Cultivating the agile university requires good leadership

The need for universities to adapt to sudden changes was made abundantly evident in 2020. Universities were suddenly faced with having to respond rapidly to new ways of engaging with their staff and students. Some did this skilfully while others lacked the operational agility to meet the challenges well. Why?

The move to mega structures within universities over the past few years has led to an increasing amount of meaningless bureaucracy being the norm. These mammoth super-sized divisions certainly don’t encourage agility, efficiency or innovation, nor do they promote timely, quality decision-making.

How then can universities become more agile? How might they better respond in a timely manner to changes within the market; adapt quickly to new ideas; competently deal with unexpected pressures from within or that are external to the institution; and facilitate processes to succeed when confronted with continual change?

A rigid structure

Universities are generally quite practised at trudging along from year to year rather than responding and adapting to any change quickly. It is rare indeed to see a good idea become a prompt reality.

It is usually subject to discussion by discipline, department, school or faculty and a couple of central university committees. Eventually a designated working group is set up to consider the idea in full and prepare an initial discussion paper that goes out for further consultation.

Ideas and recommendations are gathered and may be discussed with an internal focus group or two. Eventually a report is presented to a senior leadership group for their deliberation and decision-making about what actions to take.

That good idea could take six to eight months (if really, really lucky) and probably more like 12 to 18 months or longer to come to fruition. By then that good idea may have lost its gloss, been superseded or taken up somewhere else, most likely by another competitor higher education provider.

The prevailing university structure is commonly hierarchical and quite rigid in design. Decisions are made at the ‘top’ of and trickle down the hierarchy from the most commanding governance groups and-or executives who control the actual resources to eventually those who operate where the work is done.

This structure oftentimes does not promote authentic involvement of the very individuals who will be affected by the decisions made and consequently they often have little commitment to ensuring they succeed.

However, transforming the organisational structure (and there is no perfect structure) is a big ask and may not necessarily translate into more functional and progressive results.

What needs to be changed and prioritised is how the structure operates. That undertaking should be founded on the creation of a communal culture, shared responsibility and accountability, open and multi-directional communication and timely decision-making.

The focus should be on diagnosing what changes are needed in how the existing structure operates so that everyone is working in partnership towards achieving shared goals and realising results, so the institution is readily adaptive and responsive to new ideas and quick to action.

If something is found to be not working, it should be discontinued, attempts made to understand why it didn’t work and changes made promptly to ensure the desired results can be achieved.

At the heart of the agile university is good leadership: a leader who is committed to and can successfully and clearly guide the people and operations of the institution towards ever better results and reputation; a leader who will steer the way to nurturing a healthy community culture in which people feel they belong, that their contribution is valued and that they are entrusted to work independently towards achieving expected outcomes.

This might mean eliminating barriers between divisions and layer upon layer of bureaucracy that impedes progress and pits different sections of the institution against each other.

It might require improving information-sharing procedures and communication channels across the entire institution.

It might mean engaging in continuous quality reviews of how well the institution is operating at all levels, analysing why and where any systems or practices prevent the achievement of goals and making the necessary changes.

Rational, representative groups and good leadership

A lack of institutional agility is often linked to unproductive procedures such as the establishment of working groups that are not provided with appropriate guidelines, whose members meet every so often with no defined end time and whose project takes so long it fails to have any real positive impact.

Or the team charged with responsibility to deliver a new product or service, but who lack actual influence and resources to ensure success.

Or committees that have to endure burdensome approval processes that slow down any decision-making or encounter managers who regularly interfere, disrupt or delay results.

The agile university creates rational, functioning representative groups that are assigned meaningful purposes, are set clear roles and responsibilities, are provided with sufficient resources including time, are empowered to deliver results without undue interference and that know when to hand over decision-making.

While there is always going to be a need for certain fixed units to exist to ensure a fully functioning university, there is scope for separate groups to be convened and swiftly disassembled once a defined project is completed. The emphasis should clearly be on delivering results rapidly. None of the above can occur unless there is strong leadership and trust between the staff and management.

It means diverse people with maybe quite divergent points of view working together and somehow finding common ground in order to move forward in a way that is for the greater good rather than for a few or for themselves.

As a result of being involved in the problem-solving process and investing in it to arrive at a solution, there is enhanced likely support of that solution, even if some people wanted a different outcome.

But it is leadership at the very top which truly impacts how well governed a university is and good governance should lessen, not increase, senseless bureaucracy. Leadership in the agile university promotes shared realisation of solutions, encourages innovation and promotes open, understandable communication.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.