The agile university?

The opening presentation at the Educause conference from Gary Hamel of the London Business School provided much food for thought. He noted that higher education institutions need to become more agile and responsive to change but that there are many barriers in organisations that prevent this. These barriers, such as customer and staff inertia or regulatory issues, need to be broken down if the organisation is to develop the agility needed to survive. In many industries it is the newcomers that have made the biggest impact as they are able to think in new ways and not be influenced by current working practices.

The web has had a disruptive influence on many industries and education will be no different. Industries have to take into account the impact of the web when considering their delivery, their sales and their customers. Universities might argue that they are already doing that – delivering online courses, marketing to prospective students through the web and social media, building research communities. But it that really the case? Most teaching is still delivered in the traditional face to face fashion with courses developed by the academics at the institution. Is this model sustainable given the disruptive impact of the web? Possibly not. One thing that the web has given us is a community of experts, access to specialists. Who’s to say that there isn’t a market for specialists to develop course material, put it online and then compete for students? Will the successful institutions be those that eschew the traditional model and seek out the best courses from those specialists and build a quality offering where all the material has been developed by the best in the field? This depends to a degree on the online experience being seen as being as valuable as face to face teaching. But already we are seeing online being used to supplement face to face teaching and a growth of wholly online courses.

Hamel observed that change it too episodic, too rare. Part of the reason for this is intransience of senior management. They may believe that they have more to lose by changing than by challenging the way things are done. Inflexibility leads to stagnation. There is a need to empower staff and not leave strategic thought to senior management. Everyone has to buy in to the mission – question what they are doing and why they are doing it. Look for continual improvement – whatever is being done now isn’t good enough. Keep a sense of aspiration, to move forward, to enhance the customer experience, the organisation. Hamel picked these drivers as significant for Apple’s success – they want to make a difference and have created new models for mobile phones, for the music industry and more. They may have a small market share but they return the biggest profit.

Leaders in organisations have to think the unpalatable and get beyond the denial that the organisation cannot change. Hamel suggested every belief should be regarded as a hypothesis – something that can be challenged. There is much to be learned from other sectors – leaders need to spend time out on the bleeding edge and apply lessons from that time to their organisations.

So, how many of the existing institutions will transform into the agile institutions Hamel suggested will be the survivors? There will need to be a disruptive influence to achieve it. Will it be more private institutions gaining greater market share in specialist areas or a move to greater part time study as the impact of the economic troubles bite? Or a rebellion by student customers paying substantially higher fees? Or will the sector muddle its way through it all and carry on as normal?

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