Efficiency in higher education

Forumula One

by Dr Mark Pegg

How do leaders build a culture of efficiency and value for money in their universities? How do they encourage their staff to see efficiency as an integral part of what they do and encourage them to share their thinking and spread best practice – to embed this in the culture of their institution?

It is normal in world class organisations everywhere. You don’t have to love Formula One motor racing to be impressed by a pit team changing a set of tyres in 5 seconds – an amazing combination of cutting edge technology, brilliant design, planning and superb teamwork – a model of efficiency. Impressed by what they saw, leaders in a surgical team from Great Ormond Street Hospital asked to work with Ferrari and used what they learned to introduce new working practices. They were able to enhance their handover to intensive care – to be more efficient; be more professional at what they do and save lives.

In business, leaders do not survive for long unless they relentlessly search for efficiency and effectiveness from their staff. If their company drives down costs, enhances processes and innovates to gain a competitive advantage. Efficiency is the route to better pricing and higher quality which tends to win more customers. It is the professional thing to do.

If these are normal benchmarks, why is it so much harder to lead staff to adopt the same approach in a university? After all, many of the best ideas that make business more efficient come from academic research, enquiry and discovery. Efficiency through technological change, the internet, worldwide web, mobile devices owe much to the brilliance of academic thinking and inspiration. Efficiency through behavioural change, where new thinking in organisational behaviour helps organisations gets the very best out of their people.

The best leaders capture and embed this genius in a successful university culture, where efficiency is at the heart of what all staff do. The Leadership Foundation develops sector leaders and our experience on ways to do this has been enhanced by new evidence and analysis from a research team with guidance from some of the sector’s thought leaders in a roundtable discussion.

We want to help leaders identify the features of successful academic practices and processes. No one size fits all; it is sensitive and set in the context of a wide range of related issues. We found successfully led institutions clearly identify and communicate their mission and values and define a distinctive position in higher education. The efficiency agenda must start here. Leaders should introduce flexible practices and processes and employment contracts and persuade staff of the benefits for their own careers and working conditions as well as their institution.

They must lead in a more business-like fashion without being diverted from the core purposes of a higher education institution univerisity or higher education college. Today’s leaders must be sophisticated, capable of an adaptable and light touch leadership style, willing to provide their staff with opportunities to develop by learning from and experiencing different practices and processes not only from the sector but also from outside higher education.

To deliver an efficiency agenda, leaders need to develop highly motivated middle managers, particularly departmental heads and deans, to create leadership at every level, empowered to apply better working practices. Having appointed and developed the leaders they should adopt a performance management system that is designed to help staff develop and realise their full potential, rather than focussing on penalising those that under-perform.

In an increasingly competitive world, they should not allow this competitiveness to prevent effective sharing of best practice or the development of mutually beneficial collaborations and partnerships. Leaders should be outward-facing, closely engaging with local, national and international organisations and institutions – to adopt and adapt the best practices wherever they can be found. In rapidly changing world, they and their senior managers in particular, must be highly responsive, keeping themselves well informed of developments that affect the sector and their institution, and use this knowledge to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and threats.

Efficient and creative organisations should be happy bedfellows, but often they are not. Efficiency is the hallmark of any genuinely world class institution and inside their university; they are likely to possess the right tools and techniques in abundance. Leaders should be optimistic and confident they can capture and channel this resource, to create an efficient mindset. It is the professional thing to do.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation, this article is based upon a talk that he will be giving for UUK’s Efficiency Exchange on the leadership and leadership development issues around creating a culture for efficiency.