Cultural clashes derailing mergers

November 8, 2002

Significant numbers of university mergers collapse because institutions fail to recognise differences in the ways potential partners operate.

Management consultant Paul Thomas said that universities that were planning merger were in danger of being driven by commercial pressure while neglecting cultural factors. "Not taking account of cultural differences between two partners is one the biggest sticking points," he said.

Everything from organisational structures to contracts of employment needed to be scrutinised from both sides of the fence, he said. Whether or not students were referred to as customers, whether courses were "market-driven", or whether senior management got cars or chauffeurs could threaten an otherwise strong case for merger, he added.

Mr Tomas is helping some 50 universities to cope with restructuring. "The history of mergers in the private sector is not one of overwhelming success, and the same problems will occur in higher education. You can decide you want to merge, you can work out the finance and tell people they are working for a new institution, but they will decide for themselves whether or not to commit. People take much longer than organisations to change."

As part of his Universities Leading Edge Programme, Mr Thomas gets institutions to carry out a "culture mapping" exercise, spelling out day-to-day practices that may turn out to be barriers to successful merger.

The programme was set up in 1995 by a group of northern universities. It was initially run from Leeds University where Mr Thomas was project director.

He now runs the programme as a private consultancy in universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol, Essex, University College London and Imperial College London.

"There are different cultures operating even within one institution and two may be diametrically opposed," he said. "But often it's the apparently small things - whether you address people by their first name - that can be the biggest hurdles. Universities are hierarchical places and are particularly rich in rituals and routines and these need to be understood and communicated thoroughly at the earliest opportunity."

The programme is designed to help senior managers negotiate the repositioning of the higher education sector. It focuses on the impact of change.

"Getting financing right is usually a priority, but there is the danger that everyone is concentrating so much on the merger that objectives are lost sight of. Being clear about goals from the outset is crucial to success, as is understanding the implications for both staff and students," Mr Thomas said. "People are concerned about how change will affect them, their families, their mortgages and so on. Let them know as soon as possible."

Mr Thomas cited the building society sector whose restructuring has led to complaints from customers who believed levels of service were being diminished. "Ask yourself whether students are at risk of being perceived as insignificant to a huge new institution."

Ultimately, managing a fundamental transition points to the need for managers with experience of change, who appreciate that people need help and time - lots of it - to adjust.

"Universities have suffered from a lack of understanding about the complexity of change," Mr Thomas said. "It is vital to realise that a merger, or similar fundamental organisational change, is not an academic exercise. These are real people and there could be a lot of casualties. Providing staff with insufficient information will result in confusion, animosity, poor morale and, potentially, industrial action."

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