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The people and the plan: Strategic planning at OLA

Ducks in a row
Ducks in a row. Photo Credit: Cliff Johnson,


The Ontario Library Association (OLA) is currently into another strategic planning cycle and OCULA representatives are again involved.

Shelagh Paterson (Executive Director, OLA), Jennifer Peters (OCULA, Past President) and Sophia Apostol (OCULA, Vice-President/President-Elect 2014) share their thoughts on the process and why it works.

Shelagh: Maintain, sustain, and enhance
Six years ago I became OLA’s executive director and my transition included a significant learning curve and relationship building. My mantra in year one was maintain, sustain, and enhance.

As the learning curve began to flatten, I knew we could use a roadmap—a strategic plan.

Some people were skeptical: was a strategic planning “exercise” needed? We had a vibrant membership and offered a relevant set of programs and services. But the board recognized that this was exactly why we needed to consult with OLA members and the library sector.  We had to continue to be relevant, responsive, and to develop new initiatives.

Here are a few key elements that made our planning experience successful and helped us develop a plan that has truly made a difference.

  • An external facilitator/consultant to guide the process. Internal stakeholders could participate as freely as broader stakeholders and the process did not become too narrow.
  • A brisk process.  Our process spanned approximately five months, which includes getting feedback from constituents, staff, the board; synthesizing ideas into strategic priorities, including identifying specific tactics to meet those priorities; and approving the final plan.
  • An operational plan.  Our staff annual performance plans are structured in a template that includes the strategic priority, the tactic, the specific tasks needed to accomplish the tactic, the timeline, and expected outcome. The board and divisions structure agendas using the strategic priorities as sections. With this format, we focus our efforts and remain responsive and relevant to the membership. The website and our annual report track our progress so that the members know we are honouring the plan they helped build.
  • Another cycle. We start a new planning cycle every four years. By year three of the existing plan, most goals are accomplished, the world has changed and it is time to consult again with the library sector.

Jennifer: Going in one direction
In the previous OLA planning process, the OCULA executive members and those from the other divisions were invited to participate in a strategic planning day.

With a consultant guiding the day, we did a number of activities that tried to suss out what we felt the main organizational goals should be.

Once the strategic plan was in place, we then held our own brainstorming session to figure out how we could align our current OCULA activities with OLA’s goals and identify new projects that could do to better serve the strategic plan.

This participatory process allowed us to prioritize our activities and focus our efforts. OCULA council is very dynamic so often we are going in six different directions because we want to do so much. Going through the planning process and having an overarching plan pretty much removed a lot of the guesswork from our decisions about what our top goals should be.  Over the past three years, we were able to accomplish a lot for OCULA members.

Sophia: Working in the right playground
I’ve been part of strategic planning processes in both the private and public sector: at the University of Guelph, the Ontario Colleges Library Services and currently as the director of YBP sales in Canada. I’ve enjoyed being part of the planning cycle at OLA and believe that, regardless of the organization, this process can be a very positive and beneficial experience. Here’s why:

  • Teams are given a clarity and direction that make sense: individual projects are aligned with institutional goals so staff are working in the right “playground.”
  • There is an opportunity for broad buy-in on key initiatives, not just from staff but also from managers who provide the needed project resources.
  • We can think about measuring our progress (i.e., doing assessment) and being accountable because we know what we need to accomplish; collaboration leads to organizational transparency


Martha Attridge Bufton, BBA (Hons), MA, is a subject specialist in Reference Services at the Carleton University Library.  She can be reached at martha.attridgebufton [at]

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