Anka Mulder


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How to do more and less administration or: the ambidextrous organisation

The changes at universities and in their surroundings have had an effect on the life of academics. But how about the hundreds of people in the support staff at every university? I believe that support services have to strengthen their administrations and become less administrative at the same time.

Universities were set up as teaching institutions initially. In the last century, when many companies dismantled their R&D centres, research moved to universities and became a strong second second pillar of a university. Nowadays, universities have gained yet another function and are also seen as important drivers of regional economic growth and innovation, transferring knowledge to business, attracting talent and companies.

So universities acquired more roles. They also got more students. When student numbers grew, so did government spending on higher education, and governments placed a stronger focus on transparency, efficiency and accountability. For universities and their staff, this meant more administrative duties, accounting for how they spent their money, organised quality assurance, dealt with ethics and integrity, etc. Universities administrations grew and professionalized as a consequence.

Other recent developments included growing competition over research funding, management of research projects, the introduction of online education, technology transfer between universities and business, and innovation in pedagogy.

These changes have had different effects on the work of support staff. To help a university with its innovation process is something completely different than running an efficient and accountable administration with operational excellence. The first type of organisation rocks the boat, the other operates a ship steady as she goes. Both types require different skills and cultures.

This is sometimes described as ambidexterity, i.e. being both left and right handed. Organisational ambidexterity refers to an organisation that is adaptable and able to cope with tomorrow’s changing demands and at the same time is able to manage the day to day business efficiently.

For a long time, university support services have focused on the latter. They became more efficient and perfected their administrative excellence. Harmonisation, centralisation and lean management were key words. Such organisations did not embrace experimentation, creativity or flexibility. The fact is, however, that universities need support services that do this as well as being efficient.

It is easy to go from one type of organisation (the operational and efficient one, focused on accountability) to the other (the flexible organisation that services innovation). But the real challenge is to be both.

So what does this look like in practice? It is an HR department with a 100% accurate salary administration and bespoke talent recruitment services. Or IT that makes sure that the Wifi always works, and that is also involved in new developments around online education and MOOCs. An international office that deals with thousands of student applications efficiently, and is also able to help that one student whose visa documents got lost. In short, a reliable administration that helps the university to comply, and that agile at the same time.

This may not sound too difficult, but it is good to know that in real life less than 1% of all people are ambidextrous.


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