13 Possible Higher Ed Ideas from ‘Under New Management’

Mapping each book chapter to postsecondary organizational change.

March 20, 2016

Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual by David Burkus.

Published in March of 2016.

What is fascinating about David Burkus’ new book on organizational change is that not one of his case studies comes from higher ed. 

This is too bad - as I think that story of postsecondary innovation (in traditional institutions) is one of the most under-told stories of our time.

Why business professors (Burkus teaches at ORU) are not looking to higher ed for innovation case studies is an interesting question.

Another question is the degree to which those of us in higher ed should look outside of our own industry for lessons about organizational change. Treating higher ed like any other business seems as wrongheaded as hiring those with no higher ed history to run our colleges and universities. (With Simon Newman’s disastrous run at Mount St. Mary’s the latest poster child for the risks of looking outside of academe for leadership).  

Not wanting to act like a (for-profit) business does not mean that we shouldn’t try to learn from for-profit businesses. 

Under New Management - a fast read with clear lessons bolstered by academic research and engaging case studies - would be a good bet to spark campus discussion.

The short chapters in Under New Management would lend themselves beautifully to sparking conversation in your department, unit, center, or office. My advice is to discuss one chapter per gathering - and then debate if the changes that Burkus recommends would make sense for your institution.

Below are each of the 13 substantive chapters in Under New Management - with some ideas about how they may apply (or not) to higher ed:

Chapter 1 - Outlaw E-mail:

What would happen if e-mail was banned on your campus. Cold turkey. No more e-mail. Would the gears of the institution grind to a halt?

On my campus we have a number of efforts to lower our dependence on e-mail. Platforms such Yammer and Slack have strong followings in some of our professional schools and work teams. Some of my colleagues have made clear that they will not answer e-mail after work hours, on weekends, and while on vacation.

What Under New Management makes clear is that both individual energy and company productivity can be significantly degraded by the e-mail deluge. Individual efforts within the institution to manage e-mail may be inadequate to the time-crushing demands of a communications culture that runs out of the inbox.

Could you imagine your school making a real effort to get internal communications off e-mail?

Chapter 2 - Put Customers Second:

This chapter is all about companies that put employees first. The idea is that happy employees will ultimately offer the best service to customers.

What would it mean to put the people who work for a university ahead of all others? Traditional companies (before Uber) are built on a different labor model than most universities. Much of higher ed (although not all) depends on contingent faculty. 

What would it mean for a school to say that all employees (inclusive of everyone who teaches for the school) are the priority of the institution?

Chapter 3 - Lose the Standard Vacation Policy:

If you are lucky enough to be employed full-time at your institution you may be eligible for a set number of days of paid vacation. Burkus profiles a number of companies (such as Netflix) that have done away with specifying the number of paid vacation days an employee can take.

This seems like a policy that higher ed should at least examine. If anything, people in higher ed seem to be bad at taking the vacation days that they are entitled - and when they do take vacation they are too often on e-mail. What do you think would happen if set vacation days were eliminated at your school?

Chapter 4 - Pay People to Quit:

Zappos pioneered the practice of paying new trainees to quit if they discover a cultural bad fit.

In higher ed we tend to have less hiring and lower turnover  - so paying new hires to quit if the job is a bad fit probably makes less sense.

But what about offering buyouts? Could providing incentives to quit for those university employees who are no longer aligned with the mission or goals of the institution be an efficient way to move the organization forward?

Chapter 5 - Make Salaries Transparent:

The idea of salary transparency is that people are really bad at estimating what everyone else gets paid, and that this confusion causes needless anxiety and expenditure of mental energy. To counter this, a few companies have moved towards reducing the number of salary bands, and to making compensation transparent within the organization.

I’d be curious about the proportion of all higher ed salaries that are already transparent. My understanding is that compensation transparency at public institutions varies state by state.  Can anyone shed some light on higher ed compensation transparency?

Chapter 6 - Ban Noncompetes:

Noncompete clauses seem to be a big part of the business world (except in California where they are illegal). I don’t think that we have anything comparable in higher ed.  Is that accurate?

Chapter 7 - Ditch Performance Appraisals:

A growing number of companies are getting rid of the annual performance review, and replacing the practice with more frequent check-ins. The reasons for moving away from annual reviews range from the amount of time sucked up by the practice, to the damage to the organizational culture that occurs when people are ranked and sorted.

I’ve written in the past that higher ed should at least examine the standard annual performance review practices in light of the changing thinking in the corporate world. From what I can see, there does seem to be some important shifts in our industry to separate performance reviews from compensation decisions - and to develop practices that encourage risk taking and collaboration.

Is this a discussion occurring on your campus?

Chapter 8 - Hire as a Team:

Higher ed, in my experience, already practices team-based hiring. It’s called the search committee. So one area that we may be ahead of our corporate colleagues.

Chapter 9 - Write the Org Chart in Pencil:

Does the org chart at your university reflect the way that you work today? Is most of your work cross-disciplinary and cross-team?

The amount of re-orgs that seem to be going on across higher ed is truly astounding. I keep hearing about divisions, centers, and units being merged, broken apart, and re-combined. There seems to be a movement to create new interdisciplinary academic departments.

Is anyone tracking org chart reshuffles in higher ed?

Chapter 10 - Close Open Offices:

Burkus reviews the evidence that open offices are correlated with lower productivity, higher absenteeism, and lower levels of retention. Many companies have started to listen to this research, and have moved away from purely open office designs.

The reality is that in higher ed, open office designs will continue to spread. Open offices designs offer great savings over closed office setups, and resources are scarce in higher ed.

Under New Management offers some great examples of how organizations can create better open office plans. Reserving places for private work, as well as for collaborative work, is essential.  Developing strong workplace norms of flexibility and autonomy can mitigate some of the worst aspects of the loss of privacy and the increase in distraction associated with open offices.

What is going on with office plans at your school?

Chapter 11 - Take Sabbaticals:

The practice of sabbatical taking seems to be coming to the creative economy. Tech, media, and design firms are starting to offer some form of sabbatical in order to re-charge and re-energize their high performers.

Could sabbaticals ever be extended to the non-tenured (and the non-faculty) in higher ed?

Chapter 12 - Fire the Managers:

What happens when a company gets rid of middle management?  It turns out - not much. People are better at autonomous direction of activity than they are usually given credit.  Treat people like adults, and they will usually act like adults.

Could flat hierarchies work for higher ed staff? The best college and university managers that I know practice a form of service leadership. As managers, they are very clear that their job is to support the people who do the hands-on work.

Higher ed is also full of “player-coaches” - managers who do the hands-on work of their units while also supervising employees.

How have you seen the role of middle-managers change in higher ed?

Chapter 13 - Celebrate Departures:

Burkus ends his book by talking about McKinsey, and how this consulting company has created a powerful network of company alums. McKinsey assumes that most people will leave the company (only a small minority make partner), but that former employees will maintain strong ties with their previous McKinsey colleagues.

Should higher ed follow McKinsey, and think of ex-employees as some sort of “alumni” of our institutions?

What business books do you recommend to generate discussion about organizational change in higher ed?

What are you reading?



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