Organisational structures within universities and research organisations have reached a critical juncture. With their feet firmly planted in a history that goes back centuries, they currently pose a huge barrier to organisations realising strategic ambitions. Unless they can be reinvented research organisations and universities risk being (as it was once described to me) ‘less than the sum of their parts’.
The earliest semblance of what we now recognise as a university emerged in the 9th century at Salerno, Italy, as a medical school. This nascent form of academic congregation evolved into the institutions we see today, usually epitomised by the University of Bologna, established in the 11th century. Here, the division into faculties laid the groundwork for the modern academic division of labour.
The traditional structure is deeply entrenched in medieval European origins and has evolved over centuries into the hierarchical and discipline-based system we have today. Faculties expanded and diversified, reflecting the increasing complexity of knowledge and the subsequent emergence of new disciplines. As new disciplines emerged, they were housed within separate faculties or departments, reinforcing the compartmentalisation of knowledge and research This has been double-edged. While fostering depth in specialised areas, it has led to a siloed approach to knowledge creation. It manifests a unique blend of uniformity and distinctiveness, a paradoxical mix that both defines and confines the scope and effectiveness of research.
The resulting organisations are effectively characterised as vertical and hierarchical. Faculties, Schools, Colleges, and Departments operate as relatively isolated silos, each encompassing distinct disciplines and budgeting for localised activities and priorities. This inherently creates endless vertical layers of authority and decision-making. The academic hierarchy (with ‘Professor’ representing its pinnacle) itself tends to reinforce these silos. Bureaucratic inefficiencies and barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration amass, as do entrenched systems of asymmetrical opportunity and disadvantage – between colleagues, between generations, between genders, between disciplines, between organisations, between national systems, between researchers and administrators and so on. Attempts to address this usually take some form of trying to coalesce these organisational structures around common causes – pillars, missions, challenges…these are all designed to force researchers to act beyond silos while still preserving the silos as organising structures.
Decentralised decision-making vs organisational strategy
At the heart of these structures, we find a more profound strategic challenge – the balance between decentralised decision-making and organisational intention. When faced with this dynamic, we often fall back on tropes of the sacredness of academic freedom, examples of serendipitous scientific breakthroughs, and the researcher-as-hero narrative of investigator-led enquiry. In other words, we will tend to elevate the importance of decentralised aspects over the role of organisational intentions. In recent years there has even been an entire literature grow up around the theme of the ‘corporatisation’ of our universities, and the shadowy neo-liberal armies of senior managers diluting the spirit of individual enquiry (btw, even a cursory understanding of how our research system operates based on accruing individual and not collective benefits will see the irony in this line of argument). What all this does is to obscure the real issue which is the issue of organisational performance.
When I use this phrase, I am not referring to some superficial measure of ARC or NHMRC grant funding, or worse still international university rankings. Rather, I am referring to the ability of an organisation to firstly, have an articulated ambition, and second, be able to realise it. Organisational performance, particularly in dynamic environments like research organisations, underscores the necessity of harmonising the two elements of decentralised decision-making and organisational intention.
In a study of manufacturing organisations, Professor Torben Juul Andersen and colleagues have shown that decentralised, post-bureaucratic forms of management alone are not responsible for superior performance; rather, it emerges from a sophisticated synergy of decentralised decision-making and rational, integrative strategic (organisational) processes. The findings suggest that both decentralised decision structures and central planning activities are intrinsically linked to higher performance. Organisations that can moderate these forces successfully have demonstrated an enhanced ability to adapt and respond proactively to environmental changes and seize emerging opportunities.
Organisations cannot rely on decentralised, non-bureaucratic dynamics. Instead, they require formal mechanisms of rational analysis and operational integration. Combining the agility of decentralised decision-making with structured, organisational foresight, forms the backdrop for how we work with research organisations to design and implement their strategies.
As we work to reimagine research strategy with clients, we look to models like the ‘Team of Teams’ approach, pioneered by General Stanley McChrystal, and the Agile organisational framework as blueprints. These paradigms, grounded in principles of flexibility, rapid decision-making, and integrated strategy, provide invaluable insights for steering research strategies.
The Agile Organisation Model
The agile organisation model eschews traditional hierarchical structures, opting instead for a dynamic, fluid configuration that prioritises adaptability, collaborative learning, and swift decision-making. At its core, it is characterised by a network of teams operating within a people-centric culture. Rather than following rigid bureaucratic procedures, teams engage in rapid learning and decision-making cycles. The model is augmented by a twin emphasis on technology and shared purpose. This not only enhances responsiveness to changing environments but also fosters a culture where innovation and collaboration are paramount. Some of the model’s main features are as follows:
- North Star Embodied Across the Organisation: Agile organisations are guided by a clear, overarching vision or ‘North Star’. This collective purpose aligns efforts across various teams, ensuring that all actions contribute towards a unified goal.
- Network of Empowered Teams: In contrast to top-down management, agile organisations are composed of empowered teams with clear responsibilities and autonomy. This is pivotal in fostering a sense of ownership and accountability, leading to higher engagement and innovation.
- Rapid Decision and Learning Cycles: Agility is manifested in the organisation’s ability to make quick decisions and learn from outcomes. This enables adapting to new information or changing circumstances.
- Dynamic People Model that Ignites Passion: The agile model places significant emphasis on nurturing a dynamic workforce. By empowering individuals and valuing their contributions, the model creates an environment where passion and creativity thrive.
- Enabled by Technology: Technological integration is not just about efficiency; it’s about enhancing connectivity and collaboration across the organisation.
Implementing an agile organisation model entails structuring teams as cells or units focused on specific missions or projects. This promotes flexibility and responsiveness but also requires a paradigm shift in leadership and culture. Leadership in an agile setting moves away from traditional command-and-control to a more facilitative and supportive roles. The transition involves significant cultural change, a redefinition of roles, responsibilities, and work processes. Moreover, the shift demands an embrace of continuous learning and adaptation at all organisational levels. This also requires tailored systems and processes to be in place to facilitate both deep networking across the organisation and rapid cross-organisational learning.
Team of Teams
The ‘Team of Teams’ model, as outlined by General Stanley McChrystal, offers an compelling case study in organisational agility and adaptive strategy. General McChrystal’s tenure at the helm of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force coincided with a period of unprecedented challenges. Confronted with Al Qaeda in Iraq, a fundamentally unconventional enemy, the Task Force had to rethink its operational and organisational strategies. The traditional military command structure, designed for predictable and linear conflicts, was ill-suited to counter an adversary that was decentralised, nimble, and could adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. This scenario demanded a radical overhaul of the existing paradigms. The key lessons from McChrystal are as follows:
- Empowerment and Decentralised Decision-Making: Central to the ‘Team of Teams’ model is the shift from top-down decision-making to a more decentralised approach. This strategy empowers individual teams to make critical decisions on the ground, significantly increasing responsiveness and adaptability.
- Shared Consciousness and Understanding: A shared consciousness across the teams ensures that while teams operate independently, their actions are aligned with the larger mission. This common understanding is pivotal in maintaining coherence in a decentralised system.
- Building Trust and Purpose Within Teams: Trust is the bedrock of this model. By cultivating trust and a strong sense of purpose within teams, members are more inclined to take initiative, collaborate effectively, and respond proactively to challenges.
- Awareness of the Entire Playing Field: Situational awareness across all levels of the organisation allows for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the operational environment. A holistic view is crucial in a dynamic and complex setting.
The ‘Team of Teams’ model involved reorienting the Task Force into a network of interdependent teams, each empowered to act based on real-time intelligence and a deep understanding of the mission. This restructure was not merely operational but also – again – cultural, requiring a departure from deeply ingrained military norms and hierarchies.
The traditional structures we put around research organisations shares some of the characteristics described above – there is a high degree of decentralised decision-making, teams often work with a high degree of local autonomy with a local objective or purpose in mind e.g., a research project. However, that is where the similarities end. The other elements required to make these models work are in short supply. Elements like shared consciousness and understanding, or a ‘north star’ are often either not-present, poorly defined, or not widely adopted and reflected in individual or team decision-making. The individual drivers are so strong that organisational drivers are considered impediments. Similarly, the idea that decentralised decision-making fits within a broader dynamic of rapid iteration, testing, and learning is rarely considered. Instead, decisions are made and played out usually to their end with little reflection or change of course. This is partly driven by the obsession with research ‘projects’ which last 3-5 years and counter the logic of rapid iteration. And finally, there is a complete absence of the kinds of facilitated networks and deep connections across silos. The issue is not silos per se; “the trick is to connect the silos together effectively” and this means systems and processes that are more impactful than simply stating our ‘pillars’ or ‘themes’.
All this inherently limits collaboration and quick adaptation to new research paradigms. The sum total is that it limits the ability of research organisations to tackle the complex problems and have their maximal impact. Complex problems always require multiple perspectives that will span faculties and departments and even the boundaries of the organisation altogether.
When we describe this to clients, we describe a three-tiered cake, where the top tier is an institutional intention that wants to operate from the top down and the bottom tier is made of researchers doing amazing things. What’s missing often is a middle tier comprised of effective systems and process that integrates the two – this simultaneously allows the top tier to influence and direct the activities of bottom tier, while allowing the activities in the bottom layer to rise and become part of the institutional intention, the top tier. To overcome this, we need to design effective systems and processes that facilitate networking teams operating within a people-centred culture, focusing on rapid learning and decision-making cycles. This must be done with a strong sense of the ‘whole playing field’, and engendering a shared organisation-wide purpose, and a high degree of trust.