1.03 Working with Constraints 

The most fervent fans of pop music defend their favourite artists with great passion. And they’ll dismiss those they don’t like with equal gusto. Yet the vast majority of contemporary music acts adhere to a rather strict formula - that is at odds with the importance placed on creativity among fans. The best-selling pop bands for much of the latter half of the 20th century shared staples, such as bandmates (lead guitarists, bass guitarists, drummer, possibly a keyboardist, and of course, a lead singer). Airplay required that songs be around three minutes long. The chorus follows the verse, then repeat. 

Creativity always happens within constraints. Constraints act as the borders for creative work and provide the challenge that makes the process interesting. This is a good lesson to keep in mind when attempting to craft strategies in higher education. 

Higher education places unique and substantial constraints on strategy. Good strategies will navigate the constraints successfully, either avoiding them altogether or turn them into opportunities. Regardless of the approach taken, the process begins with an appreciation for the constraints.

A Few, Key Constraints to Explore

Decentralized Decision-Making

Academic-related decisions are typically left to individual academics and academic departments. Collegial governance fosters a highly decentralised form of management. Consequently, it can be far more difficult to implement enterprise-wide strategies than in other similarly-sized organisations. In the face of such conditions, institutions often try to craft strategic plans that please everyone, but that inevitably fail due to lack of focus. 

At the same time faculty frequently seek to protect their decision-making power within the institution. Faculty associations and unions push back on what they perceive as the increased tendency of university administration to manage academic-related matters [link]
The challenge of crafting enterprise-wide strategies in higher education weakens the sectors ability to realize its potential. 

“The history of American higher education is well supplied with reform movements that have gone nowhere. Despite fervent calls for change in a number of areas, most often issued by a commission with an impressive masthead, nothing much happens--or worse, the only visible result is hurt feelings and a hunkering down by the college leaders on whom change depends.” [link]

Challenges are compounded by the structure and reward incentives  for academic work: individual faculty are encouraged to measure success on personal terms, rather than institutional. For many educators, enterprise issues and committee obligations are secondary concerns, which stand-in the way of more pressing interests, particularly research, but also teaching. 

Success and Rigidity

Higher education is increasingly important institution. 21st century labour requires advanced skills and knowledge. And the institution holds a near-monopoly on widely-recognised credentials used by employers to filter applicants. Governments are pursuing policy changes to increase the number of citizens that attend and graduate with degrees. A growing share of the population now believes that an advanced degree is required to enjoy a sufficient level of earnings and social status. All of these factors and more have led to increased demand for higher education But the success of the institution also dampens any sense of urgency within the institution for adopting new, substantial strategies that involve changes to the way that the institution operates. 

Mutually Supportive Eco-System

Good strategy in higher education requires close attention be paid to the ways in which the institution is linked to other organisations and systems. Colleges and universities operate within an eco-system that includes student loan systems, accreditation bodies, other educational institutions (e.g. high school), government (e.g. funding), and employers. Over time, each of these entities will take steps to align their practices with the other, partnering organisations. 

The relationships within this eco-system can subsequently complicate and constrain strategic options for each institution. But the relationships can also open up new opportunities for inventive strategists.

Criteria for Talent

Two-thirds of a university’s operating costs are allocated to talent (salaries), at a minimum. To a large extent, the institution competes on the basis of this investment (research, teaching). It follows, then, that strategic planning needs to consider how the institution selects and promotes this talent. 

Faculty recruitment is heavily skewed toward applicants that have demonstrated strong subject matter knowledge and the capacity to identify and execute compelling research. This is how students first gain admission to doctoral programs, then subsequently, the basis on which earn their doctorates. Other criteria, such as collegiality,  community service, or teaching are inevitably muted.

The focus on research and subject matter expertise is reinforced by the fact that a disproportionate percentage of graduates that secure tenure-track positions come from highly selective, research-intensive institutions. 

“Research suggests that academic jobs in a variety of fields overwhelming go to graduates of elite academic departments, and that those graduates don’t necessarily end up being the most productive researchers.” 
Moreover, there is a tendency, often overlooked, for institutions to hire graduates from institutions that have equal or higher ranking than their own. (The perceived ‘quality’ of institutions, as noted by Lloyd Armstrong, is based on what he refers to as surrogates of quality, which includes the prestige of its faculty - which, in turn, is based on the institutions at which they matriculated.) The percentage of faculty coming by way of prestigious, research institutions will likely be exacerbated by the growing imbalance of doctoral graduates seeking academic positions and the availability of full-time positions.  

These conditions result in colleges and universities hiring faculty that (a) are attracted to work focussed on research and (b) spent their formative years inculcated in a work culture in which prestige and rewards are based primarily on research and publishing productivity, rather than teaching, community services, and other important aspects of academic work.  

Accreditation and Evaluation of Standards 

Strategists need, lastly, to be cognisant of the influence of accreditation systems in higher education. Broadly, these bodies serve as extra-governmental organisations charged with ensuring the quality of educational institutions and, indirectly, governments interests, public confidence in the institutions, and the needs of employers for which these institutions serve as feeders. 

Accreditors determine which programs and institutions can offer credentials and whether the students attending these institutions are eligible for loans - a critical source of institutional revenue. Inevitably, accreditors encourage adherence to certain instructional and institutional practices. Failure to adhere to the standards can be highly damaging to an institution. In the latter half of 2017, for example, the US department of Education (federal) notified Western Governors University that its’ instructional model made it ineligible for federal loans; fining the institution $713,000 USD 

Yet, as many in the profession have commented, WGU has long been regarded as one of the more innovative institutions of the past 50 years. Despite only being only 20 years old, the institution serves over 83,000 students [link]. Tuition has remained largely steady for several years, bucking sector trends. The institution regularly receives visitors from around the world hoping to learn from WGU’s success. Five US states set up partnerships (essentially franchises) with WGU to bolster their state’s capacity to serve adult learners in a cost-effective, convenient manner. Ironically, the US government previously cited WGU as an example of innovation in higher education [link].

Accreditation systems, like the other factors cited, have the potential to impose significant constraints on strategic plans. But as in any context, creative strategies can find ways to circumvent or topple these constraints if they are well understood.  

Instalment 1.01 What is (and isn't) Strategy?

Instalment 1.02 Competing to be Unique

Instalment 1.03: Working with Constraints