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Building ECNO’s new strategic plan: A conversation with Wayne Toms, Executive Director, and Brian McKay, President, Board of Directors

What was the process of developing the new strategic plan?

WT: We started in March 2022 with a day-long discussion with the Joint Committee (Board and ECNO Advisory Committee). This was our first strategic plan where we were completely disassociated from our K-12 suite product, so it was a good opportunity for a fresh review and brainstorm.

BM: Yes, in my time on the ECNO board I have seen an evolution of the conversation from when we were a product-focused organization to now being service-focused. This has allowed for new and different topics and conversations. Not having our own product has led to more collaboration, connection and community. The board feels there is now a good platform for us to open the gates for more leadership.

WT: After the Joint Committee session, we met as a staff team several times to further explore what we heard, and gathered more input and validation at the ERDI meeting. We then had some terrific conversations at the 2022 conference, and a final session with the Joint Committee in September to arrive at the final plan. It was a pretty extensive planning and engagement process.

BM: Where I think ECNO’s process improves on more traditional strategic planning is that we involved more voices in the discussion than you might typically see. Bringing the EAC and Board together leads to a rich and practical conversation that fosters great input and great buy-in. In my experience, the people who talk about a strategy are the ones who created it. We wanted this to be owned by everyone, and a reflection of their experiences and aspirations.

What are some of the major themes that you heard from members?

WT: Cyber security is at the top of everyone’s list. Ensuring safe and secure apps and tools was by far the big issue. Extending our reach to incorporate vendors and partners more was a key theme, as well – working with them to position ECNO as the sector expert.

BM: Resourcing and training also emerged as a huge area of concern for boards. People are leaving, churn is high, and salaries aren’t keeping up. We need to work with boards to find solutions to this critical issue.

WT: Some of this is pandemic related of course, and we had to filter what was a concern now and what will be a priority down the road.

BM: Overall, this planning exercise validated that ECNO is a go-to resource to 75 member Boards now, and the central point of discussion for a lot of important themes, and that we can lead discussions toward solutions.

ECNO changed its vision, mission, value statements and even updated its brand. Why such a bold shift?

WT: It goes to Brian’s earlier point that we are a service organization with a goal to service all boards equitably. We’re no longer focused on ERP systems and people who are using our product. We’re talking to everybody to make sure we’re meeting their needs. We started that process with our last strategic plan and this represents the final departure. We’re different now, and the vision and mission need to reflect that we are now the go-to service organization for all Ontario school Boards. The subtle logo and name adjustments also reflect that.

BM: It’s part of the growth of ECNO and sends a signal and message to our stakeholders that we’re different now, and we’re behind them all the way.

What are some of the major new directions with the new strategic plan?

WT: The strategy uses new language like ‘taking the lead in cross-functional digital integration’ that speaks to the work we’re doing to SIS and the new ERP especially. These are huge new software implementations across the sector, and we need to ensure we provide as much leadership and support as we can to help Boards operationalize these major changes. IT can’t be our sole entry point and area of support for Boards anymore.

BM: We’re positioning ourselves now as leaders, bringing guidance to the sector in a complex area. I think the term ‘cross-functional’ also speaks somewhat to our involvement with the Ministry, with COSBO, with Directors through CODE. We’re finding a seat at those tables to gather information but also provide more context and understanding. It’s important that we not silo ourselves but provide value and have a place across the broader educational community. It informs our work, and theirs.

One of the three pillars in the plan is all about resources, staffing and training, as you’ve noted. Why is this drawing so much energy in the next 3 years?

WT: We’re constantly hearing from IT directors and other Board staff that they can’t find and retain staff. It’s a critical issue. Salaries aren’t in line, there’s a lot of change, there aren’t many candidates, and the landscape is changing fast. We knew we had to step into this and look to build that resource pool and expertise to support them. It is going to be a ton of work but it’s too essential to not put the effort in.

BM: During the pandemic we saw a lot of innovation and creativity out of boards to ensure that the learning environment was maintained for our students. We know we need to maintain this environment and tap into this creativity. IT was at the forefront of those solutions, and it really showed the importance, skillset, and the agility and great need to have stellar IT resources in all our Boards. Of course, every other company and sector out there learned the same lessons, and now IT staff are in hot demand, so our focus on this area for boards will be essential. When we think about our other priorities around cyber security and online safety, it all funnels back to high quality IT leadership.

What excites you the most about this new strategy?

WT: I’m excited that we have a Board of Directors that has a shared vision of where we want to take ECNO and is actively engaged in its execution. There’s nothing that isn’t in this plan that I’m not onside with 100% because we have that united energy. Candidly, we’ve all been in those rooms with Boards that don’t have that shared vision and passion. Not here. I know we’ll encounter surprises and challenges along the way, and that the Board will help us find the resources and directions we need to bring this plan to life.

BM: I agree that unity is an important ingredient to the success of this plan. I’m excited that we have Wayne as our leader to guide us through this strategy, quite frankly, and such a strong staff with him. We will need this level of experience and expertise to guide us through. I’m also excited that this represents an important shift for ECNO’s future and sets us up to play an integral role in education in Ontario.

And what scares you?

WT: What doesn’t?! A good strategy should be a little scary. The ‘how’ is going to be some work to achieve this. How do we get those resources? How do we properly and fairly monetize it?

BM: After the last few years, it’s the unknown. What have we missed, what’s coming next? We can always be fearful of the unknown, but we’ve set ourselves up so well that I’m confident we are ready to not only react but be proactive and agile to take whatever comes our way.

How can ECNO members help make this a success?

WT: From my perspective, it’s simply to engage with your organization. Get involved. Don’t be shy. Volunteer. Have a voice and connect yourself to ECNO. It’s great for us, and it’s great for you. Volunteering is never one-way.

BM: The only thing I would add is to reiterate that we want to see you. There is great opportunity to engage, and we want people to communicate openly with us: the good, the bad, the other. ECNO can only be for our members what our members tell us that it should be.

WT: Exactly right! Well said.

Read the full strategic plan here and email Wayne Toms to explore how you can get involved.