Culture beats strategy


The other day I was trying to explain what it’s like to work as a research academic to someone who had never had any experience of studying or working in a university.

Let’s call him Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Bob: “So you teach at a university then?”
Me: “Yeah. I’m a research fellow. I only teach sometimes. Mostly I blog.”
Bob: “I don’t understand – they pay you to write a blog?”
Me: “Oh no, that’s not all I do. I’m kind of an academic odd job man. They call you a Fellow when they want someone who can research, write papers, provide advice. You know – think about stuff, come up with ideas, that sort of thing.”
Bob: “That sounds pretty good! I wish I had that much freedom in my job.”
Me: “Well I’m not all that free….Once a year I talk to my boss about the plan for our unit  and we make an agreement in writing which projects I will do; it’s called a workplan.”
Bob (looking confused): So that sets out a set of key performance indicators and stuff?”
Me: “Well, I suppose so. But mostly I decide what the KPIs are and how they will be measured.”
Bob (looking incredulous): “Sounds like heaven to me!”

When I tried to explain the academic work planning process at RMIT to Bob it certainly sounded like I have a large degree of autonomy, yet it is clear to me that I have very little. I am a professional researcher and my work is not driven by my passion for the topic, however much I might enjoy it. All my research has a clearly defined purpose: to reduce student attrition and enhance student experience of doctoral study at RMIT.

What purpose drives your research?

It’s important to think about purpose because we academics have never really been able to do whatever we want. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, to be a ‘Western Scholar’ was to live a complete life of the mind and body – but not in a carnal way. In his book “A world without women”, David Noble shows how early universities evolved out of the monasteries of Northern Europe and kept some of the traditions, such as vows of celibacy. In these cold, drafty castles, communities of industrious (male) scribes and librarians worked together to translate, preserve and disseminate knowledge (of course, only within certain, privileged circles).

These early academics lived, ate, and prayed together. I’m sure these monasteries were every bit as gossipy and political as we who occupy contemporary academia, but there was one key difference. Monks were answerable to God for their work, which I think provided a more singular focus than contemporary academics, who are answerable to many different parties: their disciplinary community, their students, and associated professional bodies, to name but a few.

There is another party lurking in this mix, which we tend to pay little attention to: the government. To drastically simplify the situation, the commodification of knowledge changed the academy forever. During the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘outsiders’ began to invade the halls of academe with their new-fangled Science. I think you know the rest of the story: Science triumphant transformed the world with technology and Academia has become a significant powerhouse for the national economy.

Why am I boring you with this lesson in the history of economics in academia?

Research with a clearly articulated purpose, which also aligns with the interests of the state and/or the university, is more likely to get funding.

Teacher / researchers have to be encouraged to direct their efforts towards the strategic ends of the university and, by extension, the government. Luckily for us, academic ‘encouragement’ is usually offered in the form of incentives. For example, we have a lot of social and environmental problems that need to be solved and governments offer grant schemes to target problem areas. Universities usually have strategic plans to build research capacity in these kinds of problem areas in order to guarantee more funding.

The dilemma for research managers is that, although most academics are naturally curious, their creative energy is not easily channeled. Our motivations to do research, and what we find interesting, are complex and not always in alignment with the ‘bigger picture’.

Research cultures exert a stronger pull in many cases than the ideas of managers: what we consider important and necessary work may not be the same as the government and those making strategic plans for the university, and vice versa. Do you even know what your university’s strategic aims are? I suspect many of you do not, because it’s very easy for us to ignore the financial pressures that are placed on the institutions and let unspecified ‘managers’ worry about the numbers. But the numbers matter, because money buys time and resources for research.

So, what’s your purpose as a researcher? Can you articulate it clearly? How does this purpose align (or not) with the institution in which you are located?

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About Thesis Whisperer
Dr Inger Mewburn is the director of research training at the Australian National University. She writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and coordinates research skills programs for research students. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.

7 Responses to Culture beats strategy

  1. Tim Fry says:

    Great stuff but “So, what’s your purpose as a researcher? Can you articulate it clearly? How does this purpose align (or not) with the institution in which you are located?”

    Really hard questions, I am not sure I can answer them and I think that is a worry :)

    • ingermewburn says:

      Maybe :-) But I called the post ‘culture beats strategy’ because I think, for all the work we do on it, strategy is the weaker of the two forces. It can be amazingly easy for the University direction not to matter to the individual researcher. I think this is a missed opportunity in some cases.

  2. tassie_gal says:

    This is interesting, and something I had to deal with yesterday when talking to the admin staff. How do I make them interested in what I do? How do we fit together? Is this important?

  3. ingermewburn says:

    Indeed – I think the 3 minute thesis is good for this purpose

  4. defixio says:

    I think that universities are most successful when the two (culture and strategy) are inextricably linked. A good strategy takes into account what the culture is, and works out the best way to use it to maximise the institution’s overall advantage. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Good university leadership understands what its culture is and determines its strategy based on those strengths. We have seen some universities move in directions that demonstrate their awareness that their clear strength is more in line with some types of teaching or research, and it seems to be working for them.

    So you need culture before you have a strategy (and how empty are those ‘strategies’ that have no sense of context!), but an active strategy that is self-aware can be a powerful force indeed. So individual researchers and research units can and should happily work away at what they are good at and what they are passionate about. This generates the culture. An institution-wide strategy developed at higher administrative levels knows its culture, knows what its people do best, and bases its strategy on playing to those strengths. In an ideal world, anyway…

  5. badblood says:

    I’m not an academic at all, but a project worker at a government-funded community health organisation. We have our own objectives based on working in the community and seeing where it hurts, and when writing funding proposals we have to translate and negotiate between them and the various strategies and policies applying to our funders. This is often frustrating but it has been a really great learning experience.

  6. Pingback: It’s not about you, baby « The Research Whisperer

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