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When the presenting problem isn’t the problem: The ‘vital signs’ of organisational health

  • 30 April 2024
  • By John Raftery and Susan Lea
  • This longer HEPI blog was kindly authored by John Raftery, Principal at John Raftery & Associates, and Susan Lea, Founder and Principal at Sagewood Consulting.
  • HEPI is hosting a webinar on student maintenance support next Thursday 9th May to mark the launch of a major new report. You can sign up here.

Incoming Vice Chancellors (VCs)- who are also Chief Executive Officers in the UK – face a chorus of voices jockeying for position, stakes and interest.  It is sometimes also the case that the university has run into difficulty, for example with student outcomes, research, or financial metrics and these may be among the reasons a new VC has been appointed, to lead that organisation to a better place. The role of the Vice Chancellor is significantly different, wider, and deeper in span from that of Provost or Deputy VC.  Outcome metrics – of teaching, research, and financial health – the ‘presenting problem’, all cry out for urgent attention from university leadership.  The university community, of students and staff, and its governing body have legitimate expectations that the incoming leader will separate ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, identify priorities and stimulate coordinated effective action. Achieving strategic goals and leading change (major transformation or enhancement in particular areas) depends on accurate analysis and diagnosis leading to appropriate interventions.

We believe that it is important to look at, but also beyond, the presenting problem in order to lead lasting and successful institutional change. There is a sense in which the outcome metrics described above can be seen as ‘symptoms’ of organisational underperformance.  If we accept as a guiding principle that there can be no enduring improvement in symptoms without treatment of underlying causes, then it is worth spending some effort on understanding those.  

We have spent decades in university senior leadership, advising universities and, between us, more than ten years carrying the top responsibility as Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer at three universities in England.  Here we share a frame and some insights based on our experience. We hope this will be helpful to others in these roles facing decisions about priorities for leadership attention. Although our own experiences are in universities, we wonder if the insights here may be applicable to other types of organisations, and we welcome both confirming and contradictory experiences of others as we all seek to enhance our understanding and to ‘lead well’. 

The ‘song beneath the words’: What is really going on?

Apart from the obvious, (below-par teaching, research, and financial management) what might be contributory factors or underlying causes of below-benchmark learning, research, or financial metrics in universities?  As is often stated, the culture of an organisation is a key determining feature of its success.  It provides insight into ‘the song’.  We have identified three further elements that, arguably, are also signifiers of culture but we felt that distilling them might offer greater clarity when it comes to understanding and tackling the problem.

Culture: Much is written about culture. From our perspective, an incoming VC will want to understand the form and nature of the institution’s culture and the extent to which it rewards and reinforces collaboration, inclusivity, and trust. Too often organisations espouse their positive culture but, in reality, the lived experience of their staff is something different.  Organisations characterised by degrees of fear, blame, and defensiveness are less likely to be inspiring and motivating staff to produce high-quality work and more likely to see people with their heads down hoping not to be noticed.  In this environment, what is important can drift and shift leading to distraction, a growth in bureaucracy, and declining employee relations.

Distraction: The core business of the university encompasses higher-level teaching, learning and research in varying proportions, dependent on the particular institution.  All other activities, almost everything else, if allowed to get out of balance, could be seen as a distraction from what is important for students and the university.  Some of these other activities are necessary; these might include the preparation of data and reports to regulators, compliance with laws governing universities, and the management of human and other resources such as estates facilities, digital and further infrastructures. 

A key question is that of proportionality, of avoiding ‘too much’ focus on work which is inherently unproductive, on committees or on compliance for example – talking about, rather than ‘doing’, teaching or research.  This cultural ‘way of being’ can be supported by unnecessarily elaborate procedures or inefficient systems which see duplication of effort and reduce the amount of time and energy academic and professional services staff have for research, education and appropriate, associated administration. 

Growth of bureaucracy: Changes in the UK system, and the advent of the Office for Students (OfS), have seen universities move into a more regulated environment in relation to their students. While the OfS has the stated intention of reducing the burden on universities, this is not how it feels to the majority of institutions.  Universities were previously subject to assessments of educational quality, but regulation is now explicitly governed by conditions of registration and compliance.  The OfS is not responsible for research. However, the Research Excellence Framework has also attracted challenge. Beyond this, we would argue that universities themselves have tended to proliferate systems, policies processes.  Resistance to change can be strong as informal structures and power grow around coalitions of special interest and expertise seeing investment in the status quo.

Employee relations: Constructive, supportively challenging relationships between leadership/management, employees and trades unions are vital to institutional success. Yet this too is a balance that can be difficult to get right. In some organisations, there can be a tendency to ‘go to HR’ in the event of a problem arising – with the resultant extended, expensive, procedures rather than engagement with a potentially difficult conversation with a colleague or line report. This environment can be intensified if management is suspicious or fearful of trade unions.  

Data on symptoms, not causes

For an incoming VC (but equally applicable to any portfolio-specific senior leader) seeking to identify, and prioritise, short, medium, and long-term actions, a good place to start is to reach beyond anecdote to examine institutional and comparative educational, research and performance data of which there is no shortage[1].  There are often benchmarked sector comparisons such as square meters of facilities per student or staff member, publications per staff member, income generated per staff member, proportions of students who complete or drop out, proportion of overall income spent on staff and a range of comparisons with other universities segmented by size and type of university.  All of which, using our approach above, could be seen as descriptive of symptoms, not causes. 

Before making decisions about the treatment of symptoms, physicians routinely check vital signs.  At their simplest, these are the four measurements of temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiration, which indicate essential functioning, give clues to possible ailments, and indicate progress in recovery.  What are the ‘vital signs’ (not symptoms) for a university? Where is the institutional, and comparative, data on culture, distraction, bureaucracy, and employee relations?

Measuring the vital signs of organisational health

While there are no obvious, standardised measures for distraction or bureaucracy (and it is questionable if they even lend themselves to measurement), there are some good proxies for both culture and employee relations.

Specialist providers such as  Great Place To Work have developed globally benchmarked approaches to capturing the organisational culture and the sentiments of staff about their organisation and its leadership.   These surveys provide useful information that can assist an incoming VC/CEO in identifying, and prioritising, leadership interventions.  However, the measures can only be produced if organisations (in our case, universities) commission the full, globally benchmarked survey which involves some 60 questions, not all of which directly apply to the British university and come at a cost.

Universities feeling a financial squeeze, lacking an appreciation of the value of these tools, or not seeing their direct relevance to the sector may commission shorter, internally referring surveys or choose to devise their own.  Consequently, there is no basis for comparison with other institutions. Such information, while offering a temperature check of the university, would be less useful, for leadership, staff and -in the quest to attract talent- prospective applicants.    

Human resources professionals utilise a variety of employee relations data collected through surveys of organisations conducted locally and by specialists with global coverage such as XpertHR.  In their 2022 survey, ‘Discipline and grievance’, of 158 HR professionals in a variety of UK organisations, 30% of respondents had seen an increase in grievances since the onset of the Covid pandemic and an ‘ensuing shift in employer-employee relationship’. This trend may well also be reflected in UK universities which typically produce an annual ‘Employee Relations” report submitted to their Executive and Board of Governors While interesting, more useful information on ‘vital signs’ would be comparative data across universities enabling trends to be discerned and comparisons made (such as relating to grievances, disciplinaries, and so on).  

Institutional variation in relation to benchmarked data could provide insight into organisational culture and effectiveness.  High numbers in relation to a metric could signify that organisations are effectively supporting staff to address egregious behaviour from those around and above them (rather than such behaviour remaining hidden). On the other hand, time spent preparing, submitting, and dealing with these issues is time taken away from ‘front-line’ work achieving the organisation’s priorities and could signal a reluctance to seek resolution of such issues informally and to move to escalation immediately. Indeed, an organisation ‘at war with itself’ will have reduced bandwidth available for its core purposes of teaching and research.  

Examining metrics such as those posited here should cause leadership to ask questions such as: How can leadership encourage openness and trust, and increase employees’ feelings of empowerment and respect? Does the organisation have a way of appropriately weeding out trivial and/or repetitive submissions, and what does it say about the organisation which finds itself with relatively high numbers of these? And, what steps could be taken by leadership and HR to encourage a healthier culture which releases staff energy and time for improving the quality and quantity of business done by the organisation compared to its competitors?

The art and (largely absent) science of leadership transitions

In our experience, it is rare for incoming VCs to be given such comparative or benchmarked data, on either culture or employee relations.  On taking up their appointment, most VCs will rightly spend time meeting members of the university community, participating in ‘Town Hall’ meetings and speaking with literally hundreds of staff and students in order to ‘get a sense’ of the culture of the organisation where they are to serve as leader.  This time is, in our opinion, well spent and serves a number of purposes.  However, if such an exercise were supplemented with access to the type of data we have described here, how much easier and more accurate would the insights be? The university and its governing body would be better served with earlier, better-informed decisions if it had the foresight to collect such ‘vital signs’ data describing organisational health.

An organisation at war with itself reduces the bandwidth available for core purpose

Leaders and leadership teams are usually appointed to help organisations ‘do better’, often on benchmarked metrics.  Universities have much in common but equally are diverse in the relative attention given to research and education, the proportion of entering students with high grades, and their financial position.  The question is, do these characteristics account for differences in performance on benchmarked metrics?

Arguably the most important resource in a university is its intellectual capital in the form of its staff community. High-performing, intensely focused, reasonably contented staff are an underlying cause which can move universities into the achievement of enduring improvements in ‘organisational symptoms’, that is, their benchmarked metrics.  We are not arguing that attention to outcome metrics and the ‘presenting problem’ is unimportant. We are observing that enduring change requires a healthy organisation with maximum bandwidth available for core purposes, in this case, education and research.  University leaders and their governing bodies have started to pay this increasing attention; it is likely no accident that we have entered an era where the role of Human Resources Director frequently has an added focus on culture and is increasingly characterised as a ‘Chief People and Culture Officer’ (CPCO).  Such a move gives cause for hope in that it opens the way to improving two of the ‘vital signs’ necessary to achieve sustained improvement in ‘symptoms’ such as benchmarked metrics of educational and financial resilience.

In conclusion, we hope the ideas we offer here may be of help to incoming university leaders and their advisors.  We welcome suggestions, reactions, and conversations as we collectively seek to learn how to lead better.

[1] Although the validity and reliability of data is often contested in universities, understanding extant data (and improving it if necessary) is key to understanding the symptoms of institutional concerns.

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