Leading the efficiency agenda

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When change is on the agenda, leadership is important. Alison Johns explains how the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is helping the sector’s leaders to rise to the many challenges thrown up by the efficiency agenda.

Our sector is clearly a national and international success story and has some of the brightest minds across all groups of staff effectively delivering higher education in all its varieties and complexities.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s report acknowledges that, without our leaders’ and managers’ abilities to help their institutions navigate the raft of uncertainties and change over the past decade, the picture of gains in productivity without compromise to excellence may well be very different.

Developing leaders

We are not starting from a deficit model. However, the report and inevitable period of post-election austerity, also points to more and different change and constraints to come. Sustaining and developing leaders and managers is therefore even more relevant.

But why should leading the efficiency agenda be different to any other leadership role?

Process and systems change are often the focus of efficiency initiatives and can be technically challenging, but we all know that they don’t happen in isolation. We can probably all point to situations in the past where new systems were introduced without attention being paid to what these would mean for the people interacting with them.

People are of course the key to effective change, and making a real step change in efficiency and effectiveness can mean people have to change the way they behave, how they approach what they do, as well as what they do.

Making the right sounds

More often than not it is not the technical ability required to change that is the barrier, but the culture of an organisation. Edgar Schein talks about ‘unconscious, taken for granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The ultimate source of values and action’. (Schein 2004)

This translated into actions mean that tacit understanding of how things are done in the organisation make change exceedingly difficult to bring about. Often the culture is so strong that need for change is not apparent, even though everybody is blatantly ‘talking about efficiency’ and ‘making the right sounds’ it is not ‘felt’.

Whilst structural and operational influences, market forces and public funding have important contributions to make in securing greater efficiency and change, inspiring leadership as well as good management is critical to ensure that there is:

  • Widespread recognition of the efficiency job to be done, the size and scale

  • Sufficient interest in the need for greater efficiency to be everyone’s responsibility and agreement that it needs to be done and the challenge tackled

Culture change

People need to feel the imperative or want to do something.  How are you going to achieve that? You can start by using your real-life experience to consider:

  1. If you are already in a culture change programme in your HEI, what can you do in order to promote reflection on your culture, i.e. ‘the way we do things around here’ as it begins to develop?

  2. Once a culture is well embedded, what actions can a thoughtful leader/manager take to begin to change it from within?

  3. In what circumstances might you need to use external intervention to change a culture? What might such intervention consist of?

Some of the learning from the first round of Innovation and Transformation Fund projects and the proposals for the second phase shows that cultural change is at the heart of improving efficiency, and that no one size fits all, leaders have to be sensitive to context and culture and be able to contextualise change for people, even where there is no burning platform (yet).

The case studies we have been developing with member institutions and colleagues in UCEA and HEFCE also demonstrate that innovation needs constant attention and adjustment. These case studies, which will be published in late March 2015, show that this process involves hard work and often outcomes are uncertain. Leaders need to be agile and develop agility in their teams, there’s iterative learning and development.

Pathway to the future

This is not to say that chaos reigns, that we will flip from one change to another and that planning is futile – even though it may sometimes feel like that. The skill of the leader is to see and communicate a pathway to the future, whilst paying attention to potential alternatives and identifying the skills and knowledge needed of them, their teams and across the organisation to help deliver those.

Earlier in 2015, the Leadership Foundation launched our new strategy ‘Catalysing Change’, where we set out our plans to support individuals, institutions and the sector on its journey through change, development and growth. Please take a look.

Also please check out our website for the range of programmes, research materials, good practice case studies, and services we offer to help you on your journey.

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