“What was happening could be described as a great ship being turned and blunted and shoved about and pulled around by many small tugs. Once turned by tide and tugs, it must set a new course and start its engines turning. On the bridge, which is the planning centre, the question must be asked: All right, I know where I want to go. How do I get there, and where are the lurking rocks and what will the weather be?
- John Steinbeck, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’.
Photo: Cristian Escobar, Unsplash
We live and learn in a changed and changing world. Everything moves faster, more furiously and in directions we once thought impossible. Economies and societies are transforming at an unprecedented pace. Disruption is not destined to become the new normal; it is here already.
In the midst of this economic and social turbulence are our universities, not isolated and not immune. They face unprecedented challenges brought about by rapidly advancing technologies, shifting demographics, and intense competition from new service providers. COVID-pandemic restrictions and their impact on revenue streams have accelerated the challenges. However, in some ways COVID is masking the longer term issues universities face. The harsh business reality is that many universities are now offering similar products or services (and associated benefits) that students can obtain more affordably elsewhere.
There is no doubt that society needs universities to thrive. Universities do equip students with knowledge and skills that benefit them as individuals and as contributors to society. Universities are essential for innovativeness and improving lives. Universities are think-tanks for the betterment of society and social enrichment. They remain integral to making the world a better place to live.
Despite the essential societal need for universities, they find themselves in profoundly difficult territory. Universities face stalling student enrolments, stagnating funding, and reduced balance sheet capacity to respond. Traditional strategies that have previously held universities in good stead are fast becoming, or are already, obsolete.
How do universities navigate these turbulent and challenging environments? Clearly they cannot be everything to everyone. The universities most likely to succeed are those that take notice of consumer expectations, wants and needs, and position themselves better than their competitors to address them.
How do universities decide what they should do? And, how do they implement those decisions? Given the dynamic and often unpredictable external operating landscapes universities face today, answers to these questions can appear astonishingly complex.
Despite this complexity, there remain fundamental matters that require universal attention.
All universities need to determine who they serve and why doing so is important - to establish intent. All universities need to determine how they deliver socio-economic benefits, what they offer and to whom - to focus collective efforts. With intent and focus, universities cast organisational direction.
All universities are required to intimately understand what they need to be great at doing to achieve their organisational directions – their critical proficiencies.
An in-depth understanding of critical proficiencies enables universities to design their organisational character – the engagement model, operating model, and implementation model – required to accomplish organisational direction.
Notwithstanding the dynamic natures of today’s environments, these fundamental matters remain constant. So what’s the problem? Why is it so difficult?
It is the ways universities go about determining and implementing these fundamental matters that must vary dramatically, depending upon the operating contexts they face at any given time. These operating contexts and their numerous states of flux are heavily influenced by the operating landscapes (internal and external environments)universities must traverse.
Some aspects of university business operate within defined operating contexts – those that are relatively certain, static and therefore predictable. Some aspects operate within complicated operating contexts, involving changeable, active and therefore variable conditions. Further still, some aspects of university business operate in complex operating contexts which are uncertain, dynamic and unpredictable.
The operating context – defined, complicated or complex – in which a university operates at any given moment has a major bearing on the nature of information gathering and the required approaches to decision-making and implementation. It is here where the importance of developing the right organisational character – one which can manage and respond to diverse operating contexts – becomes abundantly evident.
These concepts are part of from my book, The University Imperative – Delivering Socio-economic Benefits for our World. The unflinching objective of the book is to ensure that universities continue to achieve great societal benefits in our much-changed world. We need them to. However, the concepts could genuinely be applied to the situation of any business organisation today.
We’re in a moment right now. So many organisations are re-examining the way they deliver value – not only to their customers, partners, employees, and shareholders, but to society more broadly. I hope the book will help.