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Leading a university in a crisis: are we planning for the battle or the war?

The pandemic has many characteristics of a global conflict. 

War is often about turmoil and chaos and we have had much exposure to that in the last year. Wars often last a long time. Our need to deal with further pandemic waves, new strands and even new viruses is likely to be on the horizon for a while yet. 

War experiences have been depicted as changing over time and our responses to them evolving through acceptance, adjustment and resettling into some old, or maybe more new patterns. 

By looking back, it is often easier then to see that the world is very different after major disruptions. This pandemic might turn out to be no different, in its impact on higher education in particular. From chaos, to acceptance, to adjustment, to eventual disruption.

Good strategy is essential to victory in war, as is the ability to adapt to its challenges. So how important are both strategy and adaptation to the ability of higher education organisations to survive the current pandemic, and come out the other side stronger?  

Our HEDx podcast guest last week was Theo Farrell, a Professor of War Studies and DVC Education at The University of Wollongong. He argued that strategy is the most misunderstood and maybe overused of terms. He also argued that most people confuse strategy with plans. Plans identify and prioritise current objectives, and assign resources and actions to achieve these. Strategy is what you need when you face a crisis or major challenge, in focusing organisational attention and effort on the small number of things that will deliver long-term success. Plans are for business as usual; strategies are for when that won’t do.

On the HEDx podcast we’ve been exploring how universities need to change their strategic plans in light of the events of 2020. Interviewees have discussed how these high-level plans are being adapted to position universities for a post-COVID future. Farrell is suggesting a whole different approach that recognises the need to put aside current plans, and focus on a strategy for major change to not only meet the current COVID crisis, but emerge stronger.

I am not sure any Australian university has ever pursued a radically different strategy from the other 38. And I do not, as yet, see any using the current crisis to radically transform their business model and fully differentiate. 

The battle seems to be for business continuity and the safeguarding of staff and student experience. There is some attempt at building momentum, from the innovation that happened in a fortnight last March, into improved online delivery. But this all appears to be within our existing business models.

Will we see real strategies, as Farrell defines them, being developed during the current crisis? Has the challenge to our business model been so fundamental that we need a radically different way of addressing the market, and a disruptive way of managing assets, offering products and services, and developing staff resources? 

How radical will our leaders be? How radical can they be, given their means of appointment, how they are measured, their governance and regulatory context, and the cultures they operate in and create.

If this were a war, it might take a while for the winning strategy to become clear. Where will it come from? Will the current superpowers prevail, will local resistance forces prevail, will new powers rise through the turmoil? 

Tweaks of current plans might focus on immediate and important challenges, including business recovery, digital innovation and industry engagement, and achieving increased focus on improving the student experience. Arguably what we really need, however, is a strategy to reinvent our value proposition for a radically different future of lifelong learning, and a complete transformation in digital delivery for transformed student expectations. 

It is likely that we will need new thinking in our universities for either way forward – tweaks or reinvention. New thinking will be needed. It might have to come from outside our current resources, as they continue to be preoccupied and distracted with business recovery. There is a risk, as the new academic year gets underway, and some temporarily increased numbers of domestic students eagerly show up at our campuses to believe that universities have now returned to business as usual.  

I see a need for universities to assemble expertise in digital resources and learning design. They need to execute current plans as best they can, while also considering radical strategy.  That is likely to require accessing external expertise, and not from just the normal large consultancies that have built service offerings out of solving yesterday’s problems.

It might mean a search, in new places, for leaders from within. Where previously vice-chancellors were mostly recruited with backgrounds as DVCs Research, perhaps the time has come for DVCs Education and Academic, with their experience of leading disruptive change, to fill the top job.

But beyond adapting, the sector clearly needs radical new thinking and out of the box ideas. Does it require questioning whether a new business model is needed to compete in the new markets that will be created, in the global arena, and by doing things very differently? In this context, what is the next generation of university leaders going to look like?

What has happened in the past, in times of great wars and beyond? We often celebrated the success and leadership of those who saw us through a crisis, but then looked to youth and new ideas for the transformed world that followed. In higher education, they might be from the rising cadre within our institutions, and might just as likely be from start-ups and new entrants to the sector.

When Winston Churchill declared this to not be the “beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning”, did he have any sense that, in triumphantly leading through a six-year war, he would end up being replaced by new radical leadership when the war was over?

The lesson I see is that winning battles for business survival is one thing, and re-establishing business continuity, post-pandemic, is another. But the real winners will be those that begin developing a strategy now for the period of regrowth, new starts and innovation when this really is all over.  

That is where our focus is at HEDx.

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