Employment First Massachusetts

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Work Inc.: Using Strategic Planning to Support Transformation


Work Inc. is a large employment-services provider in the Boston area. It has a long history of supporting people with disabilities in both community employment and center-based employment. In 2009, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS) announced its requirement for providers of sheltered work to develop Transformation Plans to move people to community employment. Work Inc.’s management was positioned to respond. They had completed the goals for their most recent five-year strategic plan, and needed a new one to carry them to fiscal year 2016.

The leadership at Work Inc. considered facilitating the process of developing this plan themselves, but they determined that their own opinions might impede their ability to do so. They needed to be actively engaged in the strategic planning process, and able to participate in the difficult conversations that lay ahead, rather than serving as objective facilitators. As a result, they decided to seek consultation from an external organization.


The president of Work Inc. contacted New Sector Alliance, a company that places AmeriCorps volunteers with organizations for a year to work on a capacity-building initiative identified by the organization. Because New Sector Alliance uses AmeriCorps volunteers to provide low-cost services to nonprofits, this was an affordable way for Work Inc. to gain professional support and facilitation.

The volunteer consultant from New Sector Alliance began by reviewing Work Inc.’s old strategic plan and seeing how it stacked up against the provider’s achievements over the last five years. He then embarked on an extensive review of local and national trends in employment and disability, including the collection of information from competitors about their services. He and Work Inc. staff also organized consumer surveys and focus groups of individuals and families supported by Work Inc.. This included a meeting with 70 parents of students with disabilities ages 14-18. The consultant also talked with funders, experts in the field, and other stakeholders including commercial customers.

The consultant’s reports back to the staff were invaluable in helping them understand how Work Inc. compared to other service providers and how it was perceived by stakeholders. His reports on focus groups were particularly helpful for Work Inc.’s future planning. For example, contrary to the beliefs of many staff members, Work Inc. was more commonly perceived as a center-based employment provider than as an innovator in group-supported or individualized community employment.

The consultant also reported that, among transition-age youth and their parents, there was no support for the continuation of center-based employment—a model that some staff members argued for maintaining. His reports also alerted staff to consumers’ increased sense of choice and mobility. Individuals and families understood that if they did not like a service provider, they could move their funding to a different one. The consultant also created a presentation for a strategic planning meeting at Work Inc. The presentation described how the organization might develop a theory of change, and laid out the potential results of any serious discussion of organizational change. It prepared staff for the inevitability of disagreement, and for the likelihood that aligning programs with organizational priorities would probably mean improving some programs and eliminating others.

Having laid this groundwork, the consultant engaged staff in an exercise. Each staff member wrote about the legacy they hoped their career would have. Next, participants moved into small-group discussions about what their individual legacy might mean in terms of the priorities they each saw for Work Inc. Further discussions helped staff to think about where they would want the organization to have its greatest future impact. These exercises helped staff think in new directions and create a framework for evaluating each of Work Inc.’s services.


Work Inc.’s examination of current services was informed by national and state trends in disability and employment that contributed further to their evaluation. They were then able, with the assistance of the New Sector Alliance consultant, to determine if each of their services would result in the production of high-quality jobs and align with the new business model that was emerging.

For example, Work Inc.’s center-based employment model had been supported through a combination of commercial and DDS funding. However, as staff learned about DDS’s move away from funding this model, they could see that the model would not be lucrative enough to maintain through commercial funds alone and was unlikely to generate high-quality jobs. Slowly, staff were able to reach a meeting of the minds about future directions for Work Inc.

The facilitation of this process from the outside, especially the collection of external information, helped move staff away from old, polarizing debates that had been difficult to resolve, such as the viability of center-based employment. Instead, Work Inc.’s management concentrated on what came to be their primary focus: producing high-quality jobs for people with disabilities. As described by the Chief Operating Officer: “We agreed on measurable data points that defined high quality jobs in terms of wage rates, career advancement and ability to live without social security benefits. Once we defined the metrics in terms of our intended impact, we achieved a level of organizational unity that provided a framework to evaluate all future growth opportunities. Based on our intended impact we moved to our intended theory of change, which involved the selection of a suite of services that we believed would buttress an individual’s ability to find, retain and advance in industries with growth potential in Massachusetts and on a strategic growth initiative for our business development activities. “

Considerations for Replication

Think about how to use strategic planning as part of an overall organizational change process. Work Inc. took advantage of the agency’s need for a new strategic plan to jump-start its transformation effort.

It is not unusual to have an external facilitator for strategic planning. What was unusual in this case, however, was the breadth of the role the facilitator assumed. He did not just lead strategic planning team meetings, but also directly engaged staff members, individuals served by Work Inc and their family members, competitors, experts in the field, and members of the private sector. This maximized the opportunity for Work Inc to reflect on who they were and who they wanted to be in the future.

With support from the facilitator, and informed by the extensive information he collected, Work Inc. was able to truly engage in difficult conversations. These were necessary to reconcile significant differences of opinion about the role of existing service models in Work Inc’s future.

The strategic planning process led to the development of metrics and creation of a new business model. This model now provides a framework for evaluating and modifying, as needed, existing services.

For more information:

Sharon Smith, Chief Operating Officer
Work Inc.

Jenn Bender, Managing Director
New Sector Alliance East Coast

Jennifer Bose, Research Data Coordinator
Institute for Community Inclusion