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Is it time for a revolution in higher education?

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Should we be thinking harder about the way we work in higher education? 

I went to hear from the Corporate Rebels to find out what higher education can learn from game-changing organisations across the world. Here’s what a revolution could look like.

Could a university completely decentralise power and structure itself around small, self-managing teams?”

Two weeks ago I attended a book launch run by Corporate Rebels. I was there to listen to Joost and Pim, the founders, talk about what they’ve learned from three years of interviewing some of the world’s most innovative, outside-the-box thinking leaders and their employees. These are companies that have rebelled against organisational norms: companies that have radically different management structures and no bosses, some with no formal work hours, and others where employees set their own wages. What piques my interest is that these aren’t just start-ups they’re talking about; these rebel organisations exist as government departments and massive white goods manufacturers too.

Naturally, I began to wonder what higher education could take away from what Joost and Pim were learning. Could a university completely decentralise power and structure itself around small, self-managing teams, as Buurtzorg, a nurse-led healthcare organisation in the Netherlands has done?

Is it possible to change how we have conversations and give feedback, flipping this 180 degrees and encouraging people to feed upwards to their managers like they do at UKTV?

I was there to find out.

The case for a revolution

“The question, ‘What difference do I make in the world?’ is essential. Being aware of your contribution is extremely motivating. The paradox is that many organisations do nothing when it comes to creating a higher purpose.”

Daniel Pink, Drive

Many of our organisational structures are ones that we’ve inherited. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it means that we’re working in systems that were designed for a different era with different working practices and expectations, maybe even different ambitions.

In 2020, purpose is much more at the front of our minds. Professional wellbeing and making a difference through our work is not a nice to have, it’s an essential. As we realise that purpose nurtures motivation, and motivation helps us be more effective at work, organisations and leaders can no longer rely on old incentives like performance bonuses or a corner office to build an effective, happy and engaged workforce. And the research backs this up.

A study by Robert Dur (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Max van Lent (Leiden University) found that 25% of employees felt that their job ‘makes no or a negative contribution to society”. In the UK, a poll by YouGov (2015) found that 37% of people felt that their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Depending on the study you look at – and how steely you’re feeling – it gets worse.”

Depending on the study you look at – and how steely you’re feeling – it gets worse. Recent research from Gallup, who’ve been measuring employee engagement for the last 15 years, revealed that across the world 67% of employees feel disengaged by work with a further 18% actively disengaged. The UK fares a little worse with 26% of employees feeling actively disengaged.

But what does this look like in higher education?

Anecdotally, we hear how ineffective meetings and onerous processes swamp people’s time and energy. Worse still, without decision making authority distributed throughout universities, people have limited power to change things for the better, instead reporting upwards through a predetermined approval process. As former Pro Vice-Chancellor Vincenzo Raimo recently commented on a blog for HepiWithout that front line connection and closeness to staff and students it is difficult to fully understand how your organisation really operates, what is important to the front line and what brings success.”

Certainly this isn’t the case everywhere, but for some, power is sequestered away and what life is like at different strata of the organisation is radically different depending on which ‘level’ you sit at.

When we spend such a large part of our lives and put so much of ourselves into our work, surely we should expect more. More engagement, more purpose, more happiness?

In turn, our organisations might expect to see a more motivated workforce. They might see employees who proactively engage and pursue the organisation’s mission, live out its values and champion it at every opportunity.

Revolutionary ideas in practice

If you’re sold on the idea of doing something different, what could this look like?

This entrepreneurial spirit allows innovation and solutions to take hold.”

The most fascinating example Joost and Pim introduced was that of the pioneering Dutch healthcare organisation, Buurtzorg. What’s different about Buurtzorg is that it’s run by small, nurse-led groups. The first nurse-led team was formed in 2006 and was so successful that there are now 850 teams of over 10,000 nurses. Buurtzorg are now scaling this approach to other international care organisations. But as they say, the proof’s in the pudding. Ernst and Young have ‘reported savings of around 40% to the Dutch healthcare system’. They’ve also won Best Employer four out of the last five years.

Buurtzorg’s model depends on their self-managing teams having professional freedom with responsibility. This means that ‘they decide how they organise the work, share responsibilities and make decisions’. Every team is free to try new ideas, and when these work they share them with the wider network. This entrepreneurial spirit allows innovation and solutions to take hold.

Another example: Corporate Rebels tell the story of Frank van Massenhove, former chairman of the Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs. When Frank took on this position, he was charged with making the department more efficient.

Frank decided to completely revolutionise the way people worked. He introduced a flatter hierarchy, with only two layers instead of the five that existed before. Amongst other changes, he shifted the focus from measuring people’s hours to measuring outputs. People came into the office, worked their hours, recorded their outputs.

What would the working day look like if they encouraged people to work their daily hours but when it chose to suit them? Outputs increased.

What if they gave people the option to determine their own hours? Outputs increased again. And they increased, yet again, when they encouraged people to work where was convenient for them.

Where before the department had huge problems in attracting new talent, they now receive around 57 applications per role rather than the 3 they received before. Annual productivity has increased by 10%, and they now have gender balance across the department, without having to write and implement a policy to make this happen.

These are just the tip of the iceberg in ways that organisations are changing to become more transparent, encourage more freedom and ultimately build more trust amongst their employees.

Time for a revolution?

When I was writing this blog I kept asking myself, is ‘revolution’ for higher education too strong a word? Does it mean too much change? Too much uncertainty?

Perhaps it depends on where you start from. But if you find yourself working for or leading an organisation where creativity and imagination are always rejected for the status quo, then I would say yes.

This could be changing the way meetings are structured and led: why not have a rotating chair? And why not have shorter meetings that are focused on action?

It could be re-evaluating where power sits, how it can more be shared – even as a pilot – with smaller, collaborative teams?

How do you know what’s really going on at the coal face?”

Or it could be finding new ways to hear how things really are for the people you work with. How do you know what’s really going on at the coal face? Could leaders spend more time here? Could questions be put to senior management in a completely transparent, open way without fear of judgement or reprisal?

Finally, what could self-managing teams that bring together different expertise look like for your department or organisation?

There will never be a one size fits all approach for every company. We can’t and shouldn’t carbon copy what others do without interrogating how it could work best in our own context. But what if we started by simply asking the question ‘what would it look like if…?’


By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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