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If a real estate company can create an innovation culture, imagine what a university can do? Opinion

Organisational culture is often described as what it feels like to work somewhere, or “how we do things around here”. 

What it has felt like to work at universities, and how things are done there, arise from the historical practices of academic life, and more recent attempts at organisational or managerial efficiency. Some of the biggest challenges in university culture arise when they collide. 

The culture for many academics comes from the journey of learning their craft. This includes pursuing research ideas and “professing” them to students. A thesis defence, and the submission of a journal paper or research grant proposal, has in-built cultural features. One is to keep ideas to yourself - until they are funded - published and undoubtedly “yours”.

This extends beyond funding and publishing to partners and collaborators that individual academics jealously guard hoping they provide an advantage in the internal competition. When a partner approaches a university, requesting assistance with a problem, the most likely response is for an academic to reinterpret the problem to suit their expertise and interest or say the university can’t help. They pursue both before passing it on to others in their university with a better match of expertise to the problem.

Increasing attempts have been made to regulate, govern and manage cultures of academic work. This was previously immune to all but cursory attempts to manage how “things were done”.

Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkeley as an educational economist, famously described universities as “a series of individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance about parking”. The desire for academics to find ways of minimising how much university management intrudes into personal academic work still dominates as starting points in attempts at building culture in a university.

We often claim that we are unique and that commercial, not-for-profit and public sector organisations have a more corporate basis to their culture. Steve Jobs as a pioneering entrepreneur in building a tech company was famous for many quotes, including “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” 

But I guess most university environments are now far removed from the forms of culture that have allowed innovation, collaboration, cooperation, fun and outcomes to flourish in places such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and many others. Even though all will be flourishing, with the best graduates from the leading programs in technology and business.

Many companies would argue that they flourish as hotbeds of innovative, collaborative, cooperation because so much effort is made to create and maintain a culture that attracts, retains and gets the best out of talent. It even applies in real estate.

Why aren’t we focusing on it more? The efforts we make appear limited to communications largely misaligned to the behaviour, policies and symbols underneath. How many of our messages from the chancellery, and the rewards, symbols and policies that accompany them, focus on the culture we want our academic leaders to enjoy in taking risks, working together and taking on the unknown?

Instead, we have become increasingly directive. We tell people not only what, and how much, to do, but increasingly how to do it, without support.  The newly centralised professional support is more focused on checking people have done it the way we told them, and done enough of it, rather than helping them do more of it and better. Why are we getting the culture piece so wrong?

Culture isn’t commonly measured in universities as a start. And what attempts do you see for leaders to shape culture by encouraging innovation, collaboration, cooperation and having fun. This is a burning platform for radical change in strategy, leadership and flatter structures.

It is a time for rationalisation of policies and procedures, rather than of resources. And it is the time for valuing culture. Instead, is all we are doing raising KPI expectations even higher, for fewer staff, and making it more difficult to achieve? 

It doesn’t need to be like this. Strategy undoubtedly needs a reset in our universities. Workplace culture needs a reset with it. We plunged our workforces into content producing digital innovators in research and learning practices and they triumphed. 

They can be trusted to innovate, collaborate and be entrepreneurs. Let’s harness this newly re-found confidence in the value of academic entrepreneurship. Clark Kerr was celebrating not criticising it.

A university that aspires to follow a bold new strategy in 2021 needs a culture to match. The smart university leader will be working on this in seeking to create cultural characteristics of enterprise, innovation, collaboration and trust. Imagine what it could feel like working in a university with a culture like that.

Think how different it could be. And then make it happen.

This was the key message behind the success story of REA Group as one of Australia’s leading and most successful companies. They transformed and disrupted a sector as traditional as real estate. If they can do it, what can we do? They did so with the help of one of the founders of HEDx.

In the most recent HEDx podcast, you can hear about their journey of building a company culture focused on innovation and how this can be the path for our universities. Imagine what that could be like…

Martin Betts is Emeritus Professor at Griffith University and founder of HEDx.

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