How To Approach Organization Design In Higher Education

Peter Brodie is an Organisation Design Consultant, Sales Coach and Founder of the BYS Group.

Universities in the United Kingdom and around the world are adjusting to the changes in demographics, information technology, society and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. As I see it, the higher education sector is facing its most challenging times. Academic organizations are struggling to preserve, never mind improve, their efficiency, effectiveness and economic performance.

In my experience as an organization design consultant, I’ve found there are many approaches to improving performance, such as lean scrum teams and process redesign. These techniques can be successful and produce a series of small incremental improvements over a long duration. There are situations that many universities face today, however, that require substantial increases in productivity and sizable cost reductions in the space of weeks. The question is what needs to change to make it possible? In order to tackle this question, you must look closely at the design of your organization.

Organizational forms in higher education have not kept up with the changes they face. Their structures make them sluggish to adapt. Most of these organizations have concentrated on autonomy, governance constructs and management positions. Leaders have paid less attention to the prospects of changing the organizational structure, yet this has a substantial effect on efficiency, effectiveness and educational and economic performance.

The best way to generate a substantial improvement in the university’s overall performance that does not take years is through organization redesign. However, the current methods of organization design are trailing the needs of today’s organization. Organizations are struggling to understand where they are, let alone realize their plans and aspirations for the future. Leaders consider organization design as a process of shifting people about on PowerPoint, staff are unsure about their role in the university and incoherent theories form as it is impossible to assemble all the components that make up an organization.

There is a better way. And it involves allowing form to follow function. An organization needs a vision, a reason for being. A vision needs goals and objectives so that we know when it has been realized. Goals and objectives can only be achieved with a coherent strategy. And strategy can only work if its needs are served by structure. Each role within that structure must be aligned with the specific processes, activities and skills required to achieve the end goal. The real purpose of organization design is to ensure that these elements are all correctly aligned.

Along the way, there are common pitfalls to avoid. The first is reading too much into an organization chart. When doing organization design, people often fixate on where their position sits relative to the person at the top. It is as if an obsession with prominence and power is more important than what needs to be done. And this can lead to designing around personalities rather than end goals.

Secondly, be prepared to challenge the empire builders, for whom work merely expands to fit the available resource, rather than the resource being matched to the work required. Having many people reporting to you is often considered a proxy for importance and significance. But good organization design looks at more than layers and spans to examine what is in the box: the objectives, accountabilities, competencies, projects, risks managed and clients served. In other words, see the system. Where the content of the work done does not fit the end goal, be prepared to cut back.

Thirdly, organization design is not just about who reports to whom. The number and location of managerial positions ultimately define how and where accountability will be measured, so in this respect, the reporting structure is a critical element of design. More importantly, it is about what each role is required to do and how decisions get made. It is about the activities that need to be done, the competencies needed to do these things and developing a workforce with the right set of skills for each role. It is not where the box sits, but the contents of the box that counts.

Here are some hard lessons learned when it comes to conducting organization redesign:

• Change only at the high level is not the solution.

• Focusing solely on keeping the political powerbrokers happy will ultimately result in disappointment.

• All changes, large and small, can have unpredictable consequences.

• Adding complexity merely renders opaque that which is transparent.

Designing a college or university’s organization needs to be performed in two phases:

• The ‘Giga’ phase, which sets the vision and strategy and high-level goals, and then examines structural options and summary processes.

• The ‘Nano’ phase, which analyzes and designs the teams’ and employees’ objectives, processes, activities, competencies, responsibilities and then right-sizes the number of employees.

The way you view the world is the way you comprehend it. If you cannot see something, it makes it much harder to understand. In the context of organizational data, analytics and visualization, being unable to see the links and connections of the corporate system means much detail is obscured and lost. So universities and colleges need a new way to see themselves. They must have the ability to connect the strategy to the system and to people, activities, processes and costs. Once these connections become visible, one can explore and comprehend them and their interactions. Visualizing your system and structure will allow you to make observations and draw conclusions about its suitability. And the path for restructuring and change becomes evident.


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