Strategic Thinking and Planning in a Learning Culture

An organization is using strategic thinking if it can look at the past and present, take the best from both, and decide what course to take for the future.

With each passing day, technology advances so rapidly that a cell phone, computer software, or game you bought six months ago is now obsolete. Technology has brought our world closer, and has not only changed the global social culture, but global business culture, as well. With these technological advances come great benefits to businesses such as Instant Messaging, Web meetings, and video teleconferences.

Due to the recent growth of the corporate learning industry (11 percent in 2011 alone), having a strategic training plan is more important for the future of your organization than ever before (1). Business leaders need to capture tomorrow’s technology and be ready for it by using it in their training and creating a new learning culture. To do that, they must first think strategically and then develop a strategic plan. This article will explore what strategic thinking is, what it means to have a strategic plan, and how to implement one in your training environment to change the culture of your business using the technology of tomorrow.

Strategic Thinking and Planning

Strategic thinking basically means an organization is thinking how to better position itself among its competition for future success (2). Your organization is using strategic thinking if it can look at the past and present, take the best from both, and decide what course to take for the future (3).

Strategic thinking has an analytical “hard side” coupled with an artistic “soft side” (4). The analytical side is the cognitive or critical side in which one collects and evaluates quantitative information (5,6). The artistic or synthesis side refers to development of a vision and culture through qualitative thinking and creativity (7,8). Both sides are crucial because strategic thinking requires more than just using your head to analyze; to see the entire picture, you also must use your heart (9). Where synthesis takes smaller parts and combines them into something larger, analysis takes something large and complex and breaks it down into smaller components (10). Once the process has been thought-out strategically using analysis and vision, only then can a strategic plan be put into place.

According to Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel, strategic planning involves taking the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of an organization, (also known as the S.W.O.T. analysis model) and breaking it down into incremental stages to be used as a sort of checklist (11). Objectives of the plan must be identified at the beginning in order to identify the internal and external conditions (12). The main difference between strategic thinking and strategic planning is planning doesn’t predict a future state of where the organization wants to be (13). However, strategic planning is useful to help in strategic thinking, strategy development, decision-making, performance improvement, and to build camaraderie (14).

Develop a Learning Culture

Strategic learning in an organization is driven by strategic thinking (15) and is part of a learning culture. Today, cultural thinking has to cut across cultures because as a global society, we have shifted our strategic thinking as being “connected across boundaries,” to the point where some even use global languages (16). Culture also determines how the views and assumptions of a strategic thinker are developed (17). At the same time, identifying the need for a learning culture is one of the key elements a high-performing organization possesses (18).

In Japan there are two schools of thought: realist vs. liberal strategic thinking (19). The realist thinking can be compared to the analytical side because in Japan realists cannot respond effectively to global changes because they lack a global vision (20). On the softer side, the liberalists seem to have a broader worldview and, thus, a global vision. The nature of culture itself is one’s interpretation of the world and is both collective and social (21).

What Does the Future of Training Look Like? The World Is Our Classroom

A proactive approach toward strategic thinking (22), and one of Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel’s definitions of strategic thinking is “seeing ahead and behind” (23). In order to strategically think of the future, one must think ahead, but seeing behind is equally important because visioning the future must “be rooted in an understanding of the past” (24). We often think of primitive cultures as isolated, but if we think across boundaries (25), the modern training world could truly benefit from these isolated cultures. In the African country of Ghana, for example, the native word, sankofa, means that for people to advance, they cannot lose sight of the past; they must reach back into their own culture and traditions and keep them alive (26). Advancing by its very nature is thinking strategically. Arthur Powell and Oshon Temple link this advancement and tradition by the Akan-speaking people in Ghana by using traditionally cultural games to mathematics (27). One game (called oware) “provides rich opportunities for all children to build and extend arithmetical ideas and strategic thinking” and helps children understand that mathematics are linked in cultural ideas such as art, architecture, and music (28). This coincides with the linear thinking model proposed by Richard Hughes and Katherine Colarelli Beatty because it seems to look at the future (advancing) based on past experiences (culture and tradition) (29). Games are just one way an organization can think across international boundaries and create a new and strategic learning culture in their own training programs.

But what if you are a small business? Even small businesses—with their lack of financial resources for an HR department or a sophisticated learning management system (LMS)—can benefit from strategic learning. Just-in-time social learning is an inexpensive way to use today’s technology as a learning tool (30). Leaders of high-performing organizations understand the importance of experimenting with social learning (31), and employees with questions need only to log onto YouTube to watch a how-to video or Twitter to ask a question (32). Skype is another asset small businesses can use for teleconferences and virtual meetings. All of these resources are free to use and a small investment on a computer and Internet service provider is all that is needed.

Organizational Opportunities

Given the immense technological advances, there are plenty of opportunities for a training organization to take advantage of. Those opportunities could turn into threats if they don’t, so the point is to make a strategic plan following a thorough strategic thinking process in order to implement a learning culture of tomorrow. What will your organization’s next move be?


1) Bersin, J. (2012). “High-Impact Learning: Invest in Learning Teams When Designing Future Business Strategy,” Chief Learning Officer, Vol. 11, Issue 10, October 2012, p. 14.

2) Douglas Waters, “Understanding Strategic Thinking and Developing Strategic Thinkers,” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 63, pp. 113-119, 4th Quarter 2011. Retrieved January 5, 2013, from

3) Waters, “Understanding Strategic Thinking,” 113-119.

4) Richard L. Hughes and Katherine Colarelli Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

5) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

6) Waters, “Understanding Strategic Thinking,” 113-119.

7) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

8) Waters, Understanding Strategic Thinking, 113-119.

9) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

10) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

11) Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel, “Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management” (New York: Free Press, 1998).

12) Mintzberg et al, “Strategy Safari.”

13) Mousa Rezvani, Shahran Gilaninia, and Seyyed Javed Mousavian, “Strategic Planning: A Tool for Managing Organizations in Competitive Environments,” Australian Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences, Vol. 5, Issue 9, pp. 1537-1546, 2011. Retrieved January 5, 2013, from

14) Rezvani et al, “Strategic Planning,” 1537-1546.

15) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

16) T. Irene Sanders, “Strategic Thinking and the New Science” (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

17) Waters, “Understanding Strategic Thinking,” 113-119.

18) Bersin, “High Impact Learning,” 14.

19) Sharif Shuja, “Japan’s Strategic Thinking,” Contemporary Review, 2006, Vol. 288, Issue 1681, pp. 157-176.

20) Shuja, “Japan’s Strategic Thinking,” 157-176.

21) Mintzberg et al, “Strategy Safari.”

22) Arthur A. Goldsmith, “Strategic Thinking in International Development: Using Management Tools to See the Big Picture,” World Development, Vol. 24, No. 9, pp. 1431-1439, 1996. Retrieved January 11, 2013, from

23) Mintzberg et al, “Strategy Safari.”

24) Mintzberg et al, “Strategy Safari.”

25) Sanders, “Strategic Thinking.

26) Arthur B. Powell and Oshon L. Temple, “Seeding Ethnomathematics with Oware: Sankofa,” Teaching Children Mathematics, Vol. 7, Issue 6, pp. 369-375, (2001). Retrieved January 15, 2013, from

27) Powell and Temple, Oware, 369-375.

28) Powell and Temple, Oware, 369-375.

29) Hughes and Beatty, “Becoming a Strategic Leader.”

30) Deanna Hartley, “Learning Goes Social,” Chief Learning Officer, Vol. 11, Issue 10 October 2012, pp. 18-24.

31) Bersin, “High Impact Learning,” 14.

32) Hartley, “Learning Goes Social,” 18-24.

Scott MacFarlane is a doctoral student at Regent University’s School of Business and Leadership. A retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, he worked as a first-line and mid-level leader, and taught leadership curriculum at the Center for Naval Leadership. His credentials include a Master of Science in Management from Troy University, a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology from Roger Williams University, Navy Master Training Specialist, and Workforce Development Professional Certification from the University of Virginia. He currently works as an instructional designer for Newport News Shipbuilding and is an adjunct professor for Strayer University. He can be reached via e-mail at


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