Slides and roundabouts

Sally Feldman on the pros and cons of a consultative management style

September 6, 2012

It was a good five minutes before I realised that something was not quite right. The hotel seminar room seemed familiar enough, as did the forced enthusiasm of the speaker in his slightly crumpled blue striped shirt and his references to such pressing academic matters as cuts, “top-slicing”, “enriched quality”, “value for money” and “point of delivery”. It was only when the next slide in his PowerPoint presentation was a large pack of bacon that I knew I must be in the wrong meeting.

“Is this the higher education Managing the Challenge of Change conference?” I whispered to my heavily jowled neighbour. “Next door but one,” he hissed back, hastily covering his Sudoku with his welcome pad.

“So what is distinctive about academic management?” asked the facilitator brightly, once I’d found a seat among the bunch of slightly morose senior managers gathered round our designated breakout tables. “How is it different from any other kind? You have 10 minutes.”

After some mumbled conferring, Table One offered: “Consultative. We have to be more consultative than other managers.” Everyone looked relieved. We’d all arrived at the same conclusion. Academic managers must be consultative because they can’t be dictatorial. You try telling any thinking, sceptical lecturer what to do. She’ll just refuse. Instead, you must employ soft skills such as coaxing, pleading and consulting.

“Take our School Business Plan,” suggested a colleague from a middle-range politics department somewhere in the Midlands. “I make sure that everyone gets a chance to contribute. Then I and my senior team collate everyone’s views and that way, we all share the decisions.”

It sounded exemplary. In my years as dean, I could never even persuade most of my lot to read the damned plan, let alone contribute to it. We’d just inveigle a few colleagues to put in their bits and pieces and hope it would all make sense in the end. This level of sharing was a revelation. “Not really,” whispered the woman next to me. “I’m his student experience manager and I happen to know he forgot all about it till the day before the deadline, then spent the night writing it. The staff were given an hour to comment.”

This was just a variant on the consultation-by-document practice so routine in universities. “We do that all the time,” boasted someone from HR. “We had a major review of services recently, and sent out the proposals to all stakeholders. And we received bucketloads of responses - quite angry, some of them.”

“So did you act on the suggestions?” asked the facilitator encouragingly.

“Not really,” HR admitted. “We felt the volume of replies showed just how resistant academics are to change.”

And that interpretation exposes one of the deceits of the consultation facade. You look as if you’re listening but you don’t really need to. It’ll happen anyway. HR’s tactic reminded me of the stock response you get in restaurants when you send back food. It’s never “I’m sorry the fish was burned to a cinder.” Instead, the head waiter will say mournfully, “I’m sorry you were disappointed with your meal” - indicating that it’s you who are at fault for having a character that is so ready to be disappointed. So it is with academics when they dare to disagree.

Consultation invites participants to share not so much the decisions as the blame. “But you were all consulted,” is the stock rejoinder to course teams howling about changes to the academic calendar or technicians wondering what happened to their carefully planned Bluetooth installations.

Often, the tactic used is the mass meeting. Staff are invited to attend, usually without too much notice and frequently at a time clashing with lectures or open days. The ones who do show up are usually a motley crew of dissidents with their own personal gripes or with a mission to be seen. They may not be representative, but at least if a decision is unpopular you can blame everyone. “You were,” the bewildered manager will reply, “consulted.”

And when people are genuinely consulted, no one will ever agree - especially in universities where strong opinions are the gold standard. When we were developing our new site at Harrow, we held an elaborate network of consultations. There was the project group and the steering group and then smaller but vital pockets of user groups, on the assumption that these were the people who would actually have to work in the new configurations. Views were aired, proposals minuted. But the result was a morass of contradictions.

Photographers needed to shut out light while fine art wanted as much light as possible, but they all had to share printing facilities with illustration who needed higher ceilings. And what about fashion, who needed access to textile printing but couldn’t be housed near the others because the lifts were too small for the clothes rails? You could move the multimedia newsroom to the forum to make way for animation, but then where would the exhibition gallery live?

I discovered that the best way to consult staff is to make sure they know that’s what you’re doing. Some years ago I embarked on a very modest restructuring. I was planning to move graphics from the photography department to fine art, to join its illustration and animation relatives. I called the teams together and explained what I had in mind. “We don’t have to decide immediately,” I assured them. “If you can see any pitfalls in the plan I want you to tell me. And if you have ideas about where you’d like to be located you must let me know. But I’d like us to have a decision in time for the new academic year.”

“That’s all very well, Sally,” interrupted a vociferous typographer. “But why weren’t we consulted?”

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