Homogeneity: the inevitable result of a strategic approach?

Is homogeneity an inevitable end result of a strategic approach to deciding what gets done?

The following presents some evidence to suggest a potential strong correlation.

What is the strategic approach?

In Jones and Clark (2014) we suggested that contemporary universities (along most other organisations) increasingly use a strategic approach to decide what work gets done. We described strategy as

following a global plan intended to achieve a pre-identified desired future state.

It’s where a bunch of really smart people get together. They analyse the current situation, identify the requirements and the challenges, and then decide that the entire institution should do X. Where X might include: a particular strategic vision; a single set of graduate attributes for the entire organisation; a particular approach to branding and marketing; the selection of a particular information system etc.

Once the strategic decision is made, the entire organisation becomes focused on moving toward the various institutionally approved strategic goals. Doing anything else is seen as inefficient, inappropriate, and is to be rooted out.

The underlying aim of the strategic approach is differentiation. To set the institution apart from the other institutions. To give various stakeholders/customers/clients a reason to go to this institution first.

How does that work out for them?

It’s Hard to Differentiate One Higher-Ed Brand From Another

This page reports on a study of 50 US-based higher education institutions and includes quotes such as (emphasis added)

found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status….
statements may accurately represent the broad views and aspirations of education leaders and their institutions. And they probably differentiate the institutions from financial service and retail companies

Interestingly the suggested solution to this problem is to forge “a strong organizational identity only starts with establishing and committing to a clear and differentiated purpose, brand and culture”. i.e. yet another strategic approach.

The sameness of graduate attributes

Few a few years know there’s been a fetish that has required each Australian University to develop their own set of graduate attributes. These are meant to indicate what are the unique attributes of a graduate of that institution. To demonstrate the unique value that the educational experiences offered by institution adds to the development of their customer student. Surely this must be the most obvious place of differentiation and distinction. Something the truly captures what is unique about each university.

Oliver (2011) does a scan of the literature and practice around graduate attributes identifies that

Universities’ most common generic attributes, apart from knowledge outcomes, appear to cluster in seven broad areas:

  1. Written and oral communication
  2. Critical and analytical (and sometimes creative and reflective) thinking
  3. Problem-solving (including generating ideas and innovative solutions)
  4. Information literacy, often associated with technology
  5. Learning and working independently
  6. Learning and working collaboratively
  7. Ethical and inclusive engagement with communities, cultures and nations.

(p. 2)

Strategic Information Systems

And the other fad over recent years has been the adoption of Strategic Information Systems such as ERPs and LMS. If the institution adopts the same system and works effectively together to leverage its capabilities we will be able to gain a competitive advantage over the opposition. Well, no.

Over 20 years ago, Ciborra (1992) argues

Tapping standard models of strategy analysis and data sources for industry analysis will lead to similar systems and enhance, rather than decrease, imitation (p. 297)

Which is why e-learning within Universities is increasingly infected by LMS-based courses using institutional standard course site designs, a digital repository, a lecture capture system, an e-portfolio, and a couple of other standard systems offering the same broken experience. Whether your LMS is open source or not, typically doesn’t make a difference.

The solution

Ciborra (1992) suggested

How then should “true” SISs be developed? In order to avoid easy imitation, they should should emerge from from the grass roots of the organization, out of end-user hacking, computing, and tinkering. In this way the innovative SIS is going to be highly entrenched with the specific culture of the firm. Top management needs to appreciate local fluctuations in practices as a repository of unique innovations and commit adequate resources to their development, even if they fly if the face of traditional approaches. Rather than of looking for standard models in the business strategy literature, SISs should be looked for in the theory and practice of organizational leaming and innovation, both incremental and radical. (p. 297)

Or as we argued in Jones and Clark (2014)

Perhaps universities need to break a little BAD?

Instead, universities like most organisations, are attempting to solve the problems of the strategic approach by doing the strategic approach again (but we’ll do it better this time, promise).

Insanity by Albert Einstein by Mimsen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Mimsen 

References

Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297–309.

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