Corporate and Strategic Planning in Botanic Gardens: Challenges and Benefits - a Personal View

Carrick Chambers

Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney
Mrs Macquaries Road, Sydney NSW 2000 Australia


The process of developing a Corporate Plan for the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is described. The emphasis is on a top-down process using an almost jargon-free format and an approach which can be understood by and involve all levels of staff.

Selected parts of a Corporate Plan addressing the issues of a botanic gardens' organisation at a different stage of development and with different responsibilities - the Bogor Tropical Botanic Gardens (Kebun Raya Indonesia) are compared.

At Sydney a very much more detailed Strategic Plan follows the format of the Corporate Plan. The Strategic Plan developed by our approach in Sydney indicates to all who are interested the diverse programmes that are planned and in progress. A regular review draws the attention of staff and management to activities that require more support, activities that are not progressing satisfactorily and activities that are efficiently implemented, on-time and on-target.

An Approach to Corporate and Strategic Planning

The approaches to management using corporate and strategic planning are tools that have been invented by management people. I am one of those directors of botanic gardens who remain suspicious of pure management for management's sake and believe that ideally botanic gardens are run by botanists and horticulturists, but I accept that people with management skills are an essential part of a good team.

I was particularly suspicious of devices such as corporate and strategic plans, at least until I had learned not only to live with but to benefit from them. While my experience has now shed that earlier suspicion, I would urge all of those involved with botanic gardens to approach such planning exercises with caution, because if not properly used they can waste an inordinate amount of what could otherwise be productive time.

My approach to corporate planning some years ago was to read as wide a range of corporate plans as possible. These came from other government departments, from universities, from business corporations, banks and industry, including companies on the stock exchange. Of the 70 or so I read, few seemed to me in their approaches to fit the requirements of a large botanic garden, with a very diverse staff like that at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. Many of the plans that I read were filled with business jargon and I certainly could not understand them. Indeed there are some I still do not understand. Some were long, rambling documents, some even had photographs of individuals amidst organisation charts!

An example of successful use corporate planning in industry

I attended seminars where successful examples of corporate and strategic plans were analysed and saw how these could solve serious industrial problems. Fortunately we were not in that category, but it was certainly impressive to see how one industrial site in New South Wales, which had one of the worst strike records in the whole country, had somehow grappled with a plan. They involved the staff in producing it, succeeded in virtually eliminating industrial problems and changed the whole culture and attitude of that particular workforce. Now, I was not facing anything like that, but I could see the merit in the approach they had used.

Obtaining a Corporate Plan for the Botanic Garden

Because the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney is a State Government organisation, we were required to call tenders. The successful tenderer, in addition to being competitive in financial terms, had to be prepared to match my very tough brief; one of the key aspects of that brief was to give us as near as possible a jargon-free approach. Let me tell you why this was necessary. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney employs about 342 staff, including highly sophisticated botanical scientists and graduate technicians in the herbarium and in horticultural research (all trained in universities), horticultural staff of the gardens with trade certificates from tertiary colleges (and a few with higher education qualifications) and a significant staff of labourers with little or no academic training. We also employ clerical workers, public relations officers, teachers, graphic artists human resources and finance management personnel, as well as almost 100 volunteers working as guides, mounting specimens, databasing and a few working in specialist horticultural areas. Obviously with such a range of employees and volunteers, the Corporate Plan, and the Strategic Plan that was to be developed later from this Corporate Plan, had to be understandable by all members of staff. If only understood by management, then it simply would not be effective.

From the five serious tenderers, the company chosen agreed that the Senior Principal of the Company would be the facilitator and she was prepared to drop almost all jargon, would be down-to-earth in her approach, and clearly could talk at the level of, but not down to, garden labourers and gardeners, as well as gaining the confidence and respect of the scientists.

Having selected the successful tenderer, I prepared a brief on how I saw us proceeding. My approach was to start with senior staff, that is 'top-down' rather than 'bottom-up'. I had seen approaches used in other government departments where all staff had been involved from the very beginning. The enormous time lost was far too costly for leaner institutions like ours to contemplate, so I ruled that it had to be a management-initiated approach, but that every member of staff must have several opportunities to make verbal and written comment and contributions before the plans were finalised.

To initiate our corporate planning I took sixteen senior people (managers throughout the organisation down to the level of foremen and supervisors (the titles then used for these positions)) to live-in accommodation together with the facilitator-corporate planner, for three days, to work out a draft approach. The approach used was essentially question-and-answer, often adjourning to small groups of three or four, and then combining the answers into tables and collectively agreeing on the essential elements of each. It was an interesting and productive exercise; everybody present contributed.

The draft Corporate Plan that emerged was then circulated to every member of staff, and sessions were held with groups of staff in their related disciplines in order to get feedback and comment and to allow concerns to be voiced. Again the facilitator plus one of my management staff, and whenever possible myself as Director, attended each of these sessions. Over a period of several months we prepared the final draft. This was circulated, further comments were incorporated, and the product was printed and published.

The Corporate Plan

I now propose to take you through the main points of this Corporate Plan. I am not suggesting you should follow it in any way slavishly, but I think the way it is presented will give you some idea of its development and issues that we have identified in Sydney.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney operates under an Act of Parliament with a Trust of seven members, including a Chairman, who are appointed by the government of the day.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney organisation includes the surrounding Domain right in the heart of the city on the edge of Sydney Harbour, and also the National Herbarium of New South Wales with a large staff of taxonomic and ecological scientists. We also have two major new botanic gardens, the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden for cool-climate plants, almost 1000 metres above sea level and over 100 km west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains, and the Mount Annan Botanic Garden and Arboretum (for native Australian plants) 56 km south-west of Sydney, a very large garden of over 400 hectares in lowland rolling country. (Figs 1 and 2 show the respective locations of Sydney within the continent of Australia, and of the Mount Tomah and Mount Annan Gardens in relation to Sydney.)

We also hold responsibility for the gardens of Government House and a number of other smaller government properties in the heart of the city of Sydney.

Fig. 1 Map of Australia showing the location of Sydney

Fig.2 Location map for the Mount Tomah and Mount Annan Botanic Gardens

The Organisation's Principles

In the corporate planning process, one of the first things we identified were the organisation's principles. As an organisation I believe we are proud of our reputation as a centre of excellence for botanical research and horticultural display, and I as Director certainly want to ensure that this position is maintained and enhanced. The principles we accepted were:

We then identified and examined the challenges we face. As the oldest scientific institution in Australia we have over the years developed a considerable diversity of staff skills. The central location of the parent Botanic Gardens in the heart of Sydney together with the National Herbarium and the two new gardens, Mount Tomah and Mount Annan, have contributed to the vigour of the organisation.

But being a public sector government agency, we are in competition for limited resources, not only from the government, but also from all those corporations and private individuals that give us additional financial support. Competition is very intense for these limited resources, from numerous other cultural and charitable institutions in Sydney - universities, schools, museums, art galleries, Historic Houses Trust, National Trust, symphony orchestras, ballet and opera, to name just a few. Competition is also very intense for grants to support research.

Defining the Issues and Challenges

At the time of preparing this Corporate Plan we had already been working to increase public awareness of the importance of plants by a comprehensive programme involving education, interpretive displays, advisory services, publications, guided tours, and by increasing our public profile in the printed and electronic media.

The major issues and challenges facing us came not only from our 'think-tank' of sixteen people, but from interviewing a wide range of individuals, both inside the institution and from outside organisations, who we identified as having major interests in our future. The jargon word for such people is 'stakeholders'. From these discussions we were able to identify a number of trends that we believe will be critical in the future.

The trends are:

The Challenges We Face

The trends identified provide challenges and opportunities for the future:

In meeting these challenges, we realise that the Royal Botanic Gardens is, as is every botanic garden in the world, operating at a time of great change - in the public expectations of botanic gardens, in the technology by which the information is handled in botanic gardens and in the demands of education as well as scientific research. It is fortunate that, in parallel with these changes, there is a significant improvement in the educational standards of the new generation of horticulturists coming into our service.

The Corporate Mission Statement

One of the most difficult exercises in developing a Corporate Plan is to consolidate the corporate mission into as few words as possible. We eventually settled for the following words:

The mission of the Royal Botanic Gardens is:

'To increase knowledge, awareness and understanding about plants, their importance and their conservation, by managing and displaying living and preserved collections and through botanical and horticultural research.'

There were some staff who would still some years later be debating those words! It is a reasonably adequate statement for what we in Sydney are doing. And I daresay it is a fairly adequate statement for what some other gardens are aiming to achieve. From that mission statement we were able to agree on our corporate objectives and these objectives, of course, are to achieve this mission.

Corporate Objectives

We agreed that the primary corporate objectives of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney are:

The Key Issues

In order to achieve those objectives and fulfil the mission, it was necessary to identify what we believed were the key issues:

  1. Planning: Introduce a systematic approach to management, ranging from corporate planning for the organisation as a whole, to action planning for each major task.

  2. Organisational Structure: Review the structure to ensure that it is capable of supporting the organisation's mission objectives (we have since completed and implemented the recommendations of an organisation review).

  3. This review of the organisational structure recommended the creation of curator/manager positions at each of our three sites and also in the Herbarium. In the case of the curator/managers of the Living Collections Division, each also has a supporting Horticultural Development Officer, a highly qualified horticulturist responsible for seeing that the agreed themes and plantings are implemented according to policy.

    It also recommended the reduction from four to three Assistant Directors, so that we now have Assistant Directors for Science, Living Collections and Corporate Services, the latter's responsibility now including community relations and education.

    More recently the Government too has responded to a key recommendation, so that the Director is now the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Botanic Gardens and reports directly to the Minister for the Environment.

  4. Image and Profile: Explain the role of the Royal Botanic Gardens and raise its profile even further to ensure that it is recognised, understood and supported by the community it serves.

  5. Human Resource Development: Provide development opportunities for the staff to ensure that they achieve their potential and so contribute towards meeting the corporate objectives.

Corporate Strategies

For each of the headings under the corporate objectives we identified corporate strategies. There is only space here to give a few of these, for example:

Strategy Development

Some of the above strategies have since developed in a major way.

In the case of education, we have shifted the emphasis from school education to the training of teachers. By our teachers taking classes of teachers and making them aware of the value of the Botanic Gardens, we are potentially exposing many more children to what we have to offer. Otherwise, by limiting our teachers to teaching classes of children, at the very most we could only cater for a few thousand children a year.

Another area that has developed very considerably since this paper was written is in providing advice and services. We now have a Garden Advisory Service with three full-time members of staff and nine telephone lines, answering many thousands of calls, numerous counter calls and some hundreds of written enquiries requiring written answers per year. This is in addition to our Plant Identification and Information Service.

Under Organisational Support we identified eight strategies, the most important of which were to:

All of these areas have been addressed since the implementation of the Corporate Plan and staff appointed where appropriate, so that about 20% of our funding is now generated by activities. Further, a longer-term investment fund has been established through a Foundation targeting specific capital needs.

The Strategic Plan

The implementation of our Corporate Plan is by a very much more detailed Strategic Plan. There is not space in this talk to give much detail of this, but in the Strategic Plan we translate policy directions into actions. Each item through the Strategic Plan follows the broad and detailed headings of the Corporate Plan. Every project is given a project manager and has a list of other key staff involved. Each programme has a performance indicator and a target and a review column available for comment.

The Strategic Plan is updated and reviewed every six months and those projects which do not meet their performance indicators have to provide an explanation, in many cases a perfectly legitimate one, such as excessive wet weather, drought, changed priorities, etc. I in turn as Director review the summary, particularly any non-performing areas.

The Strategic Plan is designed to:

  1. Provide information on our programmes to all who have an interest in the operations of the Botanic Gardens;
  2. Make all staff aware of their areas of responsibility and the goals we are striving to achieve;
  3. Allow staff at all levels to easily review our direction and achievements;
  4. Relate our future budgeting more clearly to projects and their management.

One further important application of the Corporate Plan and the results of the regular reviews of the Strategic Plan is in our Annual Report. The Annual Report is organised under the same headings as our corporate objectives - Research, Conservation and Management of Resources, Interpretation, Education and Information, and Organisational Support. I believe we have found a formula that is understood by the majority of staff.

The Corporate Mission of Kebun Raya

To conclude, I compare the corporate mission of a very different botanic garden - Kebun Raya - Bogor Tropical Botanic Garden in Java, Indonesia, where under the vigorous direction of Dr Ir Suhirman, they too have been going through a corporate planning programme.

The mission of Kebun Raya is:

'To co-ordinate and conduct conservation action through conservation research and public conservation education.'

The Corporate Objectives

The primary corporate objectives of Kebun Raya are:

  1. Conservation: To maintain and enhance a diverse and well documented collection of living plants displayed in attractive settings.
  2. Research: To pursue botanical and horticultural research programmes.
  3. Management: To increase the quality of management to a professional standard.
  4. Conservation Education: To promote community consciousness about the role of plants in their welfare and survival and their practical knowledge of landscape architecture.
  5. Landscape Development: To develop the landscape in Kebun Raya to maximum standard.

The Key Issues

The most important key issues that must be addressed by the Kebun Raya to achieve its objectives and fulfil its mission are:

The Corporate Strategies

The corporate strategies for Kebun Raya are as follows:

1. Conservation:

2. Research:

3. Management:

4. Conservation Education:

5. Landscape Development:


Some of you will have botanic gardens with a very different structure to either Sydney or Bogor, with very different reporting responsibilities, possibly little or no research, possibly a relatively large educational component. I believe we in Sydney have benefited by the discipline of planning, predicting outcomes and involving a very wide range of staff. I would urge any of you who are embarking on this type of planning to keep your approach as simple as possible; avoid jargon. Remember, you as senior staff, are only part of the team. Everybody - volunteer workers, labourers, academics, business managers and your much wider public have a right to know what you are attempting to achieve.

Preface  |  Contents List  |  Congress Report  |  Workshop Conclusions  |  List of Authors