Facing the future in Australian universities
17 February 2017, by Dr Geoff Sharrock
As the digital era makes knowledge both hyper-abundant and hyper-accessible, societies benefit hugely. This is the Western university’s enlightenment agenda writ large. But the global learning boom has boomerang effects. The new learning channels seem great for the mission and grand for the brand; but they may yet be grim for the business model.
As a big disruptive challenge, the potential for MOOCs to support personalised yet mass scale online study must loom large in strategic plans. Campuses won’t disappear. But with students, staff and employers all reaching for the cloud, 50 shades of blended learning is becoming the new normal.
Change threatens on other fronts also. Along with the rise of globally sourced provision there are local moves toward greater industry integration, more intense competition for scarce public funding, and more open markets for talented students and staff. The contest here is not just within the sector, among the universities. Powerful new entrants may come from adjacent sectors.
Recently, most Australian universities have seen rising enrolments, rising revenues and growing costs. But all face pressure for inner transformation as the landscape evolves. Recognising this, many leaders see external engagement and partnerships as more critical than ever, to build institutional capacity. They recognise that attempts to do too much in-house, often in the name of independence, can limit an institution’s ability to pursue its public mission. Partnering becomes more critical to supplement the resource base (for corporate reasons). But also, to achieve the scale and reach required to generate greater public value (for enlightenment reasons). In turn, as institutions connect with other social sectors and enterprises, new work roles and processes are recasting the quasi-monastic idea of the university as a community of scholars. A more outward looking multi-professional community of experts has emerged.
To prepare for a future of greater engagement and competition with other sectors, Australian universities must aim for lower operating costs (to sustain programs), greater flexibility (to adapt to market shifts or policy changes), and greater external engagement (to promote innovation, widen impact and amplify public support). This implies greater organisational agility, but universities are not known for this. Legacy systems and processes, and a cultural aversion to risk and change, often conspire to thwart institutional efforts to adapt or innovate rapidly enough. In a sector that seems ripe for disruption, institutions now need to pursue what is usually called business process improvement. But which mindset should leaders bring to the task?
Exhibit 1(below) illustrates how, like business enterprises, universities have four broad organisational domains: people, programs and systems; and strategies to combine these sustainably. Each of these implies a different focus and mindset for leadership groups. For executive leaders in the Q4 domain, the resource outlook is critical. They know that every budget they frame must support an inherently infinite mission with inevitably finite means.
Much of the aversion to change in universities, particularly projects aimed at lowering operating costs, arises from the Q1 and Q2 domains. One risk is that a major attempt to cut costs will lead to job losses or team dispersal in the ‘multi-professional community’ domain, which puts people first. Another is poorer services, project failure or program closure in the ‘creative engagement’ domain, which puts mission attainment first.
However, if system complexity can be streamlined and decision blockages can be reduced, everyone wins. With some business-as-usual approval processes an institution may filter every case through quite complex documentation, review and committee approval; even where the risks are low and the compliance costs high. Systemic ambiguities in policy definition, consultation protocols or decision making rights create familiar problems. These include under-resourced projects, over-loaded staff, ineffectual change efforts, and failed attempts at new ventures with industry clients or partners. Such symptoms suggest a need to simplify governance and procedures and to delegate more, supported by robust policies and information systems. These are all Q3 issues.
When it succeeds, business process improvement in the Q3 domain offers the twin benefits of freeing up time and effort to get routine work done, and scope to reinvest these resources. The main winners from successful streamlining are those engaged in front line professional work with students, research projects or third stream work in the Q2 domain. Here, local flexibility to act, adjust approaches and negotiate expectations is highly valued. This is where the potential to improve services, renew programs and secure external resources is greatest. To sustain morale in the Q1 domain, any such payoff cannot come too soon.
All this means that change leaders can’t afford to ignore any domain for long. To be credible, each major change must be framed in a way that makes sense for all four mindsets.
Dr Geoff Sharrock is Program Director at the LH Martin Institute.