Quality Endeavors Issue No. 118

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March 2009

Developing meaningful strategic performance indicators can be one of the most challenging aspects of planning. Penn State first developed indicators in 1999; the latest set of University-wide indicators and data can be found at /indicators. As part of their most recent planning process, budget units were asked to develop strategic indicators for their units. Some parts of the University are drilling down even further to identify and track performance indicators. One place this is happening is Outreach’s Continuing and Distance Education.

Continuing and Distance Education (C&DE) began the process to develop performance indicators in 2008. They are currently in the first year of implementation gathering and reviewing quarterly data for both C&DE and its component units: Adult Learner Enrollment Services, Business and Finance Office, Conferences and Institutes, Continuing Education at University Park, Professional and Organizational Development, Statewide Continuing Education, and World Campus. Underlying this effort is the recognition that it is important to use data in making decisions.

Components for success

  • Collecting the right data
  • Aligning indicators with the vision
  • Buy-in by senior management
  • A consistent and disciplined approach
  • A willingness to change and adapt
  • Commitment and trust

In early 2008, John Park, Associate Director for Management Development in C&DE, reviewed the literature and benchmarked with several universities that have effectively used strategic performance indicators. This research revealed both consistent components for success and potential pitfalls.

Potential pitfalls

  • Collecting too much data
  • Ignoring or not using the data
  • Missing the impact of one indicator on other indicators
  • Not learning from the data and not using the data to find root causes
  • Lack of balance between focus on past, current, and future events

More important than using a particular model is the actual data collection and analysis, allowing enough time, energy, and resources for the effort, and taking time to talk about what the data really mean.

Following the approach described by David Parmenter in Key Performance Indicators: Developing, Implementing, and Using Winning KPIs (John Wiley and Sons, 2007), in spring 2008 C&DE held workshops and meetings for all unit leaders to explain the concepts and terminology, collaboratively develop SPIs for each unit, and then finalize the indicators for each unit and for C&DE overall.


  • key results indicators = historical data reflecting past performance
  • performance indicators = measures of how individual units are performing on specific tasks
  • critical success factors = real time, 24/7 events that must be happening or cannot be happening for the organization to succeed
  • key or strategic performance indicators (KPIs or SPIs) = summary data based on critical success factors

Strategic performance indicators (SPIs) within C&DE include traditional measures such as credit and non-credit enrollment. They also include less traditional measures such as number of C&DE cross-unit projects and number of new learner support services implemented. In starting this effort, C&DE has cast a broad net and identified many indicators. The intent is to pare the SPIs down to 5-7 that are truly strategic for each unit.

We are on a developmental path – learning from one another, teaching one another. We are in it for the long haul – the next 7 to 8 years. We will get better over time.

Wayne Smutz, Associate Vice President for Academic Outreach and Executive Director for Continuing and Distance Education
C&DE unit leaders meet quarterly as a group to review data for the previous semester, discuss the SPIs themselves, and apply the information to their unit and to C&DE and Outreach plans. In summer 2009 they will review annual data, compare it with the previous fiscal year, and consider refining their SPIs.

For more information on developing strategic performance indicators, visit Innovation Insights #19 at /innovation/insights019.pdf.