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From student to Board: responsibility, accountability and decision making

09 Nov 2020 | Kim Ansell Kim Ansell and Alastair Work look at the benefits of a holistic approach to delivering outcomes, from student to Board, based on a culture review in a scientific university community.

The culture of an organisation affects its people, its effectiveness, and the outcomes it achieves. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, put it this way: “The only competitive advantage we have is the culture and values of the company. Anyone can open up a coffee store. We have no technology, we have no patent”.

Holistic, more purposeful integrated thinking supports and sustains an organisation to achieve its vision and mission by connecting the delivery of outcomes with the culture of the organisation. In the third blog in this series Kim Ansell and Alastair Work look at the benefits of a holistic approach to delivering outcomes, from student to Board, based on a culture review in a scientific university community. 

When an organisation grows or changes, either over time or rapidly (such as in the recent 2020 pandemic), ways of working and the prevalent culture are disrupted. Things that were previously strengths, such as informality and familiarity, can become risks to effective governance, leadership and management. Things that were previously taken for granted, such as processes and procedures that have served the group or organisation well thus far, can become a hindrance to necessary organisational agility.

For any organisation to function effectively its governance needs to have:

  • An enabling culture of collaborative behaviours. An inclusive working environment with engagement and commitment. The approach taken to identifying, aligning with, exemplifying and promoting the core ethics and values of the organisation are key.
  • An outcomes focus. Some outcomes are relatively generic and uncontentious, such as the need for financial sustainability, others are specific and contextual and will be drive by the purpose/mission and unique strategy of the organisation.

Relevant performance measures, the provision information on performance and alignment to the strategic goals of the organisation all feed into this under the watchful eye of enterprise risk management:

  • Credible and consistent reporting, the tool with which the department/organisation can demonstrate transparency and accountability and an articulation of how it is making decisions and creating value for all stakeholders.
  • Effective enablers such as policies, structures and processes create the necessary conditions for effectiveness. However, the need to understand responsibilities, accountabilities, stakeholder expertise (with a process for consulting with that expertise), and to communicate/inform all stakeholders about decisions is critical. Most Boards/Councils have a scheme of delegations which helps support this but organisations rarely implement this form of delegations beyond the governing body, and even then development of these principles are limited.

I have worked with a number of organisations to explore these concepts using a tool called RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consult, Inform, 1)  that seeks to address and clarify where accountability lies for a range of decisions. In many cases I have heard accounts of growth over recent decades in terms of student numbers, range of courses, levels of funding and research projects where close-knit communities who were able to operate by consensus were still striving to operate by the same principles. From the perspective of a governing body – which must provide scrutiny, strategic oversight and hold the executive to account –  transparency about roles and responsibilities as well as clear communication is essential to support effective decision making.

While the formal RACI process is typically only used for key strategic projects and processes, it can also be very helpful for internal governance where responsibilities and accountabilities span organisational reporting lines or impact different groups of stakeholders.

However, the key principles of RACI can be used across any organisation in order to create an enabling culture and the outcomes that we strive for when looking to achieve a holistic approach to delivering the mission/purpose and strategic aims. 

From 2018 to 2020, I had a wonderful opportunity to work alongside Alastair Work with a research intensive, scientific academic group (Group S) who had, by virtue of their success over a number of decades, grown to a size where internal challenges were beginning to manifest and create risks to organisational effectiveness and cohesion.  We have seen these challenges to varying degrees in other organisations and they include:
Individuals acting on their own idiosyncratic perspectives creating confusion and misunderstanding, or those who shout the loudest get what they want:

  • Decisions get postponed because no one can agree
  • Assumptions or interpretations are made due to lack of clarity or communication about the outcome
  • When a quick decision has to made, change-averse members of the organisation stall for time, so that ‘no decision’ becomes a decision not to change anything
  • Decisions get made without input from others and later is resented
  • Certain people always get their own way or certain people always make concessions
  • After meetings end, a few people get together behind closed doors and make the real decision.

Following a root and branch review of culture at Group S, which included observations, interviews, document review and focus groups, we set about helping them to formalise their decision-making and create more cohesion using RACI. The three critical things we wanted them to consider were that:

  • RACI has the potential to surface unspoken assumptions about the organisation that need to be discussed and addressed
  • Use the RACI tool to prioritise specific decision-making arenas that were potentially controversial or difficult to manage at Group S – this was the development of strategy and the recruitment of new posts to the organisation
  • Be inclusive, working not only with the leadership teams but also with a broad cross-section of stakeholders and roles, including students.

I asked Alastair what he thought was the most important consequence of the project and he said that, “what started as a review of culture and communications soon became a dialogue across the organisation among and between its constituent groups about their place and their responsibility to contribute to its success.”

Alastair added that specifically, “Group S realised very quickly that they had to focus use of the RACI approach as they were looking to achieve a number of benefits by applying this to their high-value projects and processes.” Indeed, the senior director was very clear that aligning all staff and students and improving consultation and engagement about change is and will continue to be important in these challenging times.    

Alastair and I were both struck by the reduction in stress or frustration that became evident when people realised that something wasn’t their responsibility just because they had been asked to contribute their expert knowledge, or when a specific communication made it clear that while all inputs and views had been sought, that a decision had been made because of specific reasons, which they saw as fair and respectful. Group S particularly wanted to have improved knowledge about what is going on when, where and why. On reflection, and since the work with Group S, it is clear that this is particularly relevant in the context of resilience in the current Covid era. 

From an internal governance perspective and a Board/Council perspective, the RACI process really helps to clarify who should be involved in decisions, what roles and responsibilities of those involved are and who needs to be consulted about decisions. That all important reminder about informing the community of the decisions or outcomes closes the loop and helps to maintain a healthy, transparent culture and well informed community.

In short, RACI helps organisations prioritise roles and activities so that everyone knows precisely what they’re responsible for and what they are not;

Of course RACI is not the only approach to changing and evolving culture in a growing/changing higher education community where sector developments, technology and external environment all impact on the type of organisation they want and need to be in the future. But I would argue that it is a good starting point for establishing effective enablers for decision making and for implementing change that affects culture by clarifying ways of working. I would challenge anyone from student to Board to ask themselves:  

  • What decisions are yours to make?
  • What decisions are taken elsewhere?
  • What decisions are you accountable for?
  • What decisions are taken only with or through consultation with others?
  • What can I control, what can I influence and what must I accept?

All organisations need some clarity and structure to support a healthy decision making culture and RACI is a useful tool for engaging from student to Board. If you have RACI examples you would like to share, or if you would like to discuss if and how it could help your Board, your internal governance and/or your leadership and management, do get in touch at kim.ansell@advance-he.ac.uk

1. RACI is derived from a project methodology called GDPM. (Goal directed project management), innovated in the 1970s and published for the first time in 1984 by Norwegians, Kristoffer v. Grude, Tor Haug and Erling S. Andersen.

Join our  ‘Effective Governance for a new normal’ Governance Conference 2020, 20 November, a virtual conference which offers the first opportunity since the advent of Covid-19  for those with key roles in the governance of our sector to come together, share learning and exchange perspectives.  

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