Last week, I spend two days with colleagues from universities across the UK in similar operational management roles, reflecting on the key challenges facing us and the options for addressing those challenges. During the first session of the meeting, we heard about the range of things currently impacting on universities in the UK : the impact of the ‘market’ for undergraduate students that has been brought into starker relief by the removal of the cap on student numbers for the vast majority of programmes, and the removal of central funding support replaced entirely by student fee income; Brexit, and the impact on recruitment of students from the EU and internationally; Brexit, and the impact on staff recruitment and retention; the US presidential election outcome; the emergence of new players in the UK HE sector, adopting an aggressively market-driven approach to student recruitment and fee-setting; the research excellence framework (REF) process that is next due to report in 2020/21, and the new metric on the block, the teaching excellence framework (TEF) that is already threatening to cause major upheaval and some considerable embarrassment to institutions that have hitherto enjoyed high academic reputations, but perhaps more because of their research capability than the quality of their teaching.
What was striking about these developments was the extent to which many of them have only really come to the fore in the past six months. Certainly, in the spring, nobody was really planning on the basis that the UK would be leaving the European Union, and that Donald Trump would be the nominated successor to Barack Obama as President of the United States. Of course, neither of these things has yet actually reached a conclusion, and it would be a foolish even at this stage, to be too certain that either Brexit or a Trump presidency will actually happen. Nevertheless, the mere fact that either is a possibility is not something that was being contemplated with any seriousness only half a year ago.
There was, therefore, a degree of cognitive dissonance during the second day of the meeting when we were discussing approaches to the management of change in our organisations, that seemed for the most part to be grounded in the ancien regime of horizon scanning, identifying a compelling need for change, communication and engagement strategies, unfreezing structures and processes, implementing new approaches, and then reviewing and amending the new approach before re-freezing the organisation in its new form. All this, of course, taking place over a time-frame of many months.
It seems incongruous to be tied into an organisational approach to change that takes months to plan and implement, when the world in which organisations operate can change as radically as we have seen in something less than 150 days. Change management approaches have been designed for an organisational context where strategic threats and opportunities can be calmly and rationally spotted on the horizon, and the organisation’s direction and response to them can be equally calmly and rationally planned and implemented. When change is all around and happening at a speed that requires immediate responses, long periods of consultation and planning become at best tiresome, and at worst, threaten the survival of the organisation itself.
Universities, for the most part, are large and bureaucratic (in the technical sense) organisations that tend to have highly consultative and democratic decision-making processes. They also tend to be organisationally conservative and suspicious of proposals for radical change in the way that they are run (something of a paradox given the fleetness with which new academic research areas spring up and new courses are developed). It seems inevitable that we will need to change the way that we do change if we are to respond effectively to the choppy waters that we are currently navigating. Whether that is possible in time to prevent some institutions from ending up on the rocks remains to be seen.
One possible approach would be change the focus of Strategic Change teams from project managing specific change projects, to supporting the development of a culture of change and flexibility across the whole organisation. The obsession with job descriptions, lists of tasks, and multiple job gradings, that typifies so much of HR planning and management in the HE professional services context, needs to give way to recruitment on the basis of core competences and values. An institution that is capable of responding with sufficient rapidity to the pace of change in the environment within which it is now operating needs to be able to deploy and redeploy staff quickly and effectively in response to identified opportunities without the delay that comes from long periods of consultation on changes to the minutiae of job descriptions that seek to detail to the nth degree every aspect of a particular role. In parallel with this, consideration needs to be given to reducing the number and increasing the financial boundaries of the grading structure, allowing staff to develop and progress in role and reducing the extent of the disruption that occurs as a result of the turnover and dissatisfaction that arises when somebody reaches the top of the scale after four years and can only progress further by leaving their team or (even worse) the organisation as a whole.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the pace and extent of change is accelerating. There is little sign that this is a trend that will reverse in the short to medium term. The way that we do change itself needs to change if we are to flourish into the future.