Decluttering higher education

Some time ago, The Economist published a column entitled Decluttering the company[1]. Over the past 25 years quite a few companies have successfully introduced lean. Still, many organizations ignored the transformation to lean and they are starting to suffer from organizational clutter[2]: Countless meetings, lots of emails, expanding regulations and an increasing number managers are keeping employees from their work and inhibit their creativity. Harvard professor Teresa Amabile: Clutter is taking a toll on both morale and productivity. Creativity felt markedly if working days were punctuated by meetings.

Organisatie - complexiteit 7

The publication of the column in The Economist resulted in a flood of consenting comments[3]. According to Katharina Watson the situation is even worse in education: The most debilitating form of clutter is organizational complexity. The Boston Consulting Group approves her view by asserting that the organization of schools has become six times more complicated over the past 50 years: The number management layers, the number of managers and the number of coordinating bodies have increased, the bureaucracy has been strengthened, the number of objectives to be achieved simultaneously is doubled and the demand for internal communication has exploded.

Organisatie - complexiteit 2Ask any university teacher who is her or his boss. Some – probably those who have been employed the largest number of years – shrug their shoulders as though the answer matters. Others might count ten bosses at least: the chairman of the department, the head of the school, the managing director, the program director of the bachelor, the program director of the master, the director of education, the director of research, the chairman of the faculty council and the dean. Not to forget the chairmen of the education committee and the board of examiners. And we’re only talking about bosses at faculty level.

In the 80’s many educational organizations implemented a matrix structure. At that time, advisors warned to be aware of its complexity. In the meantime, three or four-dimensional matrices have become normal.

Organisatie - complexiteit 3The strong increase in complexity of higher educational institutions is accompanied by the diversity of tasks that academic personnel are performing simultaneously. Ask any university teacher to write down her or his tasks during an average week. The result: six to ten lectures or working groups in bachelor and master programs spread over three to five courses, the development of new courses, supervision of bachelor and master theses, meetings of committees, discussions with PhD students, delivery of information to prospective students, participation in teacher training, attending meetings and consulting colleagues, regional contacts, deliberations with foreign universities, tutorials with students, answering emails, and joining social media forums. They also do research, which involves various activities as well.

Universities can learn from lean. In essence, these six principles might help:

  • Concentration of academic staff members’ work in two programs in the same time at most, for instance the bachelor and a research project. After a couple of years, these programmes might rotate.
  • Collaboration with a limited number of colleagues to built a tight team that is responsible for as many as possible activities associated with the program in order to reduce external dependencies.
  • Granting responsibility to these teams with respect to the majority of program-related activities and budget.
  • Enabling the team to self-organize their work and to chose a leadership style, for instance the election of a team leader or the deployment of distributed leadership.
  • Frequent organizing by the team of deliberations with students to maximize their participation, and engagement and to learn from their opinions.
  • Strengthening of team member’s engagement by spending of a certain amount of time to quality improvement and innovation.

Education yearns for simple structures: less managers and more content-related collaboration between teachers. The quality of education and employee satisfaction will be the winners.

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter

[2] http://ccweek.com/article-4083-communications-clutter:-the-enemy-of-creativity.html

[3] http://info.chromeriver.com/blog/bid/353773/What-s-Organizational-Clutter-and-Why-Should-You-Care

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