“Staff development” is a phrase with baggage. Not many teams call themselves that any more, yet developing staff is still essential to most organisations, and developing themselves is terribly important for individuals. The ability to learn and adapt is certainly the key to an unknown future. But we would argue that adapting for and even shaping the future is intrinsically a matter of organisational development (OD), where the whole system is in play, and developing individuals must go hand in hand with the evolution of the organisation itself.
Like most universities, ours are looking at the world and making changes to the way we do things. Different balance of programmes, different pedagogies, transformation of curricula, academic enterprise and the student experience. We’re an adaptable industry - everyone teaches and assesses with some sort of electronic interface nowadays - but what will be really radically different in five years, and will we be able to do it?
Let’s say we want to shift to a different course portfolio, maybe with more distance provision and programme-level assessment, tuned for the expectations of a different student demographic. The people delivering the courses may need some new knowledge and skills, but they can learn, and work in different ways? But why would they want to, and how fast can they and the system change? What impact will it have on other parts of the system? If all the brownie points are for research, even mythically, then why would they spend energy on transforming the teaching? If the hard system of promotion can be changed, what about the soft system, the stories that circulate, setting the tone for the culture and behaviour in departments?
Who are the influential voices? These are the leaders whether formal or informal, so how can we develop them to be constantly tapping into the collective imagination and motivation of their colleagues in a way that allows the university to move forward? That’s going to need leaders at all levels, so our structures and culture must offer the opportunity to develop leadership throughout their academic career, not only in training courses at critical points. And who are we missing? The loudest voices won’t have all the best ideas, so how do we unearth the untapped talent and draw it into the action? That’s going to need skilful conversations; the annual review process may not be the right shape and place for them, so what are the alternatives?
Perhaps we need to buy some technology. Where are the academic leaders and managers who know how to partner with commercial tech providers, possibly on a global basis? Do we have procurement processes that can optimise these kinds of relationships, and finance and IT functions who can work flexibly in that space? Collaboration skills, so essential to academic life, may need to be nurtured in unexpected settings.
This is systems thinking, and is the stock in trade of OD folk, whether they are delivering a leadership programme, designing an away day to help plan a department’s future, managing change projects, “nudging” the culture or developing transformation programmes.
Universities have always grown well-rounded academics who can teach and research and adapt to new ways of working - they lead the way and shape the future - but as the turbulence increases, we should look to the organisation to be as perceptive, connected and fluid as the individuals.
HEA Development Programmes have been developed with the sector to support organisational people development strategies. Find out more about how they can support you and your faculty.