University culture woes

When we read of the University of Otago exercise called "Shaping Our Culture, Together — He Waka Kotuia", it is hard not to be sceptical.

Seeing the material online about this project, designed to review and shape the university’s organisational culture, it is tempting to draw parallels with the BBC mockumentary The Office. At any moment David Brent might appear with a guitar singing "the more paddles we have in the water, the better the outcome and the faster we’ll go" as he heads into a "co-creating our culture workshop".

In any large organisation there will always be some disgruntlement, for one reason or another, but should it really be necessary for the university to have a culture exercise to establish core values in terms of how staff work together and support students?

A university spokeswoman has said the exercise evolved from planning carried out by the HR division several years ago and was delayed by the implementation of the three-year support services review which ended last year, rather than being prompted by it.

We wonder about the efficacy of slogan-ridden culture exercises such as this, particularly within large organisations. Various attempts at culture change have been made at the Southern District Health Board in recent years, including work with April Strategy, the United Kingdom-based consultancy firm now hired by the university, and we do not hear board employees shouting from the rooftops about the success of any of it.

In a hard-hitting opinion piece last week chairman and foundation director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies Prof Kevin Clements and historian and theologian the Rev Dr Peter Matheson said many academic and support staff had declined to be part of the process because the actions of management had forfeited their trust.

Pep talks and consultants paid to boost faculty morale were largely beside the point, they said.

They acknowledged the situation in the university was not universally negative, but also suggested that senior academics in science, medicine and the humanities would consider morale was at an all-time low in an atmosphere often described as toxic.

The Tertiary Education Union has also expressed concern about morale resulting from constant change and disruption in recent years with both academic and general staff worrying about job security.

In an opinion piece countering that of Prof Clements and Dr Matheson , pro-vice-chancellor of humanities Prof Tony Ballantyne defended the significant transformation within the organisation which had been required for the university to be "flexible, connected and viable".

He said changes to the humanities, which he had led, had involved months of consultation. Dialogue had not been shut down; rather conversation and argument were the foundation of the process. The new model was developed through widespread engagement.

It will be fascinating to see how open the university will be about the results of the first parts of the process which involved surveying staff and students about the culture, followed by "co-creating our culture workshops" discussing the existing culture, the culture participants would like and the "values and behaviours that will take us there". Analysis from the surveys and workshops is being presented at feedback sessions this month.

Maybe the conflicting opinions aired in this newspaper last week show the university has some way to go before it can live up to the April Strategy’s cheesy acronym about accepting feedback as a GIFT — "I’m Grateful for this Insight, this Feedback is True for them."

And, "When someone gives you feedback, it may not feel positive and may seem unfair. But what if they didn’t give you feedback? You would never know that you have affected them in that way. And you wouldn’t have the chance to learn and think about doing things differently."

 

Comments

All this talk of 'culture'. Is the University a cheese?

The university is losing free speech and free research fast.

Even try to suggest that there are only two genders, or that global warming is not happening, and watch what happens.

Any University where "wrong think" is banned is already in a death spiral, stifling innovation, creativity and free thought.

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