This is a stressful and complicated time for colleges and universities, demanding unprecedented change. The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown us into unchartered territory.
Dealing with unexpected and rapidly accelerating crises often demands a rethink of behaviours, operating procedures and working practices. University and college leaders may feel compelled to take immediate action - and while knee-jerk responses may be essential in situations involving immediate danger, they can be counter-productive, sometimes resulting in conflicting messages and duplication of effort.
A more measured approach can be powerful. Empowering teams to be creative, finding ways to overcome challenges, releases know-how. It enables team members to coordinate and implement effective solutions in their areas of expertise. No single person can solve all the problems - but with the combined wealth of knowledge across an organisation, most answers can be found. Taking a few hours to develop a well thought out approach can save a significant amount of time in the long run.
The essential elements
Before instigating any change or formulating plans, it’s important that leaders ensure all members of a team are clear and in agreement about desired outcomes and impact. These provide a set of values to refer to when resolving any conflicts of interest.
An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) can help assess a team’s capability to deliver outcomes. Furthermore, it highlights where resources need to be rebalanced in order to achieve targets.
With a large department or team, leaders might consider dividing people into subgroups and tasking each to produce a SWOT analysis. This will provide a much richer picture of aggregated strengths and gaps.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
What are your university or college’s priorities? Does every member of staff fully understand the purpose and benefits of intended outcomes, and their potential effects?
Setting clear priorities enables leaders to consider the relative importance and urgency of each element, as well as the practicalities of resourcing and financing actions. Explaining why aims and objectives have been set also supports teams to focus on what really matters and consider variables that might impact on, for example, time, finance or availability of a resource.
At this time of flux, it’s crucial that universities and colleges keep communication channels open and facilitate collaboration. This will enable the coordination of actions and allow resources to be pooled and shared.
The initial communications to staff, communicated by senior leaders, is about keeping all stakeholders apprised of the situation and in touch with the overall organisational approach. It can also define which channels of communication will be used by the senior management team, and determine the teams involved in addressing the situation.
Communication channels exist to enable the sharing of, and feedback on, information about experiences, practices, ideas, issues and lessons learnt and, where appropriate, information from other organisations.
In praise of experts
People working in universities and colleges are experts in their roles. In every functional area, there will be examples of creative thinking and good practice. When addressing an unexpected situation, making this expertise available ensures that efforts are not wasted in developing knowledge that already exists. Moreover, connecting people with similar ideas and concerns across different departments and areas will ensure that the best ideas are aggregated and available centrally.
Microsoft Teams or Google G Suite have productivity tools such as video conferencing and document collaboration. These tools allow people to collaborate in real-time.
As universities and colleges settle into new ways of working necessitated by coronavirus, the process of capturing information will embed into everyday practice. When reflected on later, careful consideration of how this crisis was handled will inform the review of organisational goals, policies and procedures.
Ultimately, encouraging teams across the organisation to actively seek opportunities for mutual support will help identify supporting actions and mitigate barriers to progress. Facilitating improvements at this level, with the support of specialist staff, reinforces the values of ownership and continual improvement for all aspects of an organisation.
Empowering team members to make improvements to the processes they support will be important as this unprecedented situation evolves. Mentoring and coaching can support teams to learn from their experiences for the benefit of all.
The Jisc responding to coronavirus blog includes a number of links to resources and blogs, and recordings from recent online briefings. For further advice and guidance across a broad range of subjects, Jisc members can contact the subject specialist team.