Lessons From a For-Profit: NimbilityTerry Rawls | President, Strategic Transitions Group
In this series we’re exploring the lessons that traditional institutions and successful for-profit institutions can share with each other, and in this installment we are going to focus on institutional nimbility.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Nimbility as … oh wait. It doesn’t define Nimbility. After an inordinate amount of time searching, I conclude that we’re going to need to develop our own definition, so for the purposes of our discussion we’ll define Nimbility as:
Nim-bil-i-ty: an organizational structure that enables an organization to adjust to changes in its environment. Formula: Nimbility = (A Culture that Values Change) + (An Organizational Structure that enables change)
Consider the implications of the Law of Requisite Variety. For purposes of this discussion we’ll use the definition that I used when teaching Neurolinguistic Programming back in my academic years: “In any interconnected system the element with the greatest range of responses will be the controlling element.”
This means that an institution that possesses nimbility—and thus has a wide range of responses to external and internal challenges—is more likely to be successful in a changing environment. That just makes sense!
So let’s first tackle institutional culture. I was visiting with my friend Margaret Andrews of the Hult International Business School and Harvard University recently and I really liked the way she put it: “There is just not enough tension in higher education.” Tension is frequently the driver of change, and without it we are too often governed instead by inertia, which we all know to be a very powerful force. Without an institutional culture that recognizes the need for change and the resulting desire to change, an institution cannot be nimble.
While many of our institutions have been immune to external change agents over the past several centuries, there are many external drivers of change today that we simply cannot ignore. Declining enrollments, shifts in the demographics of students and a rapidly changing, digitally connected world-of-work are but three pressure points that are demanding changes in higher ed. An institution whose culture allows them to be aware of these pressures is more likely to also be able to adapt by, for instance, developing new academic or student support programs. We call these schools nimble, and we are often jealous of their abilities.
But culture, while necessary, is not sufficient to create nimbility. Once we recognize the need to develop a culture that values adaptation we need an organizational structure that enables it. There are many ways organizational structure can sabotage change, such as placing decision-making power with individuals or groups that are not equipped to make those decisions, and creating convoluted decision-making processes that slow or stop changes. I once served at an institution where the curricular process was shut down for the summer, so no new courses or programs could be considered between late March and sometime in October. Maybe your institution has a similar process. I won’t dwell on this, because you already know if your institution has a facilitative structure or not.
It’s common knowledge that for-profit schools are nimble; they are endowed with nimbility, right? And similarly, we all know that traditional schools are trapped in their counterproductive rules and regulations and routinely fail to adapt to the changing times. In my experience, however, while these stereotypes have some merit, there are plenty of examples of the exceptions; there are for-profits who fail to meet new demands or adapt to their changing environment and traditional schools that practice nimbility on a regular basis.
So, the nimbility lesson is that just like soup and sandwich, we need to first attend to our institutional culture, our volition, our desire to monitor our environment and adapt to changes and THEN attend to our organizational structure to ensure that it permits adaptation. You can have one without the other, but without both you cannot have nimbility. It’s the stuff that successful institutions of the future are made of, regardless of tax status.
One last thing: If Stephen Colbert can trademark the word “Truthiness” I guess I can trademark NimbilityTM. So there you go! The next installment in this series we’ll take a look at SWOT analyses and how they can be used to help institutions develop both nimbility and strategic plans.
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Author Perspective: Business