Anyone who has gone through the semblance of a strategic planning process will likely have participating in (or at least read about) a SWOT analysis. A Google search on the term “SWOT analysis” yields just about 5.5 million results. Wikipedia (not usually my “go to” resource) has a rather lengthy discussion of the utility and description of SWOT. So, I am not going to review material that is easily found elsewhere. Rather, I am going to reflect upon some of the concepts I have learned in doing many SWOT analyses.

SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

Strengths and weaknesses are internal to the organization. That is, strengths are those things we do well; weaknesses are things that we need to do better (to meet our mission).

Opportunities and threats are external to the organization. That is, opportunities are those things that we can leverage to enhance what we do (to meet our mission) and threats are those things external to the organization that can prevent us from accomplishing our mission.

There are many things that one can do with the SWOT analyses and they can be used to manage projects. I will focus on some issues which have guided the best SWOT analyses on which I have worked.

Many analyses go awry because they deal with peripheral issues and not those that are central to the organization. The SWOT must deal with the mission of the organization as guided by the vision. That is, the factors are issues related to what it is that we are and do (mission) as driven by our core values (vision). We may do many things and some of them we may do very well. But, if those things are not part of the mission, we should acknowledge them but they should not make it into the SWOT.

And yes, it depends on how we define our mission.

Let’s take an example of a medical school which has a program that successfully provides food to children in their local area who are in need of food. I think we can all agree that this is a humanitarian exemplary and should be acknowledged.

School A has nutrition and child health as its mission. School B has a humanitarian mission. In School C, the mission is to produce community physicians. School D has primary care as its mission. School E has research physicians as its mission. All of these schools could (theoretically) claim this program as a strength, depending on how it fits within the mission.

It would be clear how such a program fits within the mission of School A. For School B, providing food to children in need is a humanitarian function, thus, it fits within their mission. School C is producing community physicians and if the program teaches its students the importance of being involved in the community to benefit patients, then it is indeed a strength. For School D, if they are teaching primary care/family medicine physicians, it is important for the students to be looking toward the whole health picture of their patients, including nutrition and health. For School E, their strength must be that the program allows participants to collect and analyze data and publish their results regarding health benefits of the food provided to the children. Hence, it meets their research mission.

While the program in and of itself is a strength – and it may help in the accreditation of the school – the key is that is must be framed within the context of the mission of the school.

If it is not possible to relate a SWOT component to the mission of the institution, then it really shouldn’t matter to the institution, even if it is a wonderful program and gets lots of rave reviews. On the other hand, maybe the mission of the institution needs to be reviewed and modified – but that is a whole different kettle of fish.

A common strength cited in many SWOT analyses is that the organization has “strong leadership.” That’s great. What is the leadership to this organization? Is it just the top person? Is it the “leadership team”? What qualities make the leadership “strong”? I am actually uncertain why “strong leadership” is a strength. What happens if the leadership team breaks apart? What happens if key people leave the organization?

I recognize that many use SWOT analyses as dynamic structures and thus strengths such as these represent one of the variables that are tracked. In my experience, this happens in a minority of academic settings and thus this is not truly a construct that is useful to many of us.

Rather, I think that SWOT statements should be based on two factors, (1) actions and (2) data. While it is sometimes useful to describe attributes of specific individuals, I think that a SWOT is much more useful when it focuses on the institution and not individuals within the institution, regardless of how important that person is to the institution.

I would argue that actions – the things we or others do – are the factors which should be outlined in the SWOT. Here are some alternatives to “strong leadership.”

  • The institution is committed to having a Dean with a strong international reputation. This statement indicates that it is a commitment of the institution to have a Dean with a strong international reputation. This is an on-going process. It does not rely on the individual who is the Dean (who happens to have a strong international reputation), but there is a commitment to the continuity of that particular quality in the Dean.
  • The institution is committed to a strong, diverse faculty. Again, this is an institutional commitment. The commitment is to a strong faculty (however it is defined by the institution and those doing the SWOT) and a diverse faculty (however it is defined by the institution and those doing the SWOT).
  • The institution strongly supports mission-based programs. This statement can be interpreted as the institution supports that programs that are mission-based on a higher priority than those that are not mission-based. That is, the mission is more important than the “nice-to-haves.” Again, this is an institutional direction and not just that of an individual.

The SWOT is an analysis. To do this analysis, the appropriate questions must be asked. Is the strength a commitment and does that commitment match reality? If the commitment is a reality, then it is a true strength; if the commitment is real, but does not match reality, then it is a weakness. Similarly, if there is no commitment, but the words match reality, then it is also a weakness.

In developing the SWOT, the group needs to analyze the commitments, whether or not they match reality, and on that basis designate their strengths and weaknesses.

One almost never sees the data behind the statements in the SWOT analysis. Often, the way we generate a SWOT matrix is to sit down and verbalize what we think are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, but we don’t examine the data that underlie what we verbalized. This is a common error. The only way a SWOT analysis reflects reality is if data underlie each statement. The data need not be published; the data need not be public. But, the data must exist.

Let’s look at the three examples above, does the Dean have an international reputation? What is that reputation in? Does that reputation qualify him to be Dean? For example, does a reputation as an Olympic gold medalist (international reputation) necessarily qualify someone to be Dean of a medical school? Is that the level of international reputation that we are looking for?

When we look at diversity of the institution’s faculty, does it have an equitable distribution of faculty ranks (instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, professor)? Or is it heavily weighted one way or another? What does the succession planning for teaching look like? If part of the definition is research strength, what does the research strength look like? Is that a separate variable? And these are parameters that need to be reviewed along with those regarding diversity in race, sex, sexual orientation, etc.

With respect to the mission of the institution, is it focused on Leadership? Research? Teaching? What types of things does the institution do to support these programs that are part of its mission? What are the non-mission-based programs of the institution and how are they prioritized? For example, in an institution with a research mission, are there adequate resources to support faculty and student research? Are there adequate opportunities to engage in research?

It is remarkable how often the SWOT analyses do not reflect reality. I have read some analyses that make firecrackers into space rockets and muscle cars into rickshaws. Often, this distortion of reality has to do with the audience at whom the SWOT analysis is directed. Some institutions are wary of putting their reality out in the public where accreditors or competitors can access the information. Thus, some folks have chosen to deliberately withhold a complete picture for political purposes. I do not ascribe to this philosophy, but I have seen it in several organizations.

Regardless, somewhere, a truthful representation must exist. And that representation needs to be the basis of the strategic plan implemented by the organization.

Many SWOT analyses list the same thing as both strengths and weaknesses or an opportunity is also listed as a threat. I have never come across a situation where that was the true. I have seen strengths that are threatened by external circumstances and weaknesses for which there are opportunities. When looking at the internal characteristics of the organization, strengths are strengths and weaknesses are weaknesses. A strength is not a weakness. If it appears so, then there has not been sufficient analysis or characterization of the attributes to segregate strength from weakness.

Similarly, opportunities cannot be threats. Opportunities can become threats if the appropriate actions do not take place, but in and of themselves, they cannot be both. So, similar to strengths/weaknesses, it is crucial that we analyze what attributes make something an opportunity and what are the attributes that can threaten the organization.

Failure to do a proper analysis only dooms the SWOT to uselessness as a planning tool.

A SWOT analysis is probably one of the most important tools that is part of strategic planning. The reason is that a deep analysis, based on data, of the attributes of the organization gives us a realistic view of who we are, where we are, and allows us to define where we want to go.

Note: The views in this commentary are my own and not necessarily those of my institution, employer, or colleagues.


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