There were a number of things that I could have written about today: swimming pools, history excursions, meeting old friends and the latest craziness’s that pass for modern management all came to mind. The last was a close run thing and indeed forms the entry point to this column.
There is a basic principle of management that says if the rules won’t let you win, change the rules. If you can’t change the rules, change the game. If you can’t change either the rules or the game, then stop playing.
In my last column I spoke of the flock instinct that afflicts journalists and commentators as they chase around after a story. They become participants in a game where the behaviour of other members of the flock influences them as much as the thing that they are reporting or commenting on.
Something very similar happens in senior management. They too behave like chooks. The views of their peers in the flock, their success as measured by those views, can come to dominate.
A story to illustrate just what can happen.
Some years ago I moved from Treasury to the Commonwealth Department of Industry and Commerce as that Department’s principal economist. We wanted to do new things, but to do that we had to reduce the power and influence of what are called the central coordinating departments – Treasury, Finance, Prime Minister and Cabinet – in the policy areas that we were interested in.
Those agencies had established an intellectual lock on ideas, on what was considered to be acceptable in policy terms. New ideas were welcome, but only so long as they fitted in with the conventional wisdom as espoused by the central coordinating agencies. They set the terms of the policy debate at officials’ level.
To break through this impasse, those and others like me had to mount an intellectual challenge to the current dominant mind sets. We had to articulate and sell alternative perspectives. We were trying to change the rules of the game.
For a period and especially in the early days of the new Hawke Government we were quite successful. Things happened. But then, the dead hand of central control began to reassert itself.
Many of our senior officers came, as I had, from the central coordinating departments. In the Canberra pecking order, their careers depended upon the assessment of their peers and especially those in the central coordinating agencies. The flock instinct began to re-assert itself. Creativity dropped away.
I make this point now because during the week there was one of those conversations among UNE alumni and ex-staff about the university. Why, asked one former staff member, did UNE either not feature in or feature so low in the rankings so loved today?
If you are bored and want to see what I mean, have a look at http://www.australian-universities.com/rankings/.
Now those of us outside UNE know that UNE has been and still is a very good university. I know from the experiences of my own daughters that it is far better than many of those ranked higher. Indeed, I and others feel that one of the distinguishing features of UNE lies in the fact that it is, in fact, still a real university.
Despite this knowledge, we struggle to get the message across. Part of the reason for this is that UNE persists in playing university games, continues to insist on applying competitive techniques and management theories that have been effectively discredited in a broader environment.
Consider the UNE little boxes ad that has been running on SBS. When I first saw this, I thought that it was a good ad and in some ways I still do because of its focus on the student experience and the ease of study. However, the ad on its own misses a key point.
James Cook is running competitive ads at the same time, targeting internal students. Those ads focus not just on the student experience, but on JCU’s absolute excellence in certain things.
UNE says study with us externally because we offer a great external experience. JCU says study with us because we are the best.
Townsville is a bloody sight further away from Armidale, yet I know that it is attracting students in place of UNE. To add salt to the wound, I know that Darwin’s Charles Darwin University is starting to out-compete UNE in certain areas.
On the rules of the current game with its relative ranking systems based on narrow criteria, UNE cannot win. The university has to change the game and that means focusing on absolutes, on its role as a university.
An excellent delivery system, and that’s all on-line delivery is, does not a university make. It’s just one element in the mix required to make students come.