I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education. Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.
Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities. In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation. Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures. As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed. Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).
There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.
As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA). It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.
‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now. The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others. By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’
So we’re back to complementarity. In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity. Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table. Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles. But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them. ’Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.
An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual. An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project. One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe. But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements. They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.
Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone. But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future? It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive. Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.
The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem. Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course. But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks. Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation. Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning? Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged? We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.