOAR
Preparing for this strategic work requires honest introspection. We need to name our strengths, our resources, and our desired outcomes to build goals around them. One of the most common methods for performing this evaluation is a SWOT analysis. This “four corner” analysis from the business world is built around finding Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats in an organization’s current state.
While a SWOT analysis can supply useful information and offer insight into how transfer advocates can align their work, it is most useful for identifying gaps in services or determining sources of issues or drawbacks. It also tends to look backwards rather than forwards. Many organizations using a SWOT analysis experience the common pitfall of focusing too heavily on existing work. They try to streamline current processes, fix problems, or perform the same activities—just “more effectively.” While this approach has benefits, improving existing work should generally be a day-to-day activity!
Additionally, in many contexts, groups performing SWOT analyses often fixate on the Weaknesses and Threats. This is understandable. Identifying areas of challenge can be a useful exercise. However, since our goal is to connect the vision of transfer to a strategic plan, focusing on potential problems with the current state can bring negative energy to the table and bog down the work.
An alternative environmental scan that may provide both a more positive perspective on the work and set the stage for more effective strategic thinking is a SOAR Analysis. This paradigm keeps the Strengths and Opportunities of the SWOT analysis, but rather than looking backwards to search for issues or address where services are lacking, a SOAR analysis examines Aspirations and Results. Rooted in the organizational change philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry, SOAR focuses on creating a dialogue around what works best in an organization while supplying a framework to explore possibilities for positive change.
A SOAR analysis also offers the opportunity to link our necessary advocacy for transfer students to the future state that the institution hopes to achieve. If an institution offers its vision to the public, then approaching a SOAR process with the institutional hopes for the future in mind will provide a more seamless alignment with transfer work and create a stronger case for both increased resources for and institutional knowledge of what transfer students face.
SOARing into Transfer
Get Ready. SOAR is intended to create a dialogue, which requires participants! While there is technically no limit to the number of people you can involve in this process, hosting too many at once might yield an unwieldy discussion. Consider a relatively modest core group for your initial discussion.
In addition to transfer professionals, strive for faculty representation and attendance from other key administrative advocates. And always include students at the table. Even though this process is intended to focus on positive outcomes, hearing student voices will serve as a grounding force as you continue through your discussions.
Have a preferred method for recording important discussion points. You can use physical pen and paper, flip charts, or virtual tools such as Google Jamboard or Microsoft Whiteboard. The virtual tools offer the flexibility of allowing everyone to be in the note-taking space together, which can help capture the results of brainstorms and cogitations without overworking one person designated as scribe.
Ask the Questions. The core of this process involves dialogue-creating questions regarding each of the four SOAR areas. You can tweak the process as needed, but you will probably find it helpful to host an initial small group discussion around these questions. Next, have a sharing session with the larger group to consolidate responses and gain deeper understanding of related themes. These questions are also suggestions. You can substitute with versions tailored to your personal institutional environment.
S – Strengths – What are we great at?
What are we most proud of as a department/division/institution?
What makes us unique? What can we build on?
How do we effectively leverage our strengths to get results?
How do our strengths fit with the reality of the institution and its environment?
What do we create or provide that no one else does?
O – Opportunities – What are the possibilities?
How do we find opportunities in our current environment?
How can we better meet the needs of both transfer students and the institution?
Who are potential new audiences for our message—both internal and external?
How can we reframe the challenges we face into opportunities?
What skills do we need to move forward?
A – Aspirations – What are our dreams and wishes?
What do we care deeply about?
What can we do best in our current environment?
Reflecting on strengths and opportunities, who are we and who should we become?
What is our most compelling aspiration?
What programs, projects, and processes would support our aspirations?
R – Results – What are meaningful outcomes?
Considering our strengths, opportunities, and aspirations, what meaningful measure(s) would indicate that we are on the right track?
How do we know that we are making a difference?
What resources are needed to implement our most vital projects?
How can we best build sustainable support for our efforts?
How can we best celebrate our successes?
These questions are intended to generate meaningful discussions, so it may be challenging to find enough time to thoroughly consider each area. Whether you do this exercise as a one-time retreat-style meeting or break it up over a series of gatherings, do your best to give everyone a chance to process and participate.
Imagine. Once your team has completed these discussions, consider having one more conversation focused on possibilities. You may find it helpful to look back at your notes while creating a shared vision. Imagine what the future state might look like if you all used your strengths, opportunities, and aspirations. You may find it effective to use a similar format as with the earlier discussion, starting with small groups and moving to larger ones. Collect the ideas from your groups into a consolidated report that indicates the themes and ideas for this vision.
As you are working through the process, keep in mind that it should be a vibrant, positive experience. This is an early step on a pathway towards awareness and change in your organization, so try not to get slowed by past frustrations. Give yourself permission to set them aside and be hopeful!
Once you have performed this exercise and set a potential direction for your future work, the next step is to design a plan for executing your group’s ideas. Moving from vision to concrete goals is key to setting expectations for advancing transfer advocacy work. Setting goals for your team will be the focus of the next installment of this series.
 The SOAR information in this article is drawn largely from J. Stavros and G. Hinrichs (2021), “Learning to SOAR: Creating Strategy that Inspires Innovation and Engagement,” SOAR Institute. More information is available at http://soar-strategy.com.
 Appreciative Inquiry originated with D. L. Cooperrider and S. Srivastva (1987), “Appreciative inquiry in organizational life,” in R. W. Woodman and W. A. Pasmore, Research in Organizational Change and Development, vol. 1 (Stamford, CT: JAI Press), 129–169.
Dr. Michael J. Rosenberg is a nationally recognized expert on transfer student policy. A higher education practitioner by trade and training, his extensive background includes experience at both two and four-year institutions in student affairs, academic advising, judicial affairs, residence life, and enrollment management. He is co-editor of The Transfer Experience: A Handbook for Creating a more Equitable and Successful Postsecondary System.
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