October 9, 2019

Is Your Org Chart Holding You Back? Here’s How to Bring It Into the 21st Century

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix

Colleges and universities are changing to adapt to shifts in demographics, technology, culture, and the future of work. One thing we’ve noticed is that their organizational designs haven’t kept up with these changes – and in many cases have made it harder to adapt. New functions have been added over time and “bolted on” to the side of the organization chart without stepping back to integrate these new functions or reconsider old ones. They often don’t reflect how groups collaborate or their day-to-day workflow. The organization of groups doesn’t align with the programs and services these groups offer. At the detailed department level, org charts are often designed around (and even named after!) specific tools or processes, rather than designed around the student.

So, how can your institution simply and holistically redesign your organization to adapt to technological, demographic, and economic change?

In this post, we answer this question by providing brightspot’s approach and offering our principles to guide organizational design at your college or university. This approach will help you increase student success, improve research support, and enable staff productivity while making your institution more efficient and effective.

Before diving in, we must credit MIT professor emeritus and organizational guru Edgar Schein. In addition to coining terms like “organizational culture” and defining what he called “process consultation,” he simply and powerfully defined the core functions of any group (paraphrasing here) as aligning internally and adapting externally.

Change it Now! Chabot College

This continuous balancing of internal versus external forms the basis of our approach to designing institutions, departments, and teams at any scale and means that institutions are undergoing constant change. The tension here is captured well in these two quotes:

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” — Richard Branson

“To achieve the full potential of customer experience as a business strategy… you must manage from the perspective of your customers.”
— Kerry Bodine and Harley Manning, Outside in: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business

So, who’s right…? Neither? Both!

brightspot’s approach to organizational design is to consider the roles people play, the structure that connects those roles, and the processes used to fulfill the roles — all working together to achieve a purpose and supported by a platform of information, tools, and skills.

Five Dimensions of Organizational Design

Our Methodology: Five Dimensions of Organizational Design

These five dimensions of organizational design form a useful lens through which to examine why and how to update the org design of your team, department, school, or college. To see how these play out, here are some of our observations from our work with dozens of academic institutions:

  • The Purpose of an institution continues to be learning, research, and service but in response to broader changes, it’s fulfilled differently: for instance, learning is focused on actively engaging students working in teams on real-world projects and research is focused on making an impact in society and commercially through increased collaboration and computation.
  • The Roles within an institution are changing to reflect the expanded, applied mission and new services, particularly to enable student success and research with impact; for example, incorporating new offices to work with specific segments of students like first-gen students, providing new academic support services like peer advising, or creating new functions like research data management.
  • The Structure is changing to reflect new services and programs, new modes of delivery such as online education, and new kinds of collaboration and partnerships like libraries functioning as student success hubs that include writing centers and data analysis labs. This means institutions are adding functions, rethinking old ones, and rationalizing locations – whether an extension campus or a branch library.
  • The Process is being rethought to be more student-focused, more agile and responsive to ongoing change, more consultative as the more transactional work gets automated, and doing more with less; rather than a reasonable regular rhythm of business processes, workflow within so many departments is becoming more project-based – everyone is working on projects to create the next thing while they keep the current things running.
  • The Platforms of skill and tools need updating as there is often a mismatch between the skills and dispositions of personnel on the one hand and the roles needed on the other; for example, many introverts go into librarianship for their love of books and then find themselves in roles where success is dependent on their ability to network with researchers, connect them to other people and projects, and facilitate discussions among them.
First Gen Action Committee, University of Michigan Dearborn

Guiding Principles for Organizational Design: Alignment and Continuous Improvement

As you think about your institution or your group and consider its purpose, roles, structure, processes, and platform, there are five principles to guide you as you rethink your organization’s structure. Let’s take these one by one:

  1. Think outside-in and inside-out: You need to understand your faculty and student users (from the outside-in) and enable engaging experiences for them as they interact with people, technology, partners, and spaces so they are loyal, satisfied promoters. You also need to understand your staff (from the inside-out) and enable effective experiences for them when they interact with students and each other so they are engaged, productive, and developing. If you optimize for one side at the expense of the other, you’re operating on borrowed time.
  2. Aligning services and teams: Try aligning the way you group people and the services you offer. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often departments and services don’t match, which builds unnecessary conflict, complexity, and inefficiency into your design. This greatly simplifies your structure, how you communicate it, and how you get the work done. When groups of services and groups of people don’t correspond to each other, the day to day work tends to pull the organization apart – or at the very least, creates extra work communicating and coordinating to hold it all together.
  3. Connecting digital and physical: One of the biggest changes in higher education is the use of technology to deliver student services as well as the learning experience itself through online and hybrid courses. These functions tend to get bolted onto the side of the existing org chart that reflects the on-campus reality, even though the online functions may be identical; for instance, a media studio to record an online faculty lecture or a video for a student project. So, rather than duplicating groups, functions, and terminology, look to combine and coordinate these wherever possible; for instance, don’t create a one-stop-shop student services center that ends the runaround without creating a unified student portal that brings together these services digitally as well.
  4. Start simple then add complexity: When it comes to defining roles, the simpler the better. First, you can start with a “mad lib” to create a one sentence role description: <Role> performs <Tasks> with <Collaborator> to <Goals> measured by <Metrics>. It may not be the prettiest sentence, but it will give you the essence to work from. Second, rather than putting everything but the kitchen sink into one role, remember that people can play multiple roles (that need not be assigned permanently) and that it’s usually better to break things down into multiple specific roles instead of a single large one whose components are ambiguously related.
  5. Constant reorganization: Keeping services and staffing aligned and keeping inside and out aligned requires constant rebalancing – unless you’re in a stable industry, with just the right amount of funding, in a group that’s not expanding or contracting, with completely satisfied users whose needs aren’t changing, and employees who want to keep doing the same things forever! We’re guessing this is not the case. So, as our friends at the org design consultancy August say: “draw your org chart in pencil.” It will change, by definition, if you want your organization to be responsive and adapt.

Higher Education is undergoing a lot of change. Start by taking this simple org design approach to align internally and adapt externally. Consider purpose, roles, structure, process, and platform. You can make sure your org design isn’t slowing you down – as individuals, teams, departments, or institutions – but rather is helping you better understand and respond to the needs of your users and your staff.

Use these guiding principles for organizational design to cut through the complexity so that you’re succeeding not in spite of your legacy structure but because of your new one. Happy org designing!