A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff

By Mark Wakefield

John Henry Newman defined an exciting purpose for universities.

We recently ran a workshop with a university as part of some work we are doing with it on its strategy. In one exercise, we asked those present to reflect on what it was that they found exciting about it. The results were illuminating and we were hopeful that it would enable the team to engage their colleagues more effectively in the merits of what they were proposing. However, I was surprised when one member of the team commented that the word “exciting” was an odd one to use in relation to a strategy. He’d never heard it so used before. To which my reply was “what’s the point of a strategy that isn’t exciting?” The term “strategy” is perhaps one of the most over-used and abused words in organisations both public and private. To some it’s a kind of virility symbol, to others it reeks of business school managerialism. At its most basic, a strategy is (or should be) a carefully considered, evidence-based plan for allocating an organisation’s resources in the most effective way possible to secure a desired end. Unpopular as this may be to some, it seems unarguable to me that universities are in great need of good, well thought-through strategies that command the support of the whole institution. The reason is quite simple: the whole higher education sector is now experiencing waves of change that are profoundly destabilising. They come from so many quarters – among them globalisation, technological change, increased domestic competition and, most recently, regulatory upheaval.

One vice-chancellor of an august Russell Group institution told us recently that if his university did not respond adequately to change then it may well cease to exist in 25 years’ time. We were shocked at his candour but not surprised at his conclusion. We have deep experience of the media and technology sectors in which existential threats such as those currently facing universities have long been accepted as the norm. Faced with such threats, you’d better have a strategy, and a good one at that.

It should be clear from what I’ve said so far that strategy, to be of any use at all (and, by the way, organisations are quite often full of strategies that are of absolutely no use whatsoever), must in some way relate to an organisation’s sense of purpose. If you are allocating precious resources that could be used for other means, you need to be sure that the end you are seeking is worthwhile and will enhance the organisation’s core sense of itself and raison d’etre. If a strategy does that, and the organisation in question has a driving sense of purpose that energises those who work for it, then the strategy should most certainly be capable of exciting them. More than that, its success will be conditional upon the extent to which staff are positively supportive of it and willing to do what they can to secure that success.

Here, however, we begin to hit what we regard as a bit of a problem with higher education. Universities have, arguably ever since their founding here in Britain at Oxford in the 11th century, never really had to justify their existence – although there was an important debate about their role in the 19th century, the most enduring contribution to which was Newman’s The Idea of a University. For most of the last century they were relatively insulated from the forces of change. This has meant that they have not – until now – been challenged to think about their purpose except in the broadest terms. What this encourages is an assumption of relevance and value and a view that what academics do is inherently worthwhile. In an increasingly competitive world this is a very risky assumption.

We worked in higher echelons of the BBC during the 1990s and the early part of the last decade when it went from being relatively unchallenged to its role in the media landscape being profoundly contested. Quite simply, faced with increasingly intense competition and in receipt of large sums of public money, the BBC had to find a way of justifying its activity and demonstrating its worth.

The BBC succeeded in winning the argument by using public value methodology which was developed in by Mark Moore of the Kennedy School for Government. We believe it has great relevance now for the higher education sector. It was designed with the intention of introducing some of the rigours of commercial strategic thinking to the public sector, but always on the understanding that judgments about public value are always just that – judgments – since public value can never, by definition, be reduced to a set of quantitative outcomes. Because its focus is on value creation – outcomes, rather than inputs – our challenge, with others, was to get excellent creative and editorial staff to stop thinking about what they did as being unquestionably valuable, and instead to think about what what outcomes they expected to see for their efforts as public service broadcasters.

In the university context, key public value questions to address would include: whom does this institutions seek to serve and with what; what value does it want to create for students, the locality and the wider society; what are its sources of strength and distinctiveness; and what are its weaknesses? These are hard but very necessary questions. They are ones that universities, with their structural bias towards academic disciplines at the expense of professional service functions, will find particularly challenging.

The upside though – and we say this from personal experience – is that an exercise which asks such questions and genuinely engages staff in finding the answers can have a profoundly energising impact in so far as it surfaces what will have been there all along – the organisation’s innate sense of purpose and value, something around which everyone can cohere. Once this is understood it provides a kind of north star, an essential point of reference for future action in a world of flux. It can even, when deployed skilfully, turn what might have been a dull strategy into a thing of excitement.

Image courtesy Wikimedia.