Posted tagged ‘University of Southampton’

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.