Monday, 11 July 2016

Vanilla Strategies

Just a little bit 'meh'
Last month I mentioned that the University of Kent had been going through the process of drafting a new Institutional Plan, with an associated Research and Innovation Strategy. The strategy’s vision is for the university to be “clearly recognised worldwide for the quality of its research...[to undertake] radical and innovative research [with] broader be exploited through partnership with those in industry, government, charity or the cultural sector...[and] embedding research-led teaching.”

Excellent research, impact, partnership, and research-led teaching. Sounds familiar? If it does, it’s no surprise. Almost every university has something similar: essentially they all want to host the best researchers undertaking the best research with the best partners, which will result in the best impact and best teaching. Sometimes interdisciplinarity is thrown in, sometimes mention is made of specific disciplinary priorities.

Thus, you have Imperial College London which “‘will maintain world-class core academic disciplines...encourage multidisciplinary research...embed our educational experience in a vibrant, research-led, entrepreneurial environment...strengthen collaboration with business, academia, and non-profit, healthcare and government institutions…[and] attract and retain the talented and diverse staff.”

At the other end of the REF scale, the University of Derby will “generate distinctive and impactful research” and the University of Worcester “will continue to produce world-class research...with high academic, societal, cultural and economic impact...[and] attract talented individuals.”

In between, institutions such as the University of York “will conduct research of the highest quality that has the potential to be world leading and world changing...will seek to ensure that our research has impact beyond academia by engaging with and influencing people and organisations in order to affect policy and practice...nurture sustainable partnerships..[and do so] by recruiting and retaining the best researchers at all career stages.”

As well as the same goals, the strategies share the same aspirational but vacuous language. It’s the same language used by the research councils when they explain how distinctive they are. A couple of years ago I parodied this in a blog post entitled EPSRC Bingo, giving people the opportunity to tick off the buzz words in any strategic presentation, such as ‘leverage’, ‘sustainable’, ‘transformative’ and—of course—the ever present ‘excellence’.

Corporate strategies are a product of the second half of the twentieth century. Before the second world war strategies tended to be confined to war and politics. Even early corporate strategies, such as that for General Motors, were somewhat militaristic and hierarchical, with the foot soldiers of middle management expected to follow orders passed down from on high.

By the 1980s this model was looking decidedly creaky, and today it looks positively arcane. The breathless development of technology and subsequent societal changes makes even the most thrusting five-year strategies appear static. As a result, corporations have reined back from prescriptive strategies that provide instructions, and instead offer only the most broad and generic of ‘ambitions’.

This is compounded in higher education because, ultimately, all institutions have roughly the same goal: to extend the boundaries of knowledge. I mean, who doesn’t want to do the best research with the best researchers? As Claire Taylor, pro vice-chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University Twickenham said in Times Higher Education, “University strategic plans all [seek] to achieve common goals using a language of superlatives and meaningless aspiration: ‘to be world leading in x’; ‘to be the best at y’; ‘to be internationally renowned for z’.”

If we all want the same thing, and there’s a limited number of ways of achieving it, then why do we feel the need to articulate a strategy? First, it’s because HEFCE demands that a university ‘plans and manages its activities to remain sustainable and financially viable’. But second, I believe that strategies exist to reassure everyone working at the institution that those at the top know what they are doing. Like pilots on commercial planes, a strategy is essentially there just to reassure those on board that they’re not going to crash.

However, wouldn’t it be refreshing if a strategy actually spoke its mind? If a university took courage and carved out the distinctiveness of its claim? Bruce Henderson, writing in the Harvard Business Reviewpointed to Darwin to emphasise the validity of this viewpoint in the natural world. “On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, outlines a more fruitful perspective and point of departure for developing business strategy: ‘Some make the deep-seated error of considering the physical conditions of a country as the most important for its inhabitants; whereas it cannot, I think, be disputed that the nature of the other inhabitants with which each has to compete is generally a far more important element of success.’”

Being different leads to progress, but there’s always a danger that it can equally lead to extinction. And this is perhaps at the heart of the problem of bland research strategies: no one wants to put their head above the parapet. If everyone else is advocating being a “world-class, world-changing university” (yes, we’re looking at you, Glasgow), then so should we. So, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future we’re stuck with strategies that are likeable enough, that broadly define what we do, but are just a bit, well, vanilla.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in February 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment