University in a changing world: Building the organisation

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February 24th, 2014

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Universities are complex systems, whose sense of being a single entity or organisation is often very mixed. At one level, people often share common procedures and systems for recruiting and enrolling students. Support services also have a degree of homogeneity, though even this breaks down if there are multiple sites. Faculties or schools may use common practices e.g. an agreed pedagogy for learning, but such common ground is often lightly embedded, perhaps depending on the academic discipline under scrutiny. This is more keenly felt perhaps,  in those universities that are seeking to balance building enhanced reputation through high quality research and levels of citation against meeting the needs of students for high quality teaching and the clamour for face-time with their teachers (despite the advent of more efficient technologies).

These dilemmas and dichotomies are the stuff of Organisational Development. In seeing a university as a complex system, we can begin to understand that alignment behind common purpose and a coherent strategy represents a noble aspiration which, like the Holy Grail, may lie beyond reach and out of view because the context shifts so often and so unpredictably. If so, ‘what next’ to provide a sense of aspiration and coherence?

Perhaps the clue lies in pursuing a clear purpose and a consequent ‘fitness for purpose’. Such business language will, of course, be unpopular with some but no less valid for that. As well as being responsive to external demands, universities are still (one hopes) the engine of new thinking and consequently they bring a degree of subversion to the status quo. Equally important, universities are places of human endeavour – often for its own sake – and again we see a polarity as society (in the UK and elsewhere) seeks to commoditise qualifications in service of commercial ends.

None of this is insurmountable, provided the organisation develops new capabilities that may be alien in the traditionally and justifiably cautious world of academic and societal change. What are these capabilities? I would like to suggest two that are vital.  Firstly, the ability to be agile. A much used term in IT, the essence of this capability is in recognising that we move towards desired ends spasmodically; old linear models of planning and implementation do not meet the needs of a modern connected world. Things are too easily disrupted by the unforeseen. Secondly, the ability to be curious and inquiring: fixing problems becomes secondary to better understanding how to work with them so that adjustments in the organisational system are better attuned to both internal and external context.

These capabilities must be seen as the heart of recognising that the organisation is (at one level) a human system in which information flows more freely than ever. If this is so, then ideas like ‘Control of the agenda’ in the traditional sense must shift towards ‘facilitating possibility’ and an acceptance that expressions like ‘driving change’ must shift towards ‘building capability and capacity for change’ so that those who do can.

A longer whitepaper will be published shortly, developing the themes of this blog.