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Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine knowledge of strategy within the field of educational administration. It is intended to be the basis for future empirical research and inquiry into strategy in education by suggesting alternate ways of defining and researching strategy. Design/methodology/approach The study examines the contemporary context of educational administration, the evolution of strategy as an educational construct, its definition and need within educational administration. Using this information the author identifies key conceptual and methodological issues in current research. Findings The paper finds that knowledge of strategy in education is incomplete and muddled because research and writing in the field have approached strategy from a narrow and conceptually flawed position. Research limitations/implications The advancement of knowledge in the area will only advance with alternate conceptualisations and methodological approaches. Originality/value Rather than merely review literature, this paper proposes a redefinition of strategy as an educational administration construct, focusing on key features not words and actions. The hope is that fellow scholars and practitioners will continue to question and focus on the key features of strategy and the issues that confront them.
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Strategy in educational
leadership: in search of unity
Scott Eacott
School of Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle,
Callaghan, Australia
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine knowledge of strategy within the field of
educational administration. It is intended to be the basis for future empirical research and inquiry into
strategy in education by suggesting alternate ways of defining and researching strategy.
Design/methodology/approach – The study examines the contemporary context of educational
administration, the evolution of strategy as an educational construct, its definition and need within
educational administration. Using this information the author identifies key conceptual and
methodological issues in current research.
Findings – The paper finds that knowledge of strategy in education is incomplete and muddled
because research and writing in the field have approached strategy from a narrow and conceptually
flawed position.
Research limitations/implications The advancement of knowledge in the area will only
advance with alternate conceptualisations and methodological approaches.
Originality/value Rather than merely review literature, this paper proposes a redefinition of
strategy as an educational administration construct, focusing on key features not words and actions.
The hope is that fellow scholars and practitioners will continue to question and focus on the key
features of strategy and the issues that confront them.
Keywords Management strategy, Leadership, Educational administration
Paper type Conceptual paper
Strategic leadership is a critical issue relevant to school leaders that has largely been
overlooked, particularly in Australia, in current educational leadership literature. In
comparison with other academic disciplines, strategy is a young field. However,
strategy as a field of research has grown substantially in scope and influence over the
last few decades (Boyd et al., 2005). There were very few empirical studies on the
strategic leadership processes or strategic leadership behaviours prior to the mid-1980s
(House and Aditya, 1997). Literature concerning the processes through which
managers make strategic decisions, and to a lesser extent the behaviour of such
managers as leaders’ has only recently emerged (Jackson and Ruderman, 1995).
Unfortunately there is only a small body of theoretical literature with weak consensus
and low levels of productivity (Boyd et al., 2005). The discussion of strategic leadership
is still meagre and the domain of studying strategic leadership is relatively diffused
and uncharted (Cheng, 2002). There is a bias in existing literature towards strategy
formulation (the analysis of strategic content), while limited attention is given to the
implementation of strategy (the analysis of strategic process). The emphasis is on
prescriptive writing in the field, with an under-concern for description, analysis and
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
In search of unity
Received February 2007
Revised September 2007
Accepted November 2007
Journal of Educational
Vol. 46 No. 3, 2008
pp. 353-375
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09578230810869284
understanding combined with definitional and a conceptualisation problem of what is
strategy (Pettigrew, 1988).
Despite the relative infancy of the inquiry into strategy and strategic action, the role
of strategic leadership in schools has earned greater significance as a result of the
international trends towards school-based management, the changing socio-political
environment in which schools operate and the subsequent paradigm shift in the role of
school leadership (Eacott, 2006a). Crowther and Limerick (1997) describe strategic
leadership as one of the five prominent leadership approaches that have acquired
credibility in contemporary educational management theory and practice. Eacott
(2006a) stresses that the need for effective strategic leadership in schools is imperative
if schools are to continue to meet the needs of their communities.
This paper is not a comprehensive review of strategy in education. Rather, the focus
is on the evolution of, need for, and future challenges for the concept in educational
leadership. These are discussed with the hope of suggesting new directions that will
push the field forward by exploring conceptual and methodological issues. The
substantial argument of this paper is that our knowledge of strategy in education is
incomplete and muddled because the majority of research and writing in the field have
approached strategy from a narrow set of epistemological foundations.
Definitions of strategy
The practice and concept of strategy have many varied meanings, yet it remains
closely related to planning and planning models. Fidler (1996) wrote that the word was
beginning to appear in educational management literature in the 1990s, but it was not
clearly defined and appeared to mean little more than a general reference to the longer
term. The word “strategy” is now applied to almost every management activity to add
misleading rhetorical weight (Beaver, 2000). This had devalued and misrepresented the
concept and is damaging to both theory and practice. In addition, it has cast doubt over
what constitutes strategy.
Tsiakkiros and Pashiardis (2002, p. 6) draw attention to the word strategy and its
origin from the Greek word strategos, which means “a general and the leader of the
army”. This is arguably why much of the literature assigns strategy and strategy
development to an individual within an organisation. For example, Johnson and
Scholes (2003, pp. 147-8) define a strategic leader as:
... an individual upon whom strategy development and change are seen to be dependent.
They are individuals personally identified with and central to the strategy of their
organisation: their personality or reputation may result in others willingly deferring to such
an individual and seeing strategy development as his or her province.
Very few scholars within the field of educational leadership seek to define the concept
of strategy. It remains elusive (Fidler, 2002) and somewhat abstract (Ansoff, 1965).
Quong et al. (1998) describe it as one of the most frustrating, paradoxical and
misunderstood concepts in leadership literature. Frequently the term is used to
describe a range of activities (Davies, 2004a) but most often it is explicitly linked with
planning (Bell, 1998, 2002). Many of the definitional concerns with strategy begin with
its use in the corporate sector. Bush (1998) argues that schools are too different to
commercial companies in the nature of their business for direct sharing of concepts.
Kelly (2005) argues that business leaders develop strategy, whilst principals develop
people. However there has been some discussion relating to the definition of strategy
within the educational context.
Jones (1987, p. 9) articulated a need for strategy in schools through “the ability to
articulate a coherent framework or philosophy, a set of over-arching goals which mean
something to the members of the whole school community”. This definition alludes to a
more conceptual definition of strategy that is not necessarily tied to written planning.
However, it could be argued that the definition implicitly implies planning to be central
to strategy.
Sanyal and Martin (1992, p. 1) defined a strategy as “the determination of the basic,
long term goals and objectives of an educational system, the adoption of courses of
action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals”. This is a
systemic level definition that remains closely tied to the original conceptualisation of
strategy in business sector.
El-Hout (1994, p. 55) says, “strategy is very much a state of mind, a way of
addressing and making important organisational decisions on a daily basis”. He adds,
that strategic thinking “is not just concerned with what, but with why, not objectives,
but paths and relationships, not checklists but processes” (El-Hout, 1994, p. 61). This
definition removes the direct link between an individual and a plan from the concept.
Unfortunately, this insightful definition was not followed up with any further work.
Filder (1996, p. 1) suggests that strategy is concerned with “the long-term future of
an organisation”, but later added, it was “planning a successful future for your school”
(Fidler, 1996, p. 19). Whilst originally remaining abstract with the construct, Fidler
quickly implies the link between strategy and planning. This effectively creates two
aspects of strategy, the first to do with future direction and the second with planning.
Quong et al. (1998, p. 10) define strategy as “selecting a destination, figuring out the
best way of getting there, then explaining how you have arrived”. This definition of
strategy begins to implicitly link strategy with the role of planning.
Watson and Crossley (2001, p. 117) describe strategy from an alternate perspective,
emphasising that how a school’s strategy is put together and operated, reinforces or
challenges meaning among organisational members. They state that:
Strategy is not neutral or valuefree, but emerges from a melee of organizational vested
interests, personal agendas and ambitions, and the utilization of power. From this perspective
a reliance upon the concept as an inherently rational and logical process, and a bulwark
against the ambiguity of organizational life, is not only problematic but highly questionable.
Leader (2004) stresses, that strategy is a proactive rather than reactive means of
translating decisions into actions. Davies (2003, p. 295) stated that strategy was “a
specific pattern of decisions and actions taken to achieve an organization’s goals”. He
emphasised however, that strategy and strategic planning were not synonymous
activities. In 2004 he added that strategy might consist of two sub-concepts, one about
the broad major dimensions of the organisation and the other that deals with the
medium to longer term. He suggested that instead of being associated with a linear
plan, strategy might usefully be thought of instead as a perspective, as a way of
looking at things. It provides the template against which to set short-term planning
and activities.
Returning to the conceptual definitions of strategy, Kettunen (2005) states that
strategy implies the movement of an organisation from its present position, described
by the mission, to a desirable, but uncertain, future position, described by the vision.
In search of unity
There has simply been no agreement on a single definition of strategy within
education. This is arguable because strategy in education research is multidisciplinary
(Brown, 1997) and interdisciplinary (Schendel, 1994; Watson, 1997). This pluralism
inherently is subject to the criticism that it does little to foster paradigm development.
However, strategy in the educational leadership context is a field of practice and
application, where practitioner trends lead the way and scholars are left to play catch
up to understand the continually changing context. This renders the field unlikely to
ever be governed by a single paradigm. However, what is needed is a conceptual
understanding and articulation of the fundamental features of strategy to refocus
research and daily educational practices. Whereas previously (Eacott, 2006a) the
author has defined strategy as:
leadership strategies and behaviours relating to the initiation, development, implementation,
monitoring and evaluation of strategic actions within an educational institution, taking into
consideration the unique context (past, present and future) and availability of resources,
physical, financial and human.
Current thinking is that strategy should be viewed as choosing a direction within a
given context, through leadership, and articulating that direction through management
practices. Within this view, there are many elements of strategy, some under the
leadership dimension and others the management dimension. Work can then be
assigned to either strategic leadership or strategic management or both.
Identifying the key features of strategy as an educational administrative concept
removes the need for a prescriptive working definition of “what is strategy?” This is an
essential step towards addressing the misunderstanding of strategy and criticism of
the concept as an educational leadership construct.
The evolution of strategy
The development of the concept of strategy as an explicit tool for leading and
managing an educational organisation is of recent origin in both theory and practice
(Eacott, in press). To understand why this origin is so recent, there is a need to examine
the school and the school system as organisations.
Schools are large, formal institutions, established by government departments,
institutions such as churches or formally incorporated bodies of private citizens with
an interest in a form of education (Vick, 2002). Many school systems have developed
into highly centralised bureaucracies (Gamage, 1993) frequently with teachers’ unions
with a traditional mindset that education is best run from the centre (Dimmock, 1995).
However, educational administrative restructuring efforts over the past two decades
appear to be part of an attempt to make the management of schools more efficient,
accountable and responsive to government policies by introducing corporate
management approaches from the business sector, devolving responsibility to
regions and schools and placing greater emphasis on educational outputs (Harman,
1991). Governments and education departments are now expecting school principals to
possess a practical knowledge of change management, entrepreneurialism in resource
acquisition and commercial standards in school accountability (Dempster and Logan,
Strategy first began to appear in the educational administration literature in the
1980s. However, there was very little prior to 1988 (Fidler, 1989) when the UK passed
the Education Reform Act, making it mandatory for all schools to have a development
plan. In a recent review of literature on strategy in education, Eacott (in press) found
that 90 per cent of the literature emerged following this date and over 60 per cent of
works originated in the UK. This legislative change in the UK led to a voluminous
literature for the scholar and practitioner on “how to” create a development plan.
During this peak period of interest (1988-2000), there were many studies undertaken by
distinguished educational management scholars, however the focus became very
narrow, primarily on the planning process to the exclusion of other aspects of strategy.
The word “strategy” evolved so many meanings that it became debased and
overused (Beaver, 2000). A large proportion of work claiming to be “strategic” in fact
represented tactical areas and means to secure operational effectiveness (Drejer, 2004).
The planning and programming of the supplementary activities appears to have
emerged as “the whole” of strategy (Mintzberg, 1994). Bell (1998) argued that
“strategy” and “planning” became synonymous. Practitioners, consultants and
academics apply the term “strategy” to almost every management activity. Franklin
(1998, p. 313) observed:
The word strategy is bought out under the cover of darkness when writers and speakers,
theorists and managers are looking for a more impressive word than “important”. The idea of
strategic objectives sounds much more impressive than the idea of business objectives on
their own. The idea of a business policy sounds second-rate to the idea of a business strategy.
The idea of strategy and its common usage has reified the term so that no self-respecting
scholar or manager fails to engage in strategy to other apparently more mundane issues.
Insightful academics realised that many of the concepts and analytical tools used
during the formative years of strategy in education research (1988-2000) were not
sufficient. However, recognising that there is a need for a new paradigm is a critical
first step, but finding one that fits emerging needs is a tedious task. In a 2004 special
issue of School Leadership and Management (Vol. 24 No. 1) edited by B. Davies, leading
scholars including B. Davies, Dimmock, Walker, Caldwell, Leithwood and Fullan
among others explored strategy from alternate perspectives. This issue highlighted the
need for scholars and practitioners alike to see strategy as more than the pursuit of a
plan. Dimmock and Walker (2004) criticised contemporary strategy research for its
tendency to connect strategic thinking to improvement planning; the undue attention
and focus currently given to particular indicators and criteria as underpinning drivers
of strategy and strategic thinking; the tendency for recent literature on strategy to
neglect the relevance of the cultural context of each school.
The shift in thinking continued with the National College for School Leadership
(NCSL) in the UK-funded project Success and Sustainability: Developing the
Strategically Focused School (2005) co-ordinated by B. Davies, B.J. Davies and Ellison.
Through this project and related publications (Davies, 2003, 2004a, b, 2006; Davies and
Davies, 2004, 2006), they developed a comprehensive framework for strategy in schools
comprising strategic processes, approaches and leadership. It produced a series of
behavioural characteristics that effective strategic leaders display. Central to these
findings was the idea that strategic leadership is not a new theory, but an element of all
educational leadership and management theories (Davies and Davies, 2006). Strategy
as a concept was a dimension of all theoretical positions.
In contrast to this emerging school of thought on strategy in education, developed
through educational research, is a re-emergence of models developed in the corporate
In search of unity
sector. Numerous articles (Bell, 2003; Bishop and Limerick, 2006; Davies and Coates,
2005; Kettunen, 2005) have explored the application of concepts and analytical tools
from the corporate sector, such as the Balanced Scorecard or Triple Bottom Line. In
this aspect, strategy in education is in a “pre-paradigmatic state” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 10)
where rival schools of thought, methodology, and solutions are offered to researchers
and practitioners (Franklin, 1998).
By placing the body of knowledge in an historical context, a number of useful
conclusions can be drawn (Mercer, 2001; Milliken, 2001). One of the main factors to
emerge is a better understanding of why specific research methods have been used to
understand a problem. A central mindset in the field of educational administration has
been the quest for the essence of leadership, a distinctive set of characteristics
possessed by effective leaders (Evers and Lakomski, 1996, 2000) and this has shaped
our understanding of strategy in education. People and social phenomena are more
complicated than our simple models or theories allow (Waite, 2002) and the know-how
of leadership shaped by practical situations (Evers and Lakomski, 2001) has placed the
specialisation of strategy in education in a state of intellectual turmoil.
The need for strategy
Griffiths (1985) has raised concerns regarding the unquestioned adoption of terms from
the corporate world into educational administration. Thomas (2006) also warns of the
seduction of jargon from elsewhere in the field of educational leadership. Kelly (2005) is
critical of the role of strategy within education and Bell (1998, 2002) strongly opposes
the current strategic planning processes in education. Others have challenged the
ability of strategy to meet the needs of educational organisations (Bell and Chan, 2005;
Mulford, 1994; Rice and Schneider, 1994), while Forde et al. (2000) consider it to be an
overrated feature of good leadership. Common to these criticisms of strategy, strategic
management and strategic leadership is the central argument that schools are about
learning and teaching not corporate management and that corporate models remove
the leaders attention away from instructional leadership. This core assumption is
conceptually misplaced.
Schools are traditionally viewed as under-led and under-managed organisations
characterised by their core business of teaching and learning (Bain, 2000, Dimmock,
2000; Dimmock and Walker, 2004; Weick, 1976). While instructional leadership and/or
pedagogic leadership (MacNeill and Cavangh, 2006) remain the core business of school
leaders, strategy is the mechanism for aligning all aspects of the school’s operations in
the pursuit of a common goal. Therefore, the two roles are interdependent.
The traditional view of organisations and strategy is to see the organisation as the
machine that turns resources into products, and strategy as the instrument for
positioning the focal organisation in the industry and marketplace (Løwendahl and
Revang, 1998). Unfortunately the self-taught educational leader or even the teaching of
strategy within the academy and through consultants is generally from a mechanistic
perspective or what Levac
´and Glover (1997, 1998) term “technicist-rational”
approach. This approach presents strategy to school leaders as a mechanistic pursuit
towards the production of a plan. The underlying assumption of strategy and the
strategic leader of schools are viewed as “strategic rationality” (Finkelstein and
Hambrick, 1996, p. 337). The rationality paradigm is the basis of theories in planning,
public policy making, microeconomics, organisational learning and even contingency
theory (Scheerens, 1997). From this perspective, the leader’s task is to identify
techno-economic opportunities and problems, systematically search for alternatives
and make choices that maximise the performance of the organisation. This perspective
forms the basis of the criteria from which school development plans in the UK are
assessed during inspection (Broadhead et al., 1996; Cuckle et al., 1998a, b; Cuckle and
Broadhead, 2003).
This view of strategy is extremely narrow and conceptually flawed. In most
organisations, much of the manager’s time and attention is given to efforts designed to
make the day-to-day operations as efficient as possible. The primary reason given for
this is that inefficiencies in daily operations negatively impact on the performance of
the organisation. However, organisations depend much more for their long-term
success and survival on improvements in their effectiveness (that is, on how well they
relate to their environments) than on improvements in their efficiency (Hofer and
Schendel, 1978). Drucker (1954) stated that it is more important to do the right things
(improve effectiveness) than to do things right (improve efficiency). This suggests that
an organisation doing the right things wrong (that is, is effective but not efficient), can
outperform the organisation doing the wrong things right (that is, are efficient but not
effective). This serves as the over-riding need for strategy within an educational
Strategy is the key to aligning all school management processes (Fidler, 1989).
Through effective strategy, the educational leader can deliberately and purposefully
align the organisational structure with the work of the people within the organisation
in consideration of organisational performance. It focuses on the creation of meaning
and purpose for the organisation (House and Aditya, 1997) and provides an analytic
framework to guide managerial practice (El-Hout, 1994). Strategy is the avenue to
escape the ad hoc, fragmented, piecemeal approach to institutional management
adopted by less effective leaders.
Conceptual issues
Rumelt (1979) contended that the kind of situations that call for strategic thinking and
analysis are those that are ill structured and therefore difficult and ambiguous. Weick
(1989) argued that it is impossible to construct a theory that is both accurate and
simple. As previously discussed, strategy is multidisciplinary, and despite being
present in educational settings since the mid 1970s (El-Hout, 1994) and the literature for
over 25 years, it still remains strongly associated with rational approaches to corporate
management. This has significantly impeded the evolution of strategy as an
educational administration construct.
Much of the literature on strategic management and leadership takes a “best
practice” approach, identifying the conditions for the successful implementation of
strategic management programs (Brown, 2004). Arguably, this is the result of
conceptualising “strategy” as a tool for leading and managing an organisation. The
original emergence of strategy in educational administration literature was under the
title “school business administration” (Jordan and Webb, 1986). It was seen as an
analytical framework taken from business and applied within education. In many
ways, little has changed. While researchers are beginning to explore more holistic
views of strategy (Davies, 2006; Dimmock and Walker, 2004; Eacott, in press; National
College for School Leadership, 2005), attempts are still being made to adapt corporate
In search of unity
developed models into educational settings (Bell, 2003; Bishop and Limerick, 2006;
Davies and Coates, 2005; Kettunen, 2005). Until the focus of research is removed from
the development and implementation of strategic management processes, there will be
little construction of a meaningful definition of strategy in education for scholar and
The proposed conceptual framework for strategy in education which forms the
basis of this paper’s proposed path forward has been developed from research and
writing in a wide range of contexts, some of which have been indicated. It draws on:
.Research on strategic leadership, change and planning in educational settings by
Crandall et al. (1986), Fidler and Bowles (1989), Glover (1990), Davies and Ellison
(1992, 1997), Pashiardis (1993), Goldring and Pasternack (1994), Fidler (1996,
2002), Middlewood (1998), Cuckle et al. (1998a, b), Bush and Coleman (2000), and
more recently by Davies and Davies (2006).
.Research undertaken on strategy in the corporate sector by Rumelt (1979),
Schendel (1994), Finkelstein and Hambrick (1996), Løwendahl and Revang
(1998), Papadakis et al. (1998), Lengnick-Hall and Wolff (1999), Westphal and
Fredrickson (2001), and Boyd et al. (2005).
.Work on strategic thinking and actions by Mintzberg (2003), Boisot (2003),
Caldwell (2004, 2006), and Fullan (1993).
.Criticism of the application of strategy in education by Mulford (1994), Rice and
Schneider (1994), Bell (1998, 2002), and Bell and Chan (2005).
.Previous work in the current research program by the Eacott (2004, 2006a, b,
2007, in press, forthcoming)
.Analysis of work-based practice by the author while working as a school
executive in a number of schools over the past decade.
.The outcomes of a series of workshops with over 300 principals, members of
school executive, experienced teachers and graduate students on “the strategic
role of educational leaders” in which the proposed framework has been explored
and refined.
Consistent features to emerge from this extensive body of work are that the strategic
role of the educational leader comprises of five inter-related dimensions represented in
Figure 1. This figure emphasises that the strategic role of the educational leader is not
linear, but a dynamic and iterative process. However, it cannot be stressed enough that
the process of strategic leadership is iterative and movement can occur within any
feature of the process at any time.
Envisioning requires the principal and school community to think about the future
of the school. When an enrolling parent walks into the school, the staff and other key
figures within the school should be able to articulate what the school is striving for and
what parents can expect throughout their child’s time at the school (Eacott, 2006b).
To undertake the process of envisioning requires critical reflection and reflective
dialogue. This reflection needs to form the foundations of strategic thinking, moving
the debates from the day-to-day to the future of the school and building in time to
discuss and debate where the school is heading. Essential to this process is building
metaphors or images of the desired future and ensuring that there is a shared
conceptual or mental map of how to get there. There are many different versions of
how a school can establish a strategic direction/vision (see Eacott, 2006a), however
what is important, is the meaningful involvement of key stakeholders.
This leads into the feature of engaging. Research on effective schools has shown
that parental involvement in decision making and activities positively correlates with
increased satisfaction and support for the school (Gamage, 1998). Similarly, staff
participation is linked to job satisfaction, morale and building trust and confidence in
leadership (Timperley and Robinson, 2000).
Engaging requires the school community to have strategic conversations, while
often led by the principal, this does not have to be the case. These conversations build
on critical reflection, establish purpose for actions and encourage a culture of reflection
and dialogue on strategic matters and the future direction of the school. Involving as
wide as group as possible provides richer source of data on the school to inform
discussion and debates and if done well, gives others the feeling that their contribution
is important, recognised and can make a difference. Effective engagement of others
allows for the support, development and/or mentoring of other strategic leaders within
the school.
Figure 1.
In search of unity
Once the school has a strategy, it becomes the guiding framework for all decisions
within the organisation (Eacott, 2004). Decisions made at the organisational, staff,
student and community levels need to align with the overarching strategy of the
institution (Eacott, 2006b). The systems and structures designed at the organisational
level, for example meeting structures; communication systems; and decision-making
models, need to reflect the institutions strategy. The professional learning
opportunities that are offered to staff, pedagogical practices and annual reviews
need to meaningfully reflect the overarching strategy. The expectation of students and
their role within the organisation needs to reflect the basic premises of the strategy. In
essence, the school’s strategy becomes the blueprint for action (Fidler, 1989) or the
touchstone to keep the school focussed.
There are three inter-related levels within the articulating dimension: oral, written
and structural. Oral articulation involves not only articulating the institutional
vision/direction, but also bringing it to life through conversations and dialogue (Davies
and Davies, 2006). Written articulation involves distinguishing between daily
operations and strategic operations and articulating in writing, a small set of
deliverable objectives that the institution can achieve and focus efforts. Structural
articulation requires the school to be aligned (e.g. curriculum teams or strategic priority
teams) in a manner that is consistent with the strategic direction and integrated into all
aspects of organisational life. Dimmock and Walker (2004) discuss this concept from
the perspective of the learning centred organisation. An alternate lens for this is
purposeful infrastructure.
Implementation is primarily concerned with how the school’s strategy can be
witnessed. Its central aspect is translating strategy into action, establishing
frameworks and ensuring that they become actions. Building on from other features
implementation requires that staff understand the school’s strategy and maintain a
commitment to enacting that strategy. However as with the debate in change
management over change versus quality improvement, it is imperative that strategic
actions aim to significantly improve current operations by developing the capabilities
of others. The timing of implementation is also important. Actions may be sequential
or parallel, but desirably, the principal will initiate changes when the school needs
them and before external constraints or conditions dictate them.
Because of the iterative nature of strategy as a process, monitoring and evaluation
are two crucial elements to effective implementation. The educational leader needs to
be constantly asking themselves and others, Where are we now? Where to next? How
will we get there? How will we know when we get there? (Eacott, 2006a). There is a
need for a transparent system of data collection to enable effective monitoring and
predetermined points of evaluation. Pivotal to the success of this dimension of strategy
is developing the analytical skills of others to ensure thorough evaluation. Essential
elements of this dimension include: systematic monitoring procedures; continuous
monitoring; evaluative judgments; and evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategy.
A key feature of the proposed framework for strategy in education is that it is not
about strategic leadership or strategic management. Rather than becoming involved in
a debate over leadership and management, this framework suggests that the strategic
role of the principal is just that, a strategic role. An examination of popular leadership
theories leads to an array of strategic actions. Further to this argument is the notion of
the “educational strategist”. Having moved beyond the strategic leader or strategic
manager construct, why not see the role of the school principal as one of educational
strategist, where leadership behaviours and management processes are targeted
towards the enhancements of the school’s educational programs and most importantly
student development. This suggests that the principal can draw on knowledge,
understandings and skills from anywhere (including the corporate sector) so long as
they are implemented in a manner that is consistent with the purpose and core values
of the school. It is here where the principal can have the most significant influence on
the development of students.
Methodological issues
The advancement of any scientific field of inquiry depends on the soundness of the
research methodologies employed by its members (Ketchen and Bergh, 2004).
Reflecting on papers presented at the 2005 Australian Council for Educational
Leadership Conference and his role as Editor of the Journal of Educational
Administration, Thomas (2006, p. 11) states:
The phenomenon of leadership is, once again undergoing one of its periodic, sustained
examinations: definitions of leadership, components of leadership, correlates of leadership,
and so on, are occupying more and more journal space and more and more conference time.
Yet, therein, lies an emerging danger. Just as the trait approach to leadership in decades past
succeeded in identifying a plethora of individual attributes or characteristics fundamental to
successful leadership contemporary studies threaten to engulf us with their own tidal wave of
Strategic leadership is no exception. Eacott (in press) provides a comprehensive
overview of methodological issues in the strategy in education literature between 1980
and 2005. He identified a wide range of methodologies used but stressed that most were
retrospective (Elliot, 1999), conducted after the outcomes were known. Van de Ven
(1992) pointed out, it is widely recognised that prior knowledge of the success or failure
of a strategic change effort invariably biases a study’s findings.
Researchers carefully design their studies to observe strategy/strategic leadership
in such a way that is “consistent with their definition and theory” (Van de Ven, 1992,
p. 181) of strategy/strategic leadership. Therefore while criticism remains that strategic
leadership research relies on sterile archive and survey data (Finkelstein and
Hambrick, 1996) if investigators’ concept of strategy is limited to the mechanistic
pursuit of a plan, then document analysis of the plan and survey of the planning
process is most appropriate.
Research is inextricably linked with theory; therefore, the misconceptions and
ambiguities surrounding theory are reflected in the “interpretation of the meaning and
purpose of research” (Hoy and Miskel, 2001, p. 6). Considering that research has tended
to follow practitioner trends (e.g. the spike in research following the Education Reform
Act, 1988 in the UK), strategic leadership research has been limited in its selection of
unit of analysis to that of a plan or a planning process. Recent trends seem to suggest a
move towards an integrative perspective of strategic leadership in education, yet there
still remains a requirement for a number of content and methodological refinements
(e.g. a move away from small-scale case studies; the analysis of strategic leadership
behaviours and practitioner perspectives) to further inform the debate.
As research has focused on a plan or the planning process, the unit of analysis for a
large number of studies has been the plan or the planning process to the exclusion of
In search of unity
other strategic activities. Some have attempted to study the process from a teacher
perspective (e.g. O’Donoghue and Dimmock, 1996), middle managers perspective
(Leader, 2004), or that of the school community (Jones, 1991). There have been attempts
to identify aspects of strategic leadership or planning that are effective (Crandall et al.,
1986, Glover and Levacic, 1996a, b) or even prescribe strategic actions with a positive
affect on school performance (Caldwell, 1992, 1998; Giles, 1998; Pashiardis, 1993;
Warnet, 1994). However, the impact of these works has been constrained by the narrow
focus of their unit of analysis.
The rich diversity of methodologies present provides a useful guide for designing
future studies on strategic leadership in schools. However, a research design cannot be
undertaken without a clear conception of what strategic leadership in schools means to
the researcher and what theory or theories of strategic leadership are expected to guide
the study (Chakravarthy and Doz, 1992). The methods of inquiry applied by
researchers shapes the range of results and theories that are likely to emerge (Harris
and Beatty, 2004). Small-scale case studies (e.g. Brown, 2004; Forshaw, 1998; Glover,
1990, Hatton, 2001; Hutchinson, 1993; Jones, 1996; Mather, 1998; Saker and Speed, 1996;
Thody, 1991; Wallace, 1991; Watson and Crossley, 2001; Wong, 2005) offer valuable
insights and illuminate ways of working, but cannot probe or address certain critical
It is evident that scholars studying strategy in educational institutions employ a
variety of different theoretical perspectives. This is not surprising, given that there is
limited empirical work on strategic leadership and additional concerns relating to the
conceptual definition of strategic leadership in the literature. Harris and Beatty (2004)
draw attention to the considerable conceptual overlap amongst theoretical positions or
models of leadership present in contemporary works. Strategic leadership is present in
all theoretical perspectives (Davies and Davies, 2006; Eacott, 2006a) and we are a long
way from developing any paradigmatic focus in this sub-field (assuming the field is
educational leadership).
A path forward
A core assumption in this discussion is that the terms “strategy” and “strategic” are
used by scholars as proxies representing different meanings, concepts, or dimensions
of the leadership and management of educational institutions. Such meanings have
included holistic perspectives, types of systems and structures, types of
decision-making styles and timeframes of actions. In response to these varied
meanings, this paper proposes the need to conceptualise key features of the strategy
The raison d’e
ˆtre of strategic leadership and management is to increase our
understanding about the determinants of organisational performance and explain how
leaders and managers can create superior performance (Meyer, 1991). To achieve this,
we need to establish a theoretical base for scholars. However, establishing a theoretical
base from which strategy in education researchers can draw to specify testable
relationships remains a critical task. Yet, developing a solid theory base would
facilitate scholars’ efforts to form significant streams of research as part of the
pathways to additional legitimacy for strategy in education research and the
development of a widely recognised paradigm.
Ireland et al. (2005) offer a framework for establishing theory building in strategy.
Table I provides an adapted version for theory recommendations for strategy in
education research.
The challenge is to address important research questions that capture the attention
and motivation of “scholars and practitioners alike in the merits of studying them”
(Van de Ven, 1992, p. 181). Currently our knowledge of strategic leadership is limited
and is mostly based on normative or descriptive studies and on assumptions most of
which remain untested (Papadakis et al., 1998).
Several prominent contributors to the field of school effectiveness research have
recently made a plea for “more theory” (Mortimore, 1992; Slater and Teddlie, 1991;
Stringfield, 1995). Theorists have the largest impact with “simple, powerful, plausible
explanations that seem to basically underlie phenomena” (Krathwohl, 1993, p. 649).
Scheerens (1997, p. 287) adds that theorising means “going beyond the statement of
factors that work and also beyond the modelling of relationships between factors in
order to lay bare underlying explanatory principles”. Developing that theory however
requires working back and forth between abstractions and a phenomenon (Krathwohl,
To achieve this requires the undertaking of multiple frames of reference (Van de
Ven and Johnson, 2006). Undertaking multiple independent thought trials facilitates
good theory building (Weick, 1989). Mixed methods studies offer the potential to build
substantial theoretical understanding within the specialisation of strategy in
education. By this we mean not merely the use of one method to follow up on data
from another method, but a truly integrative investigation of a phenomenon drawing
on multiple methods. Tashakkori and Creswell (2007a, p. 4) define mixed methods
research as “research in which the investigator collects and analyses data, integrates
the findings, and draws inferences using both qualitative and quantitative approaches
Aspects Recommendations
General theory development Explicate the how, why, and when of relationships
among a set of variables
Specify necessary assumptions for testable
Definitional issues Define strategy in the way it is being used in schools
Specify the boundaries of the chosen definition of
strategy in schools
Applying theories from other disciplines Articulate main assertions and assumptions of the
Discuss applicability to strategy in schools
Discuss how the assertions/assumptions remain the
same or change when used to form theory-driven
testable relationships dealing with strategy in
schools questions
Strategy-specific theories Expand on theories of the strategic school leader and
of strategic opportunity
Continue to focus on ways to appropriately develop
specific theories about strategy in schools
Source: Adapted from Ireland et al. (2005)
Table I.
Theory recommendations
for strategy in education
In search of unity
or methods in a single study or a program of inquiry”. However, the fundamental issue
of the degree to which researchers genuinely integrate their findings has not been
addressed to a significant extent (Bryman, 2007). To better address this issue, it is
suggested that researcher use a mixed methods question (Tashakkori and Creswell,
2007b) that forces the two sets of findings together. They describe three means of
achieving this:
(1) write specific quantitative and qualitative questions followed by an explicit
mixed methods question;
(2) write an overarching mixed methods question that is then broken down into
separate qualitative and quantitative sub-questions; and
(3) write questions for each phase of the study as it evolves.
The major benefit of mixed methods designs is that they allow for research to develop
comprehensively and as completely as possible (Morse, 2004). They provide better
(stronger) inferences, with the opportunity for presenting a greater diversity of views,
as it is possible to answer confirmatory and exploratory questions simultaneously
(Tashakkori and Teddlie, 2003). It is advantageous to a researcher to combine methods
to better understand a concept being tested or explored (Creswell, 1994). In addition,
through the co-ordination of multiple perspectives, the robust features of reality can be
distinguished from those features that are merely a function of the theoretical
framework used (Azevedo, 1997). Foskett et al. (2005) call for more mixed methods
studies in educational leadership. Interestingly, Gorard’s (2005) meta-analysis of
educational leadership and management journals in the UK found no reports of mixed
methods studies.
Drawing on the current body of literature it is possible to find numerous definitions
for strategy and strategic in the field. Yet a fundamental question that remains to be
investigated is the definition or perception of practitioners. In doctoral work being
conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, Eacott proposes two fundamental
questions: “How do practitioners define strategic leadership in educational settings?”
and “How do they enact their strategic role?”. Drawing loosely on the principles of
grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin, 1990) he proposes to develop a ground up theory
of strategic leadership in education that can then be compared with a literature
developed model (Figure 1).
There is a well-established school of thought arguing that there exists a
considerable gap between espoused theory and practice. Redefining “strategy” and
“strategic” in the educational context at the key features level by drawing on scholarly
inquiry in the field and practitioner perspectives provides the opportunity to establish
the construct within the field and set the parameters of inquiry.
To advance, the specialisation of strategy in education must cumulate knowledge
regarding theories that help explain organisational performance and prescribe ways
that managers can adjust strategies to improve organisational performance (Carlson
and Hatfield, 2004; Rumelt et al., 1994). Contemporary researchers in educational
strategy do not start with “clean theories, they have amalgams of assumptions,
concepts, ideas and like” (Griffiths, 1998, p. 36). Consequently a wide set of theoretical
perspectives are present in the literature (Eacott, in press). Lengnick-Hall and Wolff
(1999) highlight that deciding what theoretical perspective to describe or predict
strategic circumstances, actions and consequences is a persistent challenge in the field
of strategy research. Elenkov et al. (2005) describe three main theoretical perspectives
used in the study of strategy: upper echelon theory, full range of leadership
(transformational, transactional and laissez faire) and visionary leadership.
With the large number of retirements expected among the current stock of
educational leaders in the next decade, upper echelon theory (Hambrick and Mason,
1984) is of particular interest. The central logic of Hambrick and Mason’s (1984, p. 193)
argument is that organisational outcomes need to be viewed as “reflections of the
values and cognitive bases of powerful actors in the organization”. The basic premise
of strategy research has been that senior executives play a dominant role in strategy
formulation. The personal background and prior experience (e.g. gender, age, tenure,
functional track, formal education) of executives is increasingly recognised as affecting
strategy (Westphal and Fredrickson, 2001). Neumann and Finlay-Neumann (1994) add
that the leader’s personality is likely to have an important impact on both
organisational success and growth.
Upper echelon theory has been criticised for linking demographic variables with
organisational performance as it creates a “causal gap” (Priem et al., 1999) or an
“organizational black box” (Lawrence, 1997). What is suggested here is that rather than
linking organisational outcomes with demographic variables, we link the demographic
variables to leadership actions (Eacott, 2007). Inquiry into the demographics of
educational leaders provides two significant inter-related benefits. For the scholar, it
may offer increased power to predict an organisation’s outcomes (behaviours, structure
and performance). Second, for those who are responsible for the selection and
development of educational leaders there may be greater insights into why different
leaders enact their strategic roles differently.
Through the re-definition, or establishment of a widely accepted definition of
strategy combined with appropriate research designs (balancing the deductive nature
of quantitative methods with the inductive nature of qualitative) drawing on
theoretical perspectives from both within and outside educational leadership is an
essential precursor for developing a strategic educational leadership theoretical
perspective and bringing unity to the construct.
The substantial argument of this paper is that our knowledge of strategy in education
is incomplete and muddled because research and writing in the field have approached
strategy from a narrow and conceptual flawed position. Educational leadership as a
field is removed from “normal science” characterised by organised forums and
scientific journals facilitating communication between researchers. It is a field of
inquiry dominated by a pragmatic, empirical approach (Scheerens, 1997). The
cognitive development of the field remains at the discovery-orientation rather than
empirically-oriented studies. There remains a major struggle in the relationship
between disciplinary research (educational leadership) and the separate domains of
strategy research, the view of strategy as a construct and the balance between criticism
and exploration of strategy.
Rumelt et al. (1994, p. 1), suggest that “at any time a field of inquiry’s frontier was
defined by a set of fundamental issues or questions facing it”. This paper is intended to
be a foundation for future empirical research and inquiry into strategy in education by
suggesting alternate ways of defining and researching strategy. The overarching goal
In search of unity
in redefining strategy has been to propose key features not words and actions. The
hope is that fellow scholars and practitioners will continue to question and focus on the
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... The belief is that the employment of ESLP, especially in the principal leadership of risky schools, will turn the condition and performance of these schools around. Essentially, leadership experts contend that ESLP is a vital component in the effective management and development of schools (Davies, 2006;Davies & Davies, 2009;Eacott, 2008) and could well be the solution to the safety crisis occurring in risky schools. Premised on this belief, this study aimed to explore the levels of ESLP among selected school leaders of high-risk Malaysian schools and validate a proposed model of ESLP relevant to them. ...
... Finally, the leaders of Malaysian risky schools are expected to acquire and demonstrate all nine ESLP characteristics. Possessing the ESLP characteristics is important as it facilitates and drives the strategic implementation of a strategically focused school (Davies, 2004;Davies & Davies, 2004, 2006Eacott, 2008). Therefore, based on the examination and synthesis of all nine constructs proposed by Davies and Davies (2006), Hairuddin (2012, and Inas (2017, 2018) as discussed above, the nine-factor model of ESLP was proposed for the better management of Malaysian risky schools. ...
... ,Eacott (2008),Hairuddin (2012Hairuddin ( & 2016,Hairuddin and Bustaman (2009),Inas (2017 &2018),Hairuddin and Mohammed Borhandden (2012). ...
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This paper explored the practice of educational strategic leadership (ESLP) among selected leaders of Malaysian risky schools, with the aim of developing, validating, and confirming a hypothesised structural model for leaders’ ESLP. Data were collected from 472 school leaders of 141 risky secondary schools across Malaysia using a set of five-point rating scales as the research instrument. For data analysis, the study used descriptive statistics, confirmatory factor analysis, and full-fledged SEM. The findings revealed that Malaysian risky schools’ leaders had a high proclivity and inclination to practice educational strategic leadership (ESLP) at work and reported high levels of ESLP. Strategic orientation, strategic translation, strategic intervention, strategic alignment, strategic competencies, restlessness, absorptive capacity, adaptive capacity, and wisdom were among the nine practices of educational strategic leadership identified in the survey responses. SEM procedures were used to confirm that the hypothesised model of ESLP for Malaysian risky schools’ leaders was empirically valid and reliable. The findings emphasised the importance of planning and developing a specific-context training program in strategic educational leadership for Malaysian risky schools’ leaders. The training was deemed essential in the pursuit of effective leadership and positive school outcomes in Malaysian schools. The study was able to develop, test, and validate an ESLP model for the strategic management of risky schools and it is regarded as one of the few studies on the factors influencing risky schools in Malaysia.
... Strategy and strategic leadership are critical issues for school leaders Davies and Davies, 2010;Eacott, 2010a;Eacott, 2011). However, strategy as a field of research has largely been overlooked in educational leadership literature Eacott, 2008a;Eacott, 2008b;Davies and Davies, 2010;Eacott, 2011). Most of the theoretical and empirical work on strategy and strategic leadership over the past decades has been related to non-educational settings, and scholarship devoted to these issues in education is still very limited (Cheng, 2010;Eacott, 2011;Chan, 2018). ...
... Eacott, 2008b). Specific educational reforms led to large amounts of international literature mostly devoted to strategic planning (Eacott, 2008a;Eacott, 2008b;Eacott, 2011). For a long period, the concept of strategy was incomplete and confusing. ...
... For a long period, the concept of strategy was incomplete and confusing. The word "strategy" was often used to characterize different kinds of actions, namely, to weight management activities, to describe a high range of leadership activities, to define planning, or to report to individual actions within an organization (Eacott, 2008a). ...
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Strategy and strategic leadership are critical issues for school leaders. However, strategy as a field of research has largely been overlooked within the educational leadership literature. Most of the theoretical and empirical work on strategy and strategic leadership over the past decades has been related to non-educational settings, and scholarship devoted to these issues in education is still minimal. The purpose of this scoping review was to provide a comprehensive overview of relevant research regarding strategy and strategic leadership, identifying any gaps in the literature that could inform future research agendas and evidence for practice. The scoping review is underpinned by the five-stage framework of Arksey and O’Malley . The results indicate that there is scarce literature about strategy and that timid steps have been made toward a more integrated and comprehensive model of strategic leadership. It is necessary to expand research into more complex, longitudinal, and explanatory ways due to a better understanding of these constructs.
... Partnership barriers are often caused by the traditional practices of American high schools. School principals are primarily trained as instructional leaders, not organizational leaders (Eacott, 2008) which limits their capacity to establish and maintain STEM industry partnerships. Lacking organization-level support, some external partnerships are managed by enterprising classroom teachers. ...
The case of Mid-America STEM High School showcases a partnership between one high school and a local STEM business. The partnership leverages the assets of both organizations to transform the quality of the high school STEM learning experience. As a result, learners regularly experience authentic learning opportunities which increases their odds of persisting in STEM-related postsecondary pathways. Cross-sector partnerships are often cited as a strategy to improve STEM education. The case demonstrates how one community overcame common collaboration barriers and suggests design principles that may be useful when developing new partnerships. The rich description of Mid-America STEM High School’s partnership is derived from stakeholder interviews. Success can be attributed to intentional trust-building, a willingness to accommodate partner organizations’ needs, and symbolic investments from organizational leaders. Other communities beginning new partnerships can learn from this case to build their own mutually beneficial school-STEM industry partnerships.
... In line with new principals' challenges to be more comprehensive and contextual, strategic leadership is the process of providing a clear direction for their school. The process takes into account various contexts, including implementation in the past, present, and future, as well as readiness in several important aspects such as physical, financial, and human resources (Eacott, 2006). In this regard, new principals need to master those skills, especially during the induction period through guidance from trained mentors to ensure that strategic planning is carried out toward organizational improvement. ...
... External partnerships with schools require unique leadership skills like attending to power dynamics between sectors and developing a shared culture to drive the work (Becker & Smith, 2017). Prior scholars have argued that school administrators are ill-prepared to lead external collaborations because they are trained in instructional, not organizational, leadership (Eacott, 2008). In practice, managing external partnerships is often a teacher's responsibility. ...
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STEM industry partners should play a major role in improving the K-12 student experience. Industry engagement with schools takes on a variety of forms like providing career day speakers, philanthropic giving, or student mentoring. A key challenge in this work, however, is creating mutually beneficial partnerships which meet the needs of both school and industry partners. This research asked two questions: (1) What systems enable students to experience mutually beneficial STEM industry partnerships? (2) How do those systems vary across educational settings (urban, rural, and suburban)? This research study presents three cases selected because they have mutually beneficial, STEM-Industry partnerships in distinct settings.
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A contemporary literature spells out reasons why underperforming schools fail. Schools labelled "underperforming" are generally characterised by the lack of a culture of performance caused by poor leadership. The panel of circuit managers who conducted accountability meetings with underperforming schools in Mopani West District made the similar observation. Thus, the panel made a significant proposition to consider "reculturing" underperforming schools instead of "restructuring" them. The proposition to approach school reform from the lens of reculturing was appealing to the schools and was widely accepted by all circuit managers as a panacea to underperformance in our schools. This paper focuses on the key features of the culture in underperforming schools and suggests a model with pragmatic reculturing strategies to address the weaknesses. The strategies espoused to achieve a lasting change in underperforming schools can be adopted by any school that is in the process of reculturing. The reculturing model emphasises the role and action of individual principal in initiating and guiding the process of reculturing. Therefore, effective leadership becomes an active precursor of reculturing in schools to improve learner achievement.
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This article is inspired by the practical approach to education reforms, within education for all. These reforms have greatly fueled political dialogue and exchange of experience. Given the number of countries and regions of the world concerned, these reforms take place in a wide variety of contexts that underlie the specificity of each. Consequently, any possibility of classification and typology may encounter theoretical and practical obstacles that are difficult to overcome. Although we do not ignore them, observing certain dominant common features of these reforms allows us to try it through a double input: the expectations and the conduct of change, especially those determined by the globalization of reforms through the frameworks of successive education assessments and international assessments (PISA, TIMSS, PASEC, SAQMEC). The challenge is threefold. It is primarily a matter of categorizing expectations and strategic choices that make it possible to distinguish policies in the field of educational reform. This opens up a deeper understanding of the nature and impact of each of these different types of reform to better inform the analysis of the options that have guided the unfolding of change. The second challenge is to identify the major challenges faced by change management. Such challenges, by their scale and complexity, often explain the discrepancies between expectations for change and the results of reforms. One of the implications is also that addressing these challenges creates the critical conditions for successful reforms. The reflection on the lessons learned then opens the way to new perspectives for the development of reforms to which current and future trends in the evolution of education systems are articulated.
This chapter focuses on understanding strategic leadership by developing a comprehensive perspective of what strategic leadership is and why we need strategic leaders in schools. The chapter also draws attention to the components of strategic leadership and how school leaders apply these practices in schools. The chapter concludes with exercises for better understanding the nature of strategic leadership and its implications in schools.
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The article discusses the competitive situation of an international school, that is not financially successful. Using the Resource Based View approach, the article discusses the school’s potential advantages through the lens of Marketing’s 7 P’s, TOWS, and VRIO. The argument is made that, given market conditions, this school should consider a strategic move to a different competitive segment of the market, where its resources would give an advantageous position in the different group of schools.
Comment on papers and theme of a Finnish conference, different ways to "see" strategically
The writers emphasize that civil engineers are engineering managers as well as technicians. Civil engineering departments must begin providing the undergraduate with engineering management education for the following reasons: (1)Civil engineers need basic management tools early in their careers; and (2)very high percentage of civil engineers eventually spend more than 50% of their time in management of supervising activities and eventually almost all civil engineers become involved in management in someway. A suggested approach is to structure civil engineering undergraduate courses around a systematic approach to the management of constructed facilities.