Universities in a Changing World 2: Why see Universities as complex systems?


September 23rd, 2013

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What is a university? Is it an organisation? If so, what form does it take? It is certainly complicated and multi-faceted:

  • Local employer
  • Career developer
  • Provider of education
  • Repository of intellectual capital
  • Social centre and community
  • Symbol of civic pride
  • Research institute and source of challenge and new thinking
  • Political body (internally and externally)
  • Major infrastructure owner and provider

And perhaps others. Although complicated is it complex? Well of course; it is not deterministic – with strong predictable cause and effect relationships. It is close to chaos in the sense that it cannot be ‘controlled’, at least academically! Nor politically? Unexpected outcomes emerge, and even the best of plans are sometimes found wanting because they have failed to take account of events that lie outside predicted limits.

How can we think about such a place, then, and make sense of what goes on?

Perhaps first we must give up ‘the myth of leadership’. That things happen from the top. Clearly people within systems value their leaders even at times when they do not like what they are doing – they are symbols of hope, and mouthpieces for what might be, even if we disagree and substitute our own ‘might be’. But in practice what happens within a system is much more complex – individuals take varying ownership of the situation and what is needed, and it is the dialogue that occurs about these differences and what to do that a system shifts. Much change is about new thinking before it is about action.

Viewing universities in this way enables us to see that change comes from encompassing the whole system and operating to develop the most permeable parts, whilst recognising that this will generate some unforeseen outcomes. Such approaches draw much more on ‘open technologies’ that build a shared sense of purpose. But of course, it may be more fruitful to see universities as a single complex system for simpler issues – e.g. branding (and we know how people react to this idea), whilst recognising that there are many systems at play at a more granular level where individual history and experience may throw up uncomfortable differences. Teaching or research is an issue we have come up against often; less often teaching and research as bed-fellows.

This is where a more systemic view based on ideas coming from Organisational Development may be more helpful than adherence to business processes and detailed plans. This does not mean rigour is sacrificed; as long as we recognise it can only be an answer not the answer. How systemic is your university in thinking about its future?

Let us know what is happening where you are.


Photo of David Cleeton-Watkins, Senior ConsultantDavid will be leading a webinar which explores and discusses universities in a changing world.  Visit the webinar page to find out more and to reserve your place