Recently, students in a meeting planning course at the University of New Hampshire disappointed their professor when they were clueless about how to articulate a business strategy.

The assignment: create a fictitious company, identify strategic goals for that company, and then discuss how corporate meetings could support the business strategy. For example, strategic goals for a U.S.-based life insurance company might include “expanding sales of life insurance policies into China and capturing 10 percent market share.” In this scenario, company meetings for agents and executives could support the goals with a number of tactics, such as a sales meeting with workshops on cultural practices and a keynote speaker on China's emerging insurance business landscape.

What the students didn't understand, and what their textbook didn't clearly explain, was the relationship between the strategic business plan of a company and the goals of its meetings and events.

Many meeting planners, despite all the buzz in our industry about becoming strategic players, don't understand the bigger picture, either. “It's easy to stay in your box and worry just about the meeting you're working on, but if you want to be more than an information-taker, you have to understand the bigger picture,” confided the meeting department head at a large financial services firm when we chatted about this issue. “Every day I tell the meeting planners on my team that learning about the challenges and goals of our company and business units will enable them to function strategically.”

It doesn't help that the basic definition of what it means to be strategic has become muddled. Webster's New World College Dictionary defines strategy as a plan for action “based on the science of directing large-scale military operations, specifically (as distinguished from tactics) of maneuvering forces in to the most advantageous position prior to actual engagement with the enemy.”

Put simply, being strategic is about the “why”; being tactical is about the “how.” You can't be strategic if you don't know the reasons why you are doing something. That's why I believe the meetings industry hot-button term strategic sourcing (formerly known as procurement) can be misleading. If saving money through centralized purchasing is only about cost-savings, it is a tactic. On the other hand, if it fits into the business plan of a company, helps to achieve corporate goals, and involves not just looking at how monies are spent but evaluating why monies are spent, it's a strategy.

Learning to think strategically is a skill, one that we're not likely to get from higher education unless we earn an MBA. But there are plenty of other ways to learn. One is to become actively involved with community service, charities, or industry associations. Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, the new president of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, says that her company “truly believes that, if you are active in your industry, you bring more value to the strategic decision-making table in your position.” (Turn to the FICP Newsletter on page 30 for more from Chapman.)

There are also plenty of resources, including Meeting Professionals International's Member Solutions, launched last January, with one of its goals to help planners evolve “to positions of strategic influence in business.” MPI also administers the Certification in Meeting Management, open to meeting professionals with at least 10 years of experience, which focuses on strategic issues and requires candidates to develop a business plan. I've spoken with many planners who have earned their CMM and they've all described it as an incredibly useful experience that has helped them to become strategic players in their companies.

I'd love to hear more about your role as a strategic business partner in your company, and where you think the industry is headed. E-mail me at rbaraban@meetingsnet.com.