Not sure about how to structure your university? Ask 700 pizza-fuelled volunteers

Crowdsourcing a new configuration for the University of South Australia boosted brainpower and perhaps even institutional loyalty, says David Lloyd

July 2, 2019
Giant Rubiks cube
Source: Getty

There is no right or wrong way to structure a university, but there may yet be some novel ways.

For most of the University of South Australia’s 28 years of existence, it has had a fairly industry-standard academic structure comprising four divisions (which some might equate to faculties) overarching a variable number of schools, currently standing at 14 (with one college thrown in for good measure).

Universities have embraced such configurations since the notion of academic disciplines gained traction in the 19th century, as the classical curriculum began to give way to greater specialisation. It facilitates academic cloistering around discrete subject matters – and some might say that it also allows the disconnection of academic allegiance from the goals of the wider university.

The curriculum has evolved over time, with debate around generalisation versus specialisation, hard versus soft skills, T- and Key-shaped graduates and, increasingly, teamworking and interdisciplinarity. But it is not clear to me that the sector has yet optimised its preparation of students for a future in which business and society are transformed by technology. And success will go to those institutions that quickly embrace the required change, regardless of tradition and reputation.

One obvious starting point is that silos cannot have primacy in a connected world. The interesting stuff happens at the interfaces between cognate or even orthogonal interests. So reducing or removing silos should be front of mind, even if it flies in the face of established practice.

We should also accept that “product” is not a dirty word. The primary product of universities is the degree (or, in Aussie parlance, the programme). This naturally contemporary academic unit is the obvious building block for a structure that encompasses both education and research (the best institutions have a strong teaching/research nexus, after all).

But how should such a structure be devised? In his book, Too Big To Know, David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Centre for the Internet and Society, cites many examples where crowdsourcing found answers to problems that had eluded small groups of geniuses. I had already seen some of this potential for myself. In 2013, UniSA became the first university in the world to use IBM’s Innovation Jam online technology to engage the organisation at every level to discuss core business challenges. Almost 8,000 people from 56 countries registered for what we called Unijam, initiating more than 1,300 threads of conversation across 38 hours concerning issues as diverse as how much should students be learning online and how we could develop campus community gardens. This input directly informed our strategic action plan for the next five years and, midway through its implementation, in 2016, we launched the audaciously named Unijam2 to check our progress and further refine the shape of the institution as it grew.

While there was a temptation to move ahead with Unijam3 to explore new organisational structures, we decided to eschew technological trappings when dealing with something so fundamental and ingrained. Instead, we put out an open call for volunteers to come together physically.

More than 700 people responded: professional and academic staff from all levels and functions in the organisation, as well as a healthy inclusion of students. We gave them sticky notes, sheets of butcher’s paper and things to play with: Rubik’s cubes and programme-focused playing cards that they could use to rapidly prototype any number of possible compositions of academic units.

Setting 700 pizza-fuelled volunteers loose on the foundations of academic interaction: what could possibly go wrong? But the chaos was artfully held at bay by overarching principles. One was that the structure had to be built from a combination of extant degree programmes, which reflect UniSA’s distinct identity as a careers-focused university of enterprise. Another was that the recommended changes should have the minimum possible impact on the maximum number of people. And we imposed a goldilocks clause, such that any new structure couldn’t be too big (as that would be unwieldy from a management standpoint) or too small (as that wouldn’t remove enough silos). We were looking for a sweet spot that was “just right”.

It took about 100 iterations, but the convergence was impressive. From 88 random groups of people, we saw the emergence of programme combinations that made sense, mapping to future careers rather than disciplinary traditions. It turns out that seven is the preferred number of things. I say “things” as our current thinking is that these combinations will not be named departments, schools, divisions, colleges or faculties. We will have academic units just as we have professional units, and their precise nomenclature will ultimately derive from what they do.

The changes, which have just been approved by our council, will result in a unique academic structure geared for the future and self-determined by the wisdom of the crowd. Our crowd. And if that reinvigorates our particular crowd’s allegiance to the goals of the institution and instils a sense of working for the university and not just in it then all the better.

David Lloyd is vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Crowd-pleaser

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