Out-thinking the competition

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CAse sTUDY – UNiversiTY of WArWiCkOut-thinking thecompetitionCLAIM FOR DISTINCTIVENESS:A unique mixture of entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment toabsolute academic excellence.THE VC’S VIEW:“For all the claims of distinctiveness in highereducation, most universities actually do roughlythe same thing – although I think there is goingto have to be greater differentiation in thetimes ahead. Our genesis was unusual – wewere established in a location with no naturaladvantages and successive funding modelshadn’t done us any favours. But this has bred akind of fierce independence, both intellectuallyand financially. We have had to pioneer newideas and ways of working. Innovation is inour blood.“Our structure facilitates that. We have lots ofschools but we don’t have a hierarchy ofmanagement, and executive responsibility liesin a few hands. This means that proposals fornew ideas can be raised and evaluated quickly.We also have an extremely strong, professionaladministration. So we have a good supply oftalented individuals who are capable ofmanaging projects, which enables us to have arange of new ideas being progressed all the time.We tend to ‘grow our own’ administration staffrather than recruit from outside and sinceadministration tends to be more stable thanacademic schools, our sense of how we dothings is easier to maintain.”Professor Nigel ThrifT

CAse sTUDY – UNiversiTY of WArWiCkHOW DID THEY WORK TOWARDSTHEIR DISTINCTIVE IDENTITY?In a rapidly changing environment, the universitystrategy has to be quite flexible – there’s nopoint in being too specific, as things inevitablyalter. This means that good ideas can beincorporated and opportunities seized asthey arise.Warwick’s entrepreneurial reputation hasbecome a virtuous circle. It attractsentrepreneurial academics, as they are morelikely to find Warwick an attractive propositionand once there, carry out innovative work.Warwick gives people a lot of professionalfreedom; they can go to the VC with an ideaand get a response.A robust strategy consultation was agreed onby the senior management, says Ian Rowley,Director of Development, Communications andStrategy. They initiated a ‘big conversation’ forwhich they set out some parameters, and askedthe university community what the strategyshould be to deliver it. The conversations lasteda year and had good participation; they gotabout 340 submissions at different levels ofscale, appropriateness and impact. Then a panelreviewed and responded to all submissions.The result, in 2007, was Warwick’s first strategydocument.It contains one of Nigel’s favourite phrases:“We need to out-think our competitorsbecause we don’t have their advantages orresources, we’ll have to be smarter, moreinnovative.”WHAT DID THEY LEARN?Warwick’s approach to sincere and usefulinternal engagement is clear from its internalcommunications, which occur both horizontallyand vertically across the organisation. Ian says:“I think we were the first university to createan internal communications post (in 2001).I felt that an organisation as large, loose andbroad as Warwick needed that kind of effortto connect things up.“One thing we did was to establish the ‘IdeasCafé’. The café takes a theme – such as theeconomy or the ageing population – and inviteshalf a dozen staff with an interest or expertisein that area, either academically or professionally,to speak for five minutes each to stimulate adiscussion. We provide refreshments and set itin a 5.30 slot, to make it an out-of-work activity.We were inundated which showed us therewas a real appetite for sparking inter-disciplinarydebate.“Another initiative is slightly more formal. Afterwe produced the strategy document (calledVision 2015) there was a danger that everyonewould just forget about it and go back to theirnormal day-to-day activities. We wanted to keeppeople aware of the strategy and progress on it.We were doing regular updates but we alsodecided to establish lunchtime sessions called‘Strategy Bites’. This gives anyone doing anythingrelated to the strategy a platform to talk aboutit. They get 15-20 minutes to present their workand then everyone else can ask questions andcomment.”HOW DO THEY KNOW THATIT’S WORKING?The Strategy Bites, according to Ian, have beenreally successful. “People volunteer and wesuggest to various people that they might like todo one – we’ve never yet been turned down.In a way it’s a status thing. It enables people toshow that what they are doing is making acontribution to the strategy. It’s not onerous,and you might get some useful feedback out ofit, from colleagues that you might not otherwiseget the attention of.“This idea of encouraging people to think interms of their contribution to the strategyseems to have taken root in that in most of thebids I see for funding, the starting point is alwayshow the idea contributes to the strategicpriorities, even though we have never set outhow we want people to structure a bid.”Distinctiveness is a word that Warwick uses alot. Originating in a discussion in Council lastNovember, they raised the question of whetherthe ‘Warwick way’ was a strong enoughproposition for the next 20 years. They haveengaged a brand agency to help work throughthat question. Warwick believes that it hasenough evidence to back up the claim that it isan innovative, ideas-generating institution and solong as they keep communicating that, it can still– at the age of 50 – be considered a maverickbrand.Ian concludes, “The downside of being successfulis that people copy you; so to continue to bedistinctive, you have to keep running faster. Youhave to accept that. If you’re going to nail yourcolours to the mast of being distinctive you haveto have a hunger for new ideas.”www.distinct.ac.uk

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