Soul searching, not soul stirring

Many mission statements are leaden rather than inspirational. Matthew Reisz asks if they can justify the time and money spent on them

May 20, 2010

Mission statements form a major part of how many institutions present themselves to the world - and, at least in theory, how they see themselves.

Although the precise terms differ, it is now common for universities to make the effort to define their basic purpose (mission), major longer-term aspirations (vision) and underlying values. There is fun to be had in comparing the self-descriptions that appear in their corporate advertising (see quiz, page 40). Yet mission statements present a far more considered picture, often based on extensive consultation and debate. What is the point of them, and can they justify their cost, especially at times of financial constraint?

Universities are willing to invest considerable amounts of money in getting their mission statements right, as the example of the University of Nottingham indicates (see box, below). Certainly, words that genuinely inspire people are worth paying for. The Conservative Party must have handed Saatchi & Saatchi a small fortune for the phrase "Labour isn't working", but it is generally agreed to have played a major role in helping the Tories win the 1979 election. Given the sums universities must spend on developing declarations of their missions, one would hope that the results read like the products of top-class copywriters. So are they genuinely inspirational, banal or positively leaden?

Some of the strongest advocates for mission statements come from the business schools, where those who teach strategic marketing and management have explored their theory and practice. Nader Tavassoli, professor of marketing at London Business School, sees them as at the core of the brand. "They don't really change. They describe what we do and what our purposes are. When you launch a new programme, you can always ask if it is in line with your mission. They become an element of the discussions about whether to go ahead with something or not. They shouldn't be little slogans we can easily remember, but something we rely on and pull out when making a decision."

London Business School recently returned to its mission statement - which is now "to advance knowledge and nurture talent in a multicultural learning environment for positive impact on the way the world does business" - to see if it is still "meaningful and true", explains Tavassoli. "Our work on values has made us look again at every word, a process that the dean says has helped him when presenting to various audiences."

Because it is crucial that the text ring true, even tiny changes can be significant, at least to insiders. Tavassoli cites a case where "a company changed 'teamwork' to 'team spirit'. 'Having a global perspective' is slightly different from 'being global', which implies a presence everywhere in the world."

Tavassoli's institution recently modified its commitment from making a "positive impact on business around the world" to "positive impact on the way the world does business". Is such a change pointless tinkering, or can it really affect attitudes and behaviour?

Other experts are far more equivocal about university mission statements. From a managerial perspective, says Brian Jones, senior lecturer in marketing at Leeds Metropolitan University, they are "a force for good. They help grow brand value, communicate core university messages, build consent and serve as a totem around which stakeholders, often employees or customers, can rally."

Yet a more critical analysis, suggests Jones, would raise questions about "why university management feel the need to have a mission statement. In part, they act as succour, a dummy, a form of reassurance, a message that spells out and justifies business and management decisions. They serve to unify dissenting viewpoints around a managerial-driven theme or 'vision'."

Jones worries that "all too often university mission statements are little more than a statement of the bland or the bleeding obvious". Where they "present and articulate a world view that is narrow and shallow, irrelevant and devoid of meaning", they can attract ridicule and even protest. Yet they remain "part of the armoury of university strategic change management. They serve as a point of reference through which senior university managers can try to drive change. Whether or not this works is, of course, another matter."

Gerry Urwin, principal lecturer in business strategy at Coventry Business School, worries that "mission statements rarely work in the way that top management would wish ... ". Often the message is blurred by trying to be 'all things to all men' and it becomes meaningless.

"My own personal favourite is that of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company: 'We will build great ships. At a profit if we can. At a loss if we must. But we will build great ships!' That's the sort of company I would like to work for - second only to Coventry University, obviously."

Coventry's own mission points to one of the main issues in drafting such statements. It claims to be "a dynamic, enterprising and creative university committed to providing an excellent education enriched by our focus on applied research", then follows this text with a section on "unpacking the new mission statement", a "statement of core values" and a "2010 test", which translates high-level aspirations into concrete goals relating to student numbers, turnover and league tables. Yet since no university describes itself as lethargic or unenterprising, or as offering an average education, it is hard to know how its mission really distinguishes Coventry from the pack.

Even those who are broadly enthusiastic about mission statements acknowledge that they are difficult to get right and can easily fall into a number of traps. They can err on the side of hazy hot air or give hostages to fortune by being too specific. (Does Brunel University attract or alienate more people by claiming that its "distinctive mission is to combine teaching and research excellence with the practical and entrepreneurial approach pioneered by its namesake, Isambard Kingdom Brunel"?)

Mission statements can seem patronising or irrelevant if imposed from above. But while wider consultation is more democratic and can generate more buy-in, it can also lead to the worst kind of compromise and committee-speak, where the final text attempts to offer something for everyone and ends up with nothing for anyone.

High-flown visions and values can seem ridiculous, incongruous or offensive to employees. And that is assuming they are even conscious of them. In a recent study of healthcare organisations, researchers found that staff had little or no awareness of the mission and values statements, which therefore had no impact on their work.

Graeme Martin, director of the Centre for Reputation Management through People at the University of Glasgow, believes that this is what you are likely to find in most organisations, where missions are drafted at the top with little or no input from front-line staff. Anyone who likes the sound of words such as "communication", "excellence", "integrity" and "respect" should remember that they appeared among Enron's corporate values in the company's annual report for 2000.

If getting mission statements right is difficult in any organisation, it is even harder in universities, where a number of additional factors apply. They are complex bodies with a wide range of stakeholders and often bring together a number of once-separate institutions with their own traditions and values. (Some deal with this by consciously embracing a dual mission - Birkbeck, University of London calls itself "a world-class research and teaching institution, a vibrant centre of academic excellence and London's only specialist provider of evening higher education" - and leave it to others to work out the links between their local and international faces.)

The academic and administrative staff of a single university may span the full spectrum from hyperactive enthusiasm to unyielding scepticism about current management methods. Specialists in local village life may work alongside those who study international relations; advisers to government and business gurus may share their space with critical theorists and radical economists. How likely is it that all of them will ever be able to sign up to the same mission?

Universities also face the problem that everybody knows pretty much what they are, so there is little point in a "mission" that merely tells us that University X is doing something different from a supermarket or an airline. But how else can they differentiate themselves? Businesses can bare their teeth and declare war on a competitor. Komatsu, the manufacturer of mining and construction equipment, proclaims its mission is to "encircle" its rival Caterpillar; Canon's is to "beat Xerox". The University of Cambridge's declared aim is "to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence". There are a number of obvious reasons why this is not going to be replaced by the words "Kill Oxford!" any day soon.

Ancient and genuinely world-renowned institutions are obviously at an advantage here. Few would dispute that Cambridge has a genuinely global reputation for "international levels of excellence". The University of Aberdeen defines itself as "the global university of the north" which has been "at the forefront of teaching, learning and discovery" for 500 years and "consistently sent pioneers and ideas outward to every part of the world".

Internationalism is a badge that most universities want to pin on themselves. The University of Aberystwyth is so keen to do so that it makes the same point three times in a single sentence, telling us that its mission is "to continue to be an internationally competitive teaching and research university which addresses global challenges and is responsive to the needs of the local community, of Wales and of the wider world". The University of Birmingham offers a more scattergun approach, with its vision "to serve the needs of the economy locally, regionally, nationally and globally".

Internationalism is also important to Christopher McKenna, reader in business history and strategy at Oxford's Said Business School, who points to the school's commitment to what it calls the "Three I's" - that it is international, interdisciplinary and integrated with the university. "Those (sentiments) did and do inspire me," he says. "They encouraged me to come and work here and to stay on."

In one sense, he continues, "universities have a very clear mission: to create new ideas and to educate. That means that the mission statements of the leading universities of the world are almost identical." He points out that these implicitly draw attention to institutions' weaknesses as well as their strengths, notably that "leading universities have been terrible at providing internet educational platforms, because they have no skill at teaching to vast numbers".

It is this that leaves a gap in the market for The Open University to step in with a mission statement very different from most others: "The Open University is open to people, places, methods and ideas. It promotes educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential."

When a university is in a reasonably healthy state and can look forward with enough confidence to believe in a vision a bit more inspiring than "survive the next round of government cuts", it may well be a useful process to go back to first principles and define its mission, vision and values. Yet the received wisdom is that the process is more significant than the product.

"The words (in the final statement) are potentially less important than the crafting process," says Julia Balogun, director of the Lancaster Centre for Strategic Management. "If you want to use a mission as a vehicle to harness collective action, you need collective endeavour in crafting it." Nottingham offers a good example of what this means in practice.

This is reassuring because, to anyone remotely sensitive to what makes effective writing and copywriting, the words that emerge from the process are often fairly unimpressive.

In its offering, Cardiff University seems to be thinking aloud rather inconclusively: "To be among the best in the world is the most challenging goal we have set ourselves. We have done so because it is only through working to achieve the very highest international standards in research, teaching and other activities that we can realise the full potential of the academic community that is Cardiff University."

Something similar can be seen at London South Bank University. According to its corporate plan for 2009-12, its mission is "creating professional opportunity for all who can benefit" - with a vision, among other things, "to be the most admired university in the UK for creating professional opportunity". Despite "much of which we should be proud", it continues, "we can and should aspire to be the best in our field. There is no reason why this is impossible ... ". If the aim is to rally the troops to put in extra efforts and achieve spectacular results, it is hard to think of a less inspirational phrase than that last one.

If examples such as these were the product of an extensive consultation process, the reality is that they must have cost several thousand pounds per word. Are they really worth it? Or is this a case rather like the Aesop's fable where the mountain goes into labour and gives birth to a mouse?

THE COLLECTIVE VIEW: Nottingham gets everyone behind mission

"The articulation of the university's mission may be only a couple of sentences," says Thomas Loya, director of planning and management information at the University of Nottingham, "but for us it is the 'handle' of something much larger."

The arrival of a new vice-chancellor, David Greenaway, in 2008 was one of the spurs for the university to re-examine "who we are and why we are here".

Loya is coordinating the process that will lead to a mission statement and clarity, he says, about "where we want to be in five years (our vision for the university), the external challenges, our values, our biggest internal obstacles, our priorities and the most exciting opportunities we aim, as an organisation, to take advantage of".

Consultation, which began last September, has resulted in a text that goes before the university council this month, with a view to its being made public later this year. "The process involved several hundred people," explains Loya, "from every level, every academic and administrative unit (as well as) students, alumni and our governing body members. We had discussion groups, forums, face-to-face consultations and online discussion areas, which ran over about nine months." So what were the key challenges of the drafting process?

"We agreed that we wanted to avoid hyperbole and self-congratulation," Loya responds. "Though there were calls for a more aspirational mission, we have attempted to be gut-wrenchingly honest.

"Some people wanted to cover everything. But we decided that we needed to focus on the core of what we are and not get too complicated. Heads of school had to get their heads above the parapet and see things from an institutional point of view, rather than their own narrow agendas. The democratic process leads to a weeding-out of things not universally applicable.

"It is still a tricky balance. The invitation went out from the vice-chancellor to everybody, even those who don't have computer access, so people want to see the results of their contribution. But a mission still needs to be a coherent, simple statement, not two words chucked in from everyone."

It remains to be seen how coherent the final text will be, but the costs of creating it are bound to be considerable. As of now, however, Loya is unsure of the exact figures.

"Within the area of my immediate responsibility," he says, "we have tracked the resource dedicated to this project, and could calculate the costs of attendance of key staff across the university at particular events, and the costs of support for those events."

Consultation within academic units has drawn on regular standing meetings and so has been "worked into the fabric of ongoing business".

Since a new series of management forums, workshops and conferences has recently been established by the vice-chancellor, "it was only natural and appropriate that the mission, vision and values were among the topics considered in some of the first such events".

The creation of what Loya describes as "a mission statement that arose organically from the organisation" may have many benefits. What can hardly be doubted is that the price per word of Nottingham's "couple of sentences" will prove very considerable indeed.


Management-speak is rife in universities and in advertisements for senior positions. See if you can identify the universities from the following extracts:

1. The University of X is a vibrant, forward-thinking university ... The university is changing fast to position itself among the best technologically focused institutions, and to be world-leading in related research, education and knowledge exchange.

2. X is a dynamic, global university with a world-class research profile and a passion for enterprise and innovation, with an ambition to be among the UK's top 10 and the world's top 100 universities.

3. "The most original innovation in British university education in the 20th century", X now aspires to be the "ultimate campus university" for the 21st century.

4. X is a place of high ambition that has made real progress since it was created in 2001 towards becoming a leading university with a distinctive reputation for research-informed teaching and learning underpinned by engagement in our communities and with employers.

5. Our vibrant, modern university has ambitious plans for its future ...

6. X is one of the leading higher education research-focused institutions and is ranked within the top 100 in the world.

7. The University of X is at an exciting time in its development. As a university with a growing reputation for excellence, we are regularly ranked in the top 10 mainstream UK universities for the quality of the student experience, while our recent RAE result confirms our position as a research-informed institution delivering internationally recognised research expertise in an inclusive educational environment.

8. We provide an exciting, stimulating place to learn and work. Our standards of academic achievement are high, our environment is inspiring and we embrace innovation in all that we do. And with exceptional opportunities for staff development our students are not the only ones who thrive here.

9. X is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing universities with an outstanding track record in teaching, research, innovation and enterprise.

10. The university's new strategic plan, Making the future, sets out X's place as a powerful force in global higher education and as a progressive university that delivers innovative thought and action, with a worldwide reputation for excellence in learning, research and discovery.


1. University of Strathclyde

2. University of Surrey

3. Keele University

4. University of Lincoln

5. Anglia Ruskin University

6. Queen Mary, University of London

7. University of Hull

8. University of Huddersfield

9. Kingston University

10. University of Sussex.

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