A SWOT or SWOC analysis is a tool that assists organizations in identifying their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats or challenges. It is often used at the beginning of a strategic planning process as it helps to generate ideas about what is working, what needs work, opportunities, and potential issues or trouble. Strengths and weaknesses are viewed as being internal to the organization conducting the SWOT while opportunities and threats/challenges are external to the organization. Keep in mind that there are criticisms of SWOT analysis usually revolving around the concept of threats. In recent years, the term “threat” has been replaced by “challenge;” which are viewed as something that can be overcome, whereas a threat can be seen as something that exists but acting may be futile. Some people do not identify threats. This could prove to be short-sighted, particularly if you choose to discuss these factors as challenges. Challenges may turn into opportunities and even strengths if well-managed.
How to do them
If you are conducting strategic planning for a large organization with hundreds, if not thousands of people, not everyone can participate. You will need to identify individuals who understand key areas of the organization. If your planning is with an office with less than, say 20 people, engaging everyone in this exercise will be beneficial.
You could ask everyone to identify elements of the SWOT on their own, then collate responses, but working as a group is more effective. You will not get redundant responses that have to be weeded out, and the interactions will likely bring up issues that would not have been considered. It’s best to do this one category at a time to keep participants focused.
Once you get through all categories, you can quickly eliminate any that seem to be redundant and combine like ideas.
You now need to make use of the SWOT – the SWOT is not the end product.
First, you will identify a lot of topics within each category. You cannot respond to or act on all of them, so you need to select those that rise to the top, are most pressing, et cetera.
Look for where they could be relationships between categories. For instance, you might have staff who, as they say, know their stuff, which is a strength. Unfortunately, what they know is not documented and they are 62. This is a weakness that needs to be addressed immediately.
Do not ignore your strengths. As the above demonstrates, a strength may not be forever. Also, you may find that you could actually build on a particular strength.
It really does help to have someone from outside of the office facilitate these sessions.
It ensures that everyone in the office is fully participating in the SWOT.
Trained facilitators know when/how to ask clarifying questions to ensure a collective understanding of ideas.
While these sessions can be exciting and even fun, discussions about weaknesses and threats can make some people uncomfortable. Again, a trained facilitator will know how to navigate those discussions.
Something that can be helpful in getting this process moving is to provide participants with data or information about the organization prior to your session. Some suggestions: data that shows productivity such as student credit hours, research dollars; previous strategic plans could also be beneficial.
As noted, you should go through each category separately. But one piece of advice: end with opportunities. Ending with threats or challenges can deflate a fairly energizing process.