As with your mission statement, your values should describe something of how your organisation currently is, less what it wishes to become. That said, there is something aspirational about the notion of values. A commitment to value ‘Excellence in service delivery’, however, is not a claim that all your services are always faultless; it is a statement that as a principle you will not compromise on service quality and that the pursuit of excellence will guide the decisions you make and the contracts you enter into.
Defining your values should be a creative and collaborative process. Who and how to involve people is addressed more fully in the next section but the general principles of obtaining as wide a representation of views as possible and pursuing the most constructive and creative ways of capturing them are also worth mentioning here. It is also a process which must be handled with sensitivity. Attempts to define your institution’s values will inevitably touch on issues of individual ethics, morality and beliefs. Encouraging such introspection is a valuable part of the process and an important one in making people see the relevance of institutional values to them as individuals, but is also one which, if not handled with tact and diplomacy could risk surfacing tensions and alienating rather than including people.
Reflecting on how those who come into contact with your institution viewed the experience can help ensure that your values actually reflect your institution. Audit reports, staff and student satisfaction surveys and the reflections of associated, but independent, people such as governors can all provide a steer in this direction. Perhaps a strikingly high number of such sources make particular mention of the friendly atmosphere, the commitment of staff or the quality of the facilities. In themselves these might not represent ready-made values, but might lead the way to the underlying values which make them possible.
Just as with your mission statement it is important that your values are supported by some sort of evidence. For every value you identify it should be possible to point to several, hopefully many, examples from all corners of the institution of that value in action: how it has influenced a decision that has been made or positively contributed to an aspect of institutional life. Such a process can also be used to help move beyond the general and hackneyed such as ‘respect for people’ towards something more relevant and informative by encouraging you to reflect on how such respect has previously been demonstrated or why it was given such a high priority in that particular circumstance and to what effect. In doing so what may emerge is a far richer and more illustrative value that is routed in the reality of your institution.
There need not be any self-imposed limit on the number of core values you define and you should include as many as you feel are required to reflect your institution’s traits and priorities. A quick scan through a random selection of college and university websites suggests that the average number of core values listed is around six, with ten being the most and three the least. What matters most is that you have captured the essence of what it is that makes you the institution you are.
Values are often described by one or two words (e.g. ‘student focus’, ‘high performance’, or ‘inclusiveness’). However, as in the example from the Cooperative included in the previous section, it is often useful to further elaborate on this with a short accompanying sentence that can help define its particular relevance or how it influences the work of the organisation. Once again this can help guard against over-generalisation and provide the opportunity to demonstrate its roots and relevance to the institution.
Other techniques used to help make the values memorable include the use of acronyms (with the first letter of each value spelling out a central key word (eg 'respect').
Living the values
Once again, institutions must resist the temptation to treat the publication of their core values as the end of the process. In order to be effective the values must be something shared, adopted and believed in by the organisation as a whole – otherwise they represent just another hoop jumped through and just another page on the website. It may well be worth regularly monitoring the views of staff and students about the values, their relevance and what progress is being made towards them to reassure you that they are continuing to serve a useful purpose.
Repeated examples of discrepancies between stated values and organisational behaviour are clearly likely to dent enthusiasm for the values and belief that they mean anything. Sometimes such discrepancies might not be immediately apparent but with a moments reflection it is easy to see how some of the following examples could have a negative influence on people’s perception.
- Offering reserved parking spaces for senior management whilst ‘believing in staff equality’
- Closing down socially important, but unprofitable, courses whilst ‘behaving in the interests of society’
- Banning all staff use of social networking sites (even during breaks) whilst ‘trusting our staff’
- Preventing use of university facilities by local residents whilst ‘respecting our local community’
There may be perfectly good operational reasons behind each of these decisions, but, perhaps, a moment’s pause to reflect on how the intended decision squares with the institution’s values may have lead to an alternative approach being adopted. If not, and if your values are simply put to one side each time circumstances dictate an alternative course is taken, perhaps you really should question whether your stated core values are anything other than just fine, but ultimately meaningless, words.
As with your mission and vision statements, your values should be integrated into all relevant aspects of institutional life. Obvious examples of where your values can play a useful role in reflecting and reinforcing the essential nature of your institution include:
- During the recruitment and selection process by informing potential applicants of the type of institution they are considering joining and giving them the opportunity to reflect on whether they share these values
- During regular staff appraisal processes by incorporating the values into the criteria by which you assess the performance of staff and set goals for the coming year
- As part of the decision making framework employed by management by encouraging a consideration of ‘is the decision we are about to make in tune with our agreed values?’
- Promoting the values through regular stories within college or university magazines about inspiring or successful examples of staff and students ‘living’ the values, possibly combined with an annual award for the individual or team who have done most to exemplify one or more value
The institutional experience
"In practice we tested the values using a combination of an exercise we described as ‘values in action’, which was inspired by the ‘Living the Values’ guidance. This involved asking a selected group of staff teams to translate the existing list of values into practical examples in their working life, and within their experience of service delivery. Where this proved difficult we asked staff to suggest alternative words and/or to identify gaps in the existing list.
Alongside this staff consultation exercise, I also convened a meeting with the president of our Students’ Union, to get some student input as to whether the values were those he and his sabbatical team would expect to be espoused by a service department such as ours.
Among the helpful feedback received, an interesting debate emerged around the concept of ‘transparency’ – some colleagues believing this to be an important concept; others feeling it was a meaningless management ‘buzzword'; some feeling concerned that it contradicted their professional requirements around confidentiality; and the student view that it suggested an inappropriate degree of openness which could lead to user concerns around trust.
The final product is a very straightforward list of eight words, which we have presented in simple alphabetical order within the strategy."
University of Sheffield