(2-minute read)

Good organisation design should be put front and centre of the pursuit to become a high performing, happy and healthy institution. But the reality for most universities currently is that the impact they achieve is often in spite of, rather than because of, the quality of their internal design.

Imagine what might be possible if universities were able to take all the passion, commitment and skill of their staff and ally it to an organisation where all the
component parts worked in harmony, rather than as disconnected or competing units.

This is a world where business processes run smoothly across functional lines, where accountabilities and responsibilities are clear, and where all aspects of
the operation are set up in a way which helps accelerate strategy. Where staff, students and stakeholders are happy and where nothing feels like harder work than
it should be.

For a university looking to improve its design and achieve this nirvana, there are a few key points to bear in mind.

The sector abounds with time-limited programmes and projects which have specific end goals and outputs. But the best design is not and cannot be static. An optimal design in 2034 is clearly going to be different to what optimal design is in 2024. A designer should be linked in sufficiently with strategy and planning to ensure that good design takes place continuously and is not regarded as something with a beginning and a definitive end.

A fairly intractable issue with organisation design in HE is that a great many people have had little previous exposure to what good design is, how it manifests itself and, most crucially of all, what their role is in extracting its benefits. A large part of being a successful designer in this sector is your level of skill in understanding the personalities, drivers, levels of influence and levels of interest of each member of your senior team. If part of your role is to maximise their chances of success, then a priority must be to find a seat at the table and influence from there.

The responsibility for making change happen should not sit solely within the organisation design unit. One of the most common things staff ask for in surveys and listening exercises is greater autonomy to do their job. Therefore, functional leaders should be able to commission change capabilities to help them deliver, but
they themselves need to be responsible for bringing positive change to life. The often-seen risk of managers simply checking themselves out from the role of change delivery has to be mitigated more proactively.

Finally, organisation design in its truest sense is still disproportionately targeted at professional services and administration at universities. Societal and demographic changes in particular mean that is not sustainable. Universities need their academic model to evolve to meet the needs of a brave new world of education, employment and knowledge economy. Organisation design has to get into the academic space in a way that goes beyond structural considerations.

Interested in this topic?

We are running an in-person event on Wednesday 24 January, 10:00-15:30 as we look to the future, to understand better the strategic drivers that will shape our OD activities. SUMS Consultants Emma Ogden, Tom Owen-Smith and Principal Consultant Lucy Dixon will introduce a discussion of three critical areas influencing a University of the Future; People, Sustainability and Technology. 

Last few places for SUMS members left! Register for the OD event here.

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