Published on 2015/04/23

Individuals over Organizations: Five Changes to Prepare Higher Ed for Tomorrow, Today

The EvoLLLution | Individuals over Organizations: Five Changes to Prepare Higher Ed for Tomorrow, Today
Institutions must evolve to become more reliant on the ingenuity, imagination and innovation of their staff and faculty, and less reliant on committees.

“Higher Education” and “agility”—these words rarely appear together in the same sentence. Time on most college campuses is best measured in geological time. Juxtapose this against what is happening outside the Ivory Tower, where exponential change fueled by technological innovation is impacting every facet of society. In many ways our current educational system was built for a world that no longer exists and higher education needs to become more agile to adapt to the changing landscape and the modern set of expectations.

This will not be easy. Governance, organizational culture and decision making in higher education are all very unique. The model has been described as organized anarchy, where goals are ambiguous and decision-making authority is unclear. Despite this environment, colleges can become more agile. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Move away from consensus decision-making

Consensus is the preferred method for making decisions on most college campuses. While reaching consensus does have advantages, the big drawback is the amount of time needed to make a decision.

Colleges should continue to use consensus decision making for high-level strategy but use quicker models for tactical and operational decisions. After all, most of these decisions can be made by one person who has the necessary experience and expertise.

2. Reduce the reliance on committees

As Milton Berle once said: “A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours.” Colleges are notorious for an overreliance on committees. Some campuses actually have a committee whose charge is to approve the creation of new committees!

In addition to slowing down the decision-making process, committees often produce poor results because negotiation and compromise is often part of the process. Colleges also need to remember that there are 12 months in the calendar. Many campus committees are staffed by faculty who normally are not available during summer and winter recess, bringing committee work to a halt.

3. Have a plan and the discipline to carry it out

Most colleges don’t fully understand strategy. Strategic planning is not the same as setting goals and objectives. Strategy involves recognizing and confronting challenges, then identifying specific actions that will leverage the strength of the organization to address those challenges. This last piece is often difficult for higher education where long-term strategic plans often lose steam and are not implemented. Strategy that is not acted upon becomes just another institutional artifact. It takes discipline to stay the course. And as Jim Collins said in his book Good to Great in the Social Sectors, “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”

4. Think like an entrepreneur

As Seth Godin said 10 years ago, “Small is the New Big.” Most colleges are large, bureaucratic entities with enough red tape to make government seem agile.  College employees, both faculty and staff, should be encouraged to act like entrepreneurs within the larger organization. Think like a business with a bottom line. Take smart risks without being reckless, experiment, challenge the status quo, be disruptive, hire good people and trust them to do their jobs, and nurture a culture where failure is acceptable as long as you learn from it.

5. Embrace change

These are challenging times for the traditional model of higher education. As costs continue to soar and students and parents begin to question the value of a college degree, higher education will need to adapt and innovate. The world is a different place. The students of tomorrow are much different than the students of yesterday. The mass education model of last century will not prepare students for their future. It’s time for higher education to embrace change. And the message to those who are reluctant is that if you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.

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