Principles of Organising

The success of our new College structure will I believe depend on several important principles, all necessary conditions for making any matrix work; but especially important in the context of a business school, where so much depends on people making things work at the ‘nodes’ of the matrix. These notes are intended to explain some of my thinking behind the second draft of the college strategy and structure, issued 27th May, and are again intended to invite discussion and comment.

 Programme Leadership

The first principle concerns the central role of Programme Leaders.

The University is already rightly placing great store by the development of the Programme Leader (PL) role. The Programme Leader will become – to take an analogy from business – the Asset Manager of our college of business. Just as a department manager in a well – run for profit company has clear ownership over, and accountability for, the profit and loss of their unit, so the PL will have accountability and ownership over the success of their programme(s). To that end, they will need to have full access to all performance data related to their programme, for example student recruitment, progress, and outcomes; income generated; and contribution made to the College. Decision making and budget authority will also therefore have to be devolved to them, so that their responsibility is matched with the authority to act. They will in consequence be held accountable for the improvement in performance over time (quality, student outcomes, financial, innovation) of their programme, and they will in turn hold others – support units, directors, and central University functions – responsible for providing them with the assistance they require to deliver on it.

More emphasis will be placed on the “leader” part of the PL role, especially their engagement with the students under their supervision, but also the faculty who teach on their programme. From the individual’s perspective the fixed period they spend as PL will be an essential criterion for their promotion to more senior levels in the organisation. In their role as PL they will report to the Deputy Head of College (Academic Development); as a member of faculty they will be part of the relevant Community of Practice, and report to the leader of that CoP. The PL element of their total role will comprise a fraction of their time according to the size of their programme, as it is now.

Academic Leadership and the Communities of Practice

Much of the discussion to date on our new structure has been about the potential groupings of ‘cognate’ units into larger Departments, and I’ve come to realise that this (that is, the large Department group) is an aspect of our structure that risks being sterile, as whatever grouping we come up with, it won’t suit one or other of the disciplines. That also forces me to ask what purpose they will serve?

I’m therefore proposing in this second draft that we consider doing away altogether with the Departments, and structure the faculty around these ‘cognate’ groups, that I’d like to refer to as Communities of Practice (CoPs). Just to refer briefly to the literature on CoPs:

Wenger et al. (2002, p.73) define four ‘strategic intents’ of CoPs:

  • Helping Communities – seeking and receiving help from members to solve day to day problems and discussing and sharing knowledge about common issues
  • Best Practice Communities (identify, verify and distribute domain related BP)
  • Knowledge – stewarding Communities: developing and maintaining the knowledge base
  • Innovation Communities: developing new knowledge

Let us therefore reconsider our “Department” structure in this context. Each “cognate” group will form a CoP led by a senior member of faculty. I’ll call these Academic Leaders (ALs) for the time being.

We will therefore now need to consider what these CoPs are, if we decide to proceed with this approach. The Draft 2 deck has an initial look at a potential CoP grouping.

The Leadership role of the ALs will again be critical to the success of this structure, as the faculty will need to feel that their CoP is their academic home, and the AL will be their line manager to that effect. The AL will in turn report to a Dean of Faculty, who will replace the separate Department Heads in the first draft of our structure. The Dean of Faculty will report to me.

Therefore, we will carefully select for the role of AL and ensure – like the PL role – that the successful conduct of such a role is a necessary condition for future promotion.

Research and the “Professoriate”

Given the nature of the CoP, the natural starting point for generating research will indeed be that CoP – the academic ‘home’ of faculty. We would fully expect however that separate, cross functional groups will form – Research Centres – usually, but not exclusively, led by a Professor at the College. Faculty can and will be encouraged to participate in such a Research Centre, regardless of their CoP. The leadership provided by the Professoriate therefore is the third essential leadership function; they will form a distinct group, and will report to the Dean of Faculty as their line manager. Their academic leadership will be at the College level, and with the Director of Research work to improve the College’s REF and income generation, as well as international reputation and impact.

The Informal organisation

Equally important as the formal structure will be the informal way our College functions. There is a degree of academic interest already in the College in autopoietic organisations; that is, self-generating, autonomous structures capable of adapting and evolving in response to specific situations (cf Weir, Marsh and Greenwood 2009, where I wrote about how decision making delegated to operational leadership create the conditions for autopoiesis).   It seems to me that this may be a very interesting and engaging environment to attempt to create. The leadership role I’ve already mentioned will be a necessary criterion, especially at programme and faculty level. We cannot avoid having processes that structure our time and direct our effort, and every organisation has those; notwithstanding these formal processes, I would like us to think of how individuals and groups can find the space within to succeed personally and in groups, on behalf of the college, by having the ability to combine, respond, and solve whatever challenges present themselves, without further direction. This is in my experience how academic institutions – faculty, and those who support them – work best, if allowed to do so.

Work-based Distance Learning

I appreciate that that there is particular uncertainty about this Unit, given that it doesn’t appear in the new structure. This does not at all detract from the importance, or the success, of the work done there. The opposite, in fact. My intention is that the experience and innovation contained in WBDL will be brought to bear on all our school’s educational offers. Programme Leaders of our distance learning programmes will function, and report in, the new structure in the same way as all other PLs; faculty will become part of the relevant CoPs, and regardless of their contractual engagement with us, will be treated as full members of those CoPs and of the College. The administrative teams who provide such an effective support to students and partners will ultimately be combined with the other College admin teams to provide coverage and sharing of expertise, but I fully expect that the process of integration will take time,  understanding that the rhythm and patterns of work in the WBDL unit are quite different from those of u/g students.



Weir, D.T., Marsh, C.A., & Greenwood, W. (2009). How Organisational DNA Works. In L. Costanzo and R. MacKay (eds.), Handbook of Research on Strategy and Foresight. London: Edward Elgar.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W.M. (2002) Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Boston: HBSP.


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