Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Scholar says dislike of planning leads to poor choices by universities. David Matthews reports

March 7, 2013

Crucial decisions about a university’s future are taken too quickly and are often dominated by the views of the vice-chancellor, according to an academic who has devised a new way to make choices about an institution’s direction.

Ashraf Labib, a professor of operations and decision analysis at the University of Portsmouth’s business school, is one of five authors of a paper that sets out how universities can make better-thought-out and more consistent decisions.

The technique, known as “analytic hierarchy process”, also gives staff a route to overrule the vice-chancellor.

It involves asking university decision-makers such as senior managers and heads of departments to rank pairs of priorities - research ranking and student satisfaction, for example - against each other. They are also asked to choose how to allocate hypothetical sums of money between different spending options: perhaps by deciding between installing a new IT system or developing human resources.

The answers of staff members are weighted differently according to the circumstances: in a recession the finance director’s priorities would be taken into greater account, for example. The result is a “tree” of university priorities extending from “ultimate goals” at the top to specific plans at the bottom, Professor Labib explained.

A crucial feature of this method is that it checks to see if respondents’ priorities are consistent, he said, adding that current planning methods gave no feedback on this.

Professor Labib also argued that universities fail to conduct “what if” analysis, which incorporates ways to alter a decision if external circumstances change.

The method allows for its outcomes to change if, for example, the economy tips into recession or the market becomes more competitive.

Under the technique, a university’s mission and future direction is decided by several people, unlike in group decision-making, where choices tend to be “influenced by the most important person”, Professor Labib said.

In universities, “not enough time and money is spent making decisions”, he continued.

The new method could prove time-intensive as each respondent had to rank 204 pairs of priorities, the research says.

But Professor Labib countered this concern by drawing a comparison between Japanese and Western manufacturing companies, explaining that because the former spend “lots of time in planning, then the execution comes much faster”. In the West, however, less time was spent on planning, thus risking a “cycle of errors”.

Universities in the UK devoted relatively little time to planning because of its “monotonous” nature or because of the “ego” of those involved, he speculated.

Professor Labib said he hopes the decision-making method will be rolled out in faculties at Portsmouth and at other universities.

The paper, “Formulation of Higher Education Institutional Strategy Using Operational Research Approaches”, was published in the journal Studies in Higher Education.

Professor Labib’s co-authors are Martin Read, Charlotte Gladstone-Millar, Richard Tonge and David Smith, all academics at Portsmouth’s business school.

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