The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown universities around the world into unchartered territory.
Dealing with unexpected and rapidly accelerating crises often demands changes to behaviours, operating procedures and working practices. People can feel compelled to take immediate action. And while knee-jerk responses may be essential in situations involving immediate danger, hasty decision-making can be counter-productive, sometimes resulting in conflicting messages and duplication of effort.
A more measured approach, empowering teams to be creative in overcoming challenges, can be powerful. It 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 by combining the wealth of knowledge and expertise of people across an organisation, most answers can be found.
Whether during or after the initial crisis stage, taking a few hours to develop a well thought out approach, focusing on the essential elements of any organisational business plan, can save a significant amount of time.
Before instigating any change or formulating plans, it’s important to ensure that all members of a team are clear and in agreement about desired outcomes and impact. This provides a set of values to refer to when resolving any conflicts of interest.
From a leader’s perspective, 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.
Be clear about what is important. To enable prioritisation of actions, it is essential that leaders communicate the purpose and benefits of intended outcomes and potential effects.
Setting priorities enables leaders to consider the trade-offs. These include relative importance and urgency, as well as the practicalities of resourcing and financing actions. Explaining why aims and objectives have been set supports teams to focus on what really matters when balancing those considerations.
When prioritising, consider variables that might impact on, for example, time, finance or availability of a resource. This can help prioritise action more efficiently.
At this time of flux, it’s crucial that universities provide and use communication channels that 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 the channels of communication that 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, a range of information. This might be information about experiences, practices, ideas, issues and lessons learned and, where appropriate, information from other organisations.
Connecting people with similar ideas and concerns across different departments and areas will ensure the best ideas are aggregated and available centrally.
People 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.
Microsoft Teams or Google G-suite have productivity tools such as video conferencing and document collaboration. These allow people to collaborate in real-time.
As universities settle into new ways of working necessitated by coronavirus, the process of capturing information will embed into everyday practice. Careful consideration of how this crisis was handled will, when reflected on later, inform the review of organisational goals, policies and procedures.
Encouraging teams across the organisation to actively seek opportunities for mutual support will help identify further 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.
Ultimately, empowering team members to make improvements to the processes they support will be important as this unprecedented situation evolves. Involving all stakeholders will encourage the ownership of those processes and improvements. This can be enabled through mentoring and coaching that helps teams learn from their experiences.
The Jisc planning for 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.
This piece is written by Allen Crawford Thomas and Mark Ayton, who are both strategy specialists at Jisc.
Allen Crawford Thomas works with HE and FE leaders to develop strategic approaches to advance the use of digital technology in education.
Mark Ayton led development of the Welsh Digital 2030 strategic framework, combining the knowledge, experience, ideas and opinions of stakeholders, and empowering them to become the architects of improvements to their practices.
(Header image source: Freepik)