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Resilient organisations and higher education – it’s all about purpose, context and value systems

22 Sep 2020 | Kim Ansell In the fifth in the series of blogs and events exploring ‘Developing sustainable resilience in higher education’ – our member benefit theme for September 2020 – Kim Ansell, Advance HE Senior Advisor and Managing Consultant, explores organisational resilience through the lens of integrated thinking.

Originally a scientific term, 'resilience' of a material is its ability to return to its original shape after being bent, compressed or stretched. This type of language, when applied to an organisation suggests ‘stick to plan’, ‘keep to budget’ or ‘deliver the KPI’s’. For me this is resilience without context and unconnected to culture, stakeholders or any type of value system; so how has society come to prize the often debated qualities of ‘resilience’ both in organisations and individuals? And, what if organisations need to be pushed off course? What if they need to be challenged to chart a different path, to embrace new ways of working, different objectives and outcomes in order to be sustainable and thrive in the future? What if they need to discover a new shape and purpose? 

This blog will explore the idea of organisational resilience through the lens of integrated thinking, with an emphasis on trust, transparency and inclusivity. In her blog, ‘The art of the resilient teaching team’, my colleague, Dr Catherine Hack, likened success to two well-established elements of ant behaviour, “co-operative working and communication, allowing an ant colony to complete complex tasks beyond the capabilities of any one individual”. Integrated thinking is about “enabling organisations to deliver their purpose to the benefit of their key stakeholders overtime. It is about creating and preserving value and enabling better decision-making based on interconnected information”(IIRC 2020), with collaboration and communication at its core. 

In this blog series about developing sustainable resilience, we have focussed on The American Psychological Association definition of resilience: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (Building your Resilience, 2012). In terms of organisational resilience, the British Standards Institute (2019) offers a further definition:

“The ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”

When organisations are pushed off course, or facing adversity, trauma or threat, I would argue that purpose should be their anchor and characteristics such as trust, transparency and inclusivity could be their guiding light. In his 2019 article, Colin Campbell, Executive Director of Academic Affairs at Newcastle University talked about ‘making sense of the world around us’ and ‘connecting emotionally with our stakeholders’. Based on the concept of integrated thinking, he spoke about higher education developing a deeper understanding of how a university creates value not just for itself, but for its people, its students, the economy and society.

Today, Newcastle University can really articulate why this focus on purpose and the characteristics of integrated thinking increases an organisations ability to navigate uncertainty and change. 

If there’s one aspect of Integrated Thinking that has helped us most over the past five months it’s been the joined-up approach to communicating with colleagues and students. We’ve tried our best to understand their concerns, to support them through difficult times and to harness creativity and innovation at all levels of the organisation that we hope will have a lasting impact for value-creation.  Colin Campbell, September 2020

Integrated thinking and reporting requires a greater emphasis on inter-disciplinary working, breaking down silos between academic and professional services teams and joined-up thinking across campus locations and between disciplines. It can foster greater understanding of aims and objectives, create more collaboration, build trust and promote accountability and transparency – these are cornerstones of organisational resilience.

Transparency has relevance in all geographies and in all cultures, offering potential for a strong narrative thread for organisational resilience, but is often associated with a world of twenty-four-hour news and social media, so it is important not to fall into the trap of using soundbites to be transparent. A consistent and credible story over time demonstrates accountability and builds trust while integrated reporting offers a framework for corporate reporting which can demonstrate this. Lack of transparency is a risk to any institution and in today’s instant message world, where reputation is a key part of the ‘intangible’ value in an organisation, the narrative about your institution is a precious source of value which is at risk if it is not robust and protected. 

In recent years, ‘trust’ is an attribute which seems to be most at risk as pressure grows in and between organisations to meet external metrics, performance measures and keep pace with government policy changes. In the HE sector, institutions must work alongside the regulator, mission groups and the media to build trust by focussing on the value we add to society and the economy. As institutions we must be sure not to say one thing and do another if we want to protect our relationships with students and partners, and also with our own staff colleagues. Loyalty can be lost or won rapidly. And we must seek to build trust for all.

At a time when institutions are facing such uncertainty there are many tools and techniques to help create the characteristics of resilience, but they are not a quick fix. For organisations, they mostly come down to four things; anticipate, prepare, respond and adapt.

The very nature of these words suggests that things will need to change. Even a financial budget is only an estimate for a set period of time and can be reforecast as events unfold. If all the other complex assets that our universities have including its people, intellectual capital, relationships and estates are considered together when we review our strategic aims, then a complex interplay will emerge. Attending closely to this interplay is crucial as we look to respond and adapt to the challenges that the sector faces from OfS regulation, to government policies, to Brexit and Covid-19 (1).

Let’s start with the Board – what does this interplay look like to them? Does the governing body have the right enablers, behaviours, diversity and culture to identify the problem areas and understand the complexity of what lies behind often lagging indicators of performance?  A clear understanding of all the assets at the university’s disposal and the vision that sits behind the change that is needed. 

A resilient senior leadership team also needs to ask itself some searching questions, such as:

  • How well have we articulated our purpose and values?
  • Are we a fair and inclusive organisation?
  • How transparent are we about 'where we are and where we are going'?
  • Do we understand what is important to all stakeholders, particularly our people?
  • What are our options given the resources we have available to us, to achieve our purpose, and what are the risks along the way?
  • What is our narrative? Do we have a genuine and compelling story to tell about how we support innovation, inclusivity and collaboration?
  • Can we demonstrate our value to staff, students, the economy and society? 

Finally, what is the ability of our institutions to provide a way of working which offers people the opportunity to be agentic and co-create the future within a clear framework, understanding the boundaries within which they are working and the support on offer to them? Linking back to the key ideas of trust and transparency, moving forward in a way in which all voices can be heard is the most significant step on the journey.

So whether you call it resilience, integrated thinking or good leadership it is all about purpose, in your context, with your value system and your people. 


(1) The integrated reporting framework is one way of thinking differently for organisations and is being used by some universities. An update of the IIRC Framework is being launched in November 2020 

Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education – Advance HE, September 2020 Member Benefits theme

The suite of benefits for this theme will consist of:

  • A blog series focused on developing sustainable resilience, which began with an introductory piece by Doug Parkin and then four shorter follow-on blogs leading up to the webinar below:

  • Webinar – Thursday, 24th September 2020, from 08.30 to 10.00 BST.
    This webinar will explore and discuss developing sustainable resilience with a guest speaker taking each of the three levels (individual, team and organisation) to share experiences, approaches and reflections, particularly related to surviving and thriving in the current pandemic age.
  • Twitter chat – Tuesday, 29 September 2020, from 16.30 to 18.30 BST.
    A Twitter chat to consolidate upon the webinar and for the community of participants to share their own tools, tips, techniques and experiences for developing sustainable resilience.

Forthcoming Advance HE events and initiatives related to this theme:

Find out more about our work in Fostering Inclusion

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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