Posted tagged ‘restructuring’

Finding the perfect structure

May 12, 2011

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.


Getting the structure just right; and doing it again; and again

August 6, 2010

For ten years, from 1990 to 2000, I was a professor in the University of Hull in England. It was a happy time mostly. But perhaps one of the less satisfying experiences was the regular need felt by someone or other to restructure the whole organisation. I can remember four fundamental restucturings over my time there; by which I mean I remember that there were four. I cannot now recall what one of them was all about: in fact all I remember about it is that even at the time I couldn’t for the life of me see what it was supposed to achieve, even theoretically.

All this was brought back to mind by the news that the University of Southampton has just completed a major restructuring. I hope of course that this works well for them, but my first instinct would be to ask whether this was really necessary.

I think I have come to the conclusion that there are few things that divert energy and initiative more than an unnecessary restructuring. I am not of course suggesting that all such exercises are unnecessary: universities, like all major organisations, need to be re-conceived in terms of processes and structures every so often, to ensure that they are capable of meeting the challenges ahead. But that should be a fairly rare occurrence. In fact, reviewing procedures and decision-making methods is almost always much more productive than re-casting structures. Also, a good principle is that if you have just restructured, then don’t do it again for quite a while; constantly unsettling your population is not sensible.

I think there are particular temptations for university heads to make restructuring one of their first priorities on assuming office, as a way of leaving their mark (though not for long, as we have noted). Based on my own experience, I would suggest holding off such initiatives, and focusing instead on better processes and decision-making.