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SWOT analysis: an instrument for writing center strategic planning.

Writing centers' generally good reputations with students, faculties, and administrators can only do so much to attract critical resources, especially in under-funded state colleges and universities. Strategic planning can help to articulate needs and justify resource requests, addressing potential shortfalls in discretionary budgets, space, and technology. Good strategic planning, however, requires good grounding in the actual strengths and weaknesses of writing centers, their student writers, and their staffs. In other words, good strategic planning requires good instruments for writing center self-evaluation.

In their book, Organizational Diagnosis and Assessment: Bridging Theory and Practice, Michael Harrison and Arie Shirom suggest that one particularly useful approach to planning is SWOT analysis (20). SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Common in business settings, SWOT analysis is a tool for organizational management that may be applied effectively to writing centers. SWOT analysis helps administrators understand stakeholder perceptions about the operational effectiveness of an organization by focusing on four related kinds of perceptions--strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats--and interactions within these categories (21).

In this article, we briefly describe SWOT analysis, its application as an instrument for writing center planning, and our SWOT implementation for our northeastern land-grant university's writing center. Carried out by a Ph.D. candidate and writing center assistant director (Ortoleva), and a tenure-line writing center director (Dyehouse), our analysis coordinated assessments given by writing center stakeholders, including past writing center directors, tutors, writing faculty, a student writer, and an academic support administrator. Our SWOT analysis eventually led to a three-year strategic plan for our writing center.

Too often writing centers are considered merely as spaces for individual writing tutors to do their work with student writers. In actuality, writing centers are dynamic, multifaceted, "ecological" institutions. When we consider a writing center not as a space for a collection of individuals with individual tasks, but rather as a complex, synergetic organization of people, tasks, and purposes, we can employ more effective approaches to developing organizational understanding. With this more dynamic view of writing centers, we can consider applying business and organizational models and tools of analysis to better understand how our writing centers function as productive spaces for stakeholders. As Brenda Moore suggests, there are enough similarities between profit and non-profit organizations that assessment and planning tools are readily shared and applicable to both (50). We should not be afraid to adapt tools developed in business settings to our (admittedly very different) writing center organizations.

SWOT analysis, as one such tool, generates a profile of an organization based on the organization's internal attributes (strengths and weaknesses) and its external environment (opportunities and threats). Subjective by design, a SWOT analysis offers a profile of stakeholders' perceptions of an organization. In other words, for writing centers, a SWOT analysis offers a momentary snapshot of an organization through the eyes of stakeholders who believe in, work closely with, or rely on our writing centers.

The subjective quality of the data SWOT instruments generate is important, since, as with stakeholders' perceptions, there are no "wrong" answers in a SWOT analysis. Writing centers organize social cooperation, and perceptions--especially committed stakeholders' perceptions--affect a writing center's capacity to do so effectively. Moreover, even seemingly conflicted perceptions of a writing center may indicate stakeholders' differing investments in the organization. In our SWOT analysis, for instance, stakeholders categorized "tutors are primarily English graduate students" as both a strength and a weakness. Such diametrical categorization may at first seem counter-productive, but upon careful consideration can reveal important points. In our case, the different perceptions revealed a potential drawback to not having tutors from other disciplines tutoring in our writing center and made us consider how other segments of the university community, such as engineering and science students, may view the center.

A SWOT analysis should work for a writing center in much the same way as it does for any other organization. For a SWOT analysis to yield the most complete profile, data collection techniques must be considered, and a representative range of stakeholders must be consulted, and their input analyzed. Tapping into a range of stakeholders and their perceptions is the key to a productive SWOT analysis, and a good place to start is with a full accounting of all stakeholders in the university community. Some examples of stakeholders that comprise the university community are administrators, tutors, faculty, and, of course, students. It may be difficult to gain access to all these stakeholders, and in our case, time constraints played a part in determining which stakeholders we would approach and what data collection methods we would use. (1) However, the broader the range of stakeholders included in a SWOT analysis, the richer the data. Broadening the range of stakeholders included also decreases the chance of misinterpretations or overzealous interpretations, which can hinder the strategic planning process. (2)

Two common data collection techniques for SWOT analysis are surveys and interviews. Both methods have their merits. Surveys can be distributed to a wider range and greater number of stakeholders, and questions can be limited, allowing for focused responses. Surveys, however, may be difficult to collect, and response numbers are often disappointing. Interviews offer a rich and deep data source that can generate new avenues of response, such as new ideas for planning, immediate solutions to minor problems, or a new direction of inquiry for the interview in-progress. Interviews are, however, labor intensive and can burden a small staff. The most appropriate data collection method for a SWOT analysis of a writing center is best determined based on available stakeholders and resources, and the potential knowledge that a method will yield. Developing SWOT analysis as an instrument for use in writing centers, that is, demands attention to what the analysis can accomplish in local circumstances.

As part of developing a new strategic plan for a new writing center administration, our own writing center conducted a SWOT analysis in the fall of 2006 to inform strategic planning for the following spring. During the planning stages of the SWOT, we determined that stakeholders would be interviewed so as to generate more data, as well as allow us to solicit other types of input when necessary. By using interviews, we were able to generate discussion on issues of long-term strategic planning significance as well as on smaller or surface issues needing immediate attention. (3) Because of the time necessary to conduct interviews, we decided that the number of interviews would be limited. As a result, a total of eleven stakeholders participated in our SWOT analysis: two current tutors; two past center directors; one additional member of the Writing and Rhetoric faculty; the director of the Academic Enhancement Center (a center with a common goal and strong relationship to the writing center); the center's current director and assistant director; and one student who frequently uses the center. After all interviews were complete, responses were analyzed for similarities and themes. Common responses given were the following: well-trained and knowledgeable staff (strength), responsive to students (strength), limited space for tutoring (weakness), lack of some cross-cultural competencies (weakness), success and expansion of the Writing and Rhetoric program (opportunity), intensified partnership with Academic Enhancement Center (opportunity), unplanned expansion of ESL tutoring (threat), and students and faculty don't know what we do (threat).

In our case, the results of the SWOT analysis were interpreted and presented to the faculty of the College Writing Program and Writing Center tutors as follows:
 This institutional evaluation suggests a number of challenges
 and opportunities for short- and long-term planning. In the
 short term, staff training can improve the staff's skills in
 cross-cultural communication and in other areas. Long-term planning,
 however, will be needed to address the other, more serious
 weaknesses and threats identified in the evaluation. Addressing
 problems with space, technology, basic staff expertise, or students'
 and faculty members' perceptions of the center, for instance,
 will require strategies planned and implemented over
 time. Identifying which of these problems to address--and
 which strengths to preserve and which opportunities to exploit--will
 be the main goal of our upcoming strategic plan.


It may appear, upon reviewing these results, that the SWOT analysis yielded little new information. Indeed, the above analysis might apply to many, perhaps most, writing centers in this country. However, even given an expected result, the practice of SWOT analysis is beneficial for two important reasons. First, SWOT analysis invites and includes perspectives from a variety of stakeholders. All writing centers have what Stephen North might consider "lore." That is, all writing centers have a body of pragmatic knowledge created from "traditions, practices and beliefs" and are "best understood as being organized within an experienced-based framework" (23). However, writing center lore is created from the inside, often without the voices of those who have a stake in the decisions of the center but are not considered a part of it. A SWOT analysis may either confirm or challenge the lore of a center. In any case, it explicitly seeks to broaden admin istrators' understandings of stakeholders' multiple perspectives. Second, SWOT analysis creates and articulates a codified version of a body of knowledge, documented and offered for critical reflection and goal-setting possibilities. Once documented, stakeholders' perspectives do more than merely aid administrators' understanding; they also become key resources for mapping possible futures.

It is worth offering a special cautionary note on using SWOT analysis. It is especially important to consider all categories (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) equally and to analyze carefully the interactions amongst the categories. It becomes easy to focus on the strengths and celebrate what is working well at a writing center, and there is certainly a time for such celebration. However, the ultimate point of a SWOT analysis is to identify and build upon strengths, minimize the impact of weakness, best exploit opportunities and, of critical importance, address threats. Pride and Ferrell point out that "threats must be acted upon to prevent them from limiting the capabilities of an organization" (43). As previously mentioned, a SWOT analysis is a subjective, perception-based analysis. However, SWOT does offer a broad perceptual snapshot of an organization, and it is in such a snapshot that SWOT shows its real strength as an analytical tool. SWOT offers a systematic approach to understanding the operational environment of a writing center.

The twenty-first century writing center can no longer afford to operate under the clinical or fix-it models that guided most planning in the past. The synergetic ethos of today's writing center calls for administrators to have a better sense of organizational dynamics, including approaches to planning. An acknowledgment and understanding of such dynamics will not only better serve our students and create sustainable writing centers, but also model the kinds of organizations in which our students may find themselves working in their futures. However, in light of its history of employment in business contexts, using SWOT analysis for strategic planning can seem to conflict with writing centers' common emphasis on administration as collaborative problem-solving. By codifying stakeholders' statements, by counting them, and by circulating them as indices of centers' needs, there seems some risk of losing what is inventive and immediate in the open-ended conversations that writing centers are built on. Yet, writing center administrators can have it both ways: we can have our open-ended conversations (including conversations about strategic planning), and we can share the results of more directed inquiry with others. Our organizational planning tools must help us manage the real complexity of working within multifaceted institutions. We should seek out a diverse array of tools for strategic planning, and wherever we find good tools for engaging such a process, we should adapt them for our use. SWOT analysis provides one such adaptation for writing centers.

Notes

(1.) Several factors contributed to the time pressures we faced while deciding how to conduct our SWOT analysis. First, little planning had been completed the previous year. At the same time, the College Writing Program was experiencing growth, adding tenure-track faculty and implementing a new Writing and Rhetoric major. With the growth of the College Writing Program and a new, full-time tenure track faculty member taking the helm of the writing center, it was clear that there was an overdue need to set a new direction for the center. Our administration set as a goal the development of a new strategic plan by the end of the academic year. Faced with adapting to the new administrative position, the day-to-day and beginning- and end-of-the-semester challenges, and the need for critical self-assessment before planning, we decided on a six- to eight-week plan for our SWOT analysis.

(2.) The subjective nature of a SWOT analysis, and all qualitative approaches, would question whether a "misinterpretation" is possible. However, for purposes of strategic planning, misinterpretation or overzealous interpretation may be interpretations that ignore the purpose of a SWOT and hinder, rather than aid, the strategic planning process. For a discussion on the potential drawbacks of using a SWOT analysis, and for strategies to avoid potential misinterpretations of data, see Balmuraliktishna and Dugger, "SWOT Analysis: A Management Tool for Initiating New Programs in Vocational Schools."

(3.) Our use of open and dialogic interviews allowed the stakeholders, in large part, to guide the conversation. Occasionally, this led to discussions about issues that fell outside concerns of long-term planning, and could be addressed immediately or in the short term. Examples of such issues might be asking the front desk workers to make sure students filled out the informational "blue cards" when arriving, or to ensure there were enough pads and pens available to tutors. Such issues, of course, are the important day-to-day concerns of writing center tutors.

Works Cited

Balamuralikrisha, Radha, and John C. Dugger. "SWOT Analysis: A Management Tool for Initiating New Programs in Vocational Schools." Journal of Vocational and Technical Education 12:1 (1995): 36-41.

Harrison, Michael, and Arie Shirom. Organizational Diagnosis and Assessment: Bridging Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Sage: 1999.

Moore, Brenda, C. "Using SWOT Analysis to Assess a First-Year Program." Proving and Improving: Strategies for Assessing the First College Year. Ed. Randy L. Swing. The First Year Experience Monograph Ser. 33. Columbia, S.C: U of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition: 2001. 49-53.

North, Stephen, M. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of An Emerging Field. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1987.

Pride, William. M. and O.C Ferrell. Marketing: Concepts and Strategies 2000. Library ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 2000.

* Matthew Ortoleva

and Jeremiah Dyehouse

Center University of Rhode Island

Kingston, RI
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Title Annotation:strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
Author:Ortoleva, Matthew; Dyehouse, Jeremiah
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:2404
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