Finding the perfect structure

If you do an internet search for ‘university restructuring’ you will get an impressive list of hits – over 9 million. If you then start looking through the results, you will find that any university you have ever heard of turns up somewhere in the list. In fact, it seems that whatever university you are associated with or interested in, one experience you will have there (alongside issues to do with catering and car parking) is restructuring. Furthermore, the life cycle of each restructured system is on average less than 8 years, so that a typical academic will, over an average working life, take part in some five restructurings. Either this tells us that a whole new structure improves performance significantly every time, or that nobody ever gets it right and they keep trying again.

Furthermore, every restructuring is typically accompanied by a statement explaining the inevitable benefits of moving from academic departments to Faculties, or from Faculties to Colleges, or from Colleges to departments, or whatever it is in your case. These statements can read as if they have all been taken from the same template with just the institutional name and organisational nomenclature added. Every new structure is going to save costs, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, restate the university’s values, present a more focused institution to stakeholders, produce a more coherent middle management structure. Often the benefits will be happily shared with a firm of management consultants, for whom this whole thing can be excellent business.

It is worth stressing that restructuring can be a necessary form of change; it would be silly to imagine that an organisational framework originally devised for 19th century conditions would be good for the new millennium. Furthermore, where it is properly prepared and where faculty and staff are fully involved and motivated it can work very well. But it will rarely be the case that a structure that was successfully implemented in 2003 will need to be changed again in 2011. So why is it so popular?

It is probably the case that as the environment in which universities operate has become much more hostile, and as there is an increasing sense that university leaderships need to be seen to be doing something, restructuring is an easy response. But if it is initiated for that reason it is unlikely to do much good. It will divert creative energy from innovative academic activities to defending the status quo. Furthermore, the universities’ own focus on structure has the capacity to infect government thinking, and before you know it political pressure builds to change structures, generally in wholly unnecessary ways.

There is little doubt that universities, always the most conservative of organisations, need to reform. But the priority target of such reforms should not be organisation and structures.

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5 Comments on “Finding the perfect structure”

  1. Chris Bigum Says:

    I got 19,000 for “university restructuring” (14.9 M without quotes). Either way, it is still a big number. With all that activity one wonders why some universities are not offering qualifications in restructuring🙂.

    My experience of restructures have been that they have all been stunts; a vice-chancellor newly appointed (vice-chancellors on trainer wheels tend to be prone to restructure) wanting to unsettle things perhaps or simply that they have a limited understanding of management (Two of my favourite thinkers in this regard are Dee Hock and Ricardo Semler. Both of whom are from the ‘dark side’ aka business and hence to be treated with great suspicion). Much is often claimed for a restructure but there is often little enthusiasm to test those claims after the event. A university proposing to restructure might, if was serious about the rhetoric that accompanies the move might subject itself to a Tesco-like test (http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2010/09/how-to-make-making-it-simpler.html).

    How university leaders understand things like change, management, technology, learning is hugely important and apart from the few who, like yourself, share their ideas publicly, we know precious little about what these understandings are. Most seem to acquire their ‘expertise’ on the job, i.e. in universities which IMHO are the last places you’d use if you wanted to teach anyone about management and leadership, even for universities.

    Since universities, at least in Australia, have gone down the corporate path, they have managed to put in place all the frills and trappings of the corporate: cars, perks, language (see Don Watson’s merciless attack on corporate speak in universities and elsewhere) good measures of mindless marketing, ‘risk managers’ and so on but precious little of the smarts. There is much to be learned from the ‘dark side’ not so much to act like corporates but simply to do smart things with customers, aka students, and the folk who work in the trenches. Sadly, a new category of university has emerged in Australia. To those that might be judged research intensive or teaching intensive we can now add management intensive.

    To me, there is little check on the growth of the service/management side of things. Academics are scrutinised routinely and held to account (as Drucker argues, what gets measured gets managed) but the same logics of accountability seem not to apply for management structures. It’s like the old gag about the canoe race:
    http://www.emmitsburg.net/humor/daily_additions/2002/sept/9_18.htm

    A modest piece of anecdotal evidence to point to some of the bloat was provided by my son who has worked in university IT departments (systems work) and in private industry. His estimate is that the ratio of staff to do the same work is three times that which is found in industry. This is in Australia. No idea what it is like elsewhere.

    None of this stupidity would matter a great deal, other than the cost to the tax payer, but the world needs good educational leadership. If universities can’t do it then they may well go the route of the music industry, all you’d need to do is buy the apps you wanted.

    Discussions about structure and management in universities always reminds me of
    an interview John Perry Barlow (Tunbridge, 1995) gave when he visited Australia in 1990 to give a keynote address to the National Entertainment Industry Conference: “Yesterday when I was listening to those people arguing about copyright law I felt like I’d come across a gang of shuffleboard players on the deck of the Titanic arguing about the angle of the deck, and I couldn’t direct them toward the lifeboats.”

    There are serious issues universities need to address if they are to retain their place in the current social order. Fiddling while Rome burns does not cut it.

    Tunbridge, N. (1995, September). The Cyberspace Cowboy, Australian Personal Computer, pp. 2-4.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Restructuring is about nothing other than making management look like they’re doing something important. There is almost never a need for it. When Ferdinand writes that ” it would be silly to imagine that an organisational framework originally devised for 19th century conditions would be good for the new millennium” not only is his rhetoric carrying the full weight of his (non) argument, but he couldn’t be more wrong. The 19th-century configurations of universities is a lot closer to the 21st-century organisation of the most efficient businesses today than the heavy-handed and centralised university restructurings are. The traditional arrangement of universities had several features that contemporary business organisations see the value of and that “restructured” universities lack: devolved power, decisions made at the lowest level, collegiality, self-organisation, etc. See the book The Starfish and the Spider for lots of examples of the superiority of such self-organising and leaderless organisations, to which the old model of the university was a lot closer than the current one.

    At UCD we underwent a brave new restructuring in 2004-2005. The effect of it has been to introduce extra layers of bureaucracy (so multiple departments jammed together in “Schools” still have to conduct all their departmental business while the “School” is now a useless extra layer that has to be dealt with), to reduce the possibility of lateral communication among staff and replace it with top-down directives. Collegiality has been destroyed and mistrust (between management and frontline staff) is the order of the day. This sort of organisation has nothing to do with the 21st century: it’s right out of 1950s management philosophy. Above all, it is less flexible than the “19th-century” form of organisation that preceded it and therefore less up-to-date.


  3. My impression is that restructuring is often done because structures are the most obvious things to change. You can rearrange and merge/split the boxes on an organogram and feel like you’ve solved lots of problems when really all you’ve done is moved some boxes. I believe meaningful change is more likely to come from shifts in an organisation’s culture and beliefs. These are much harder to identify, visualise and even harder to shift.

  4. jfryar Says:

    It’s a sphere … you can travel in any direction for as long as you want and you’ll eventually end up back where you started.

  5. Al Says:

    I wonder will any of these ventures ever be used as case studies in the future?


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