Friday, June 21, 2013

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Centralized Office?

One of the great questions about how to run a university revolves around the degree of centralization. Universities and colleges are constantly struggling with whether to centralize functions, offices, and decision-making, or to distribute these things out to smaller units (colleges, divisions, departments, etc.)

In my experience, faculty tend to be strong proponents of decentralization. The idea of a "central" anything tends to raise suspicion among the ranks of professors, who mutter darkly about what the "Evil Empire" of administrators will do if they get too much power (and yes, I have a friend in administration who keeps a Darth Vader mask in her office).

I've often wondered why this opposition is so consistent, given that centralization is like most tools - useful for some things, not useful for others. I have come to a conclusion that the problem with support for centralizing things lies in the fact that we (faculty and administration both) don't understand that "centralization" can mean two entirely different things.

We can call these things "centralized control" and "centralized coordination". When most faculty hear that something is being centralized or consolidated, they assume the former - that the new model or office or what have you will centralize decision-making about things they care about. In simple terms, somebody else is going to make decisions that affect faculty without giving the faculty any say (or, frequently, any warning) as to what those decisions are.

This is a legitimate fear backed by years of examples and experience. I have worked at an institution with offices that behaved very much like this. In one example, all decisions about office space - from where offices would be to what furniture could be in them to what color the walls would be painted - were made by one central planning unit. Because this central office did not have any academics in it, nor did it know anything about what other units (academic or otherwise) around campus do, nor did it bother to consult with any of those units when designing the space they would work in, the results were often sub-optimal (to be polite about it). This central office for planning space was both reviled and feared, and very ineffective by any metric.

But "central" doesn't have to mean this kind of Orwellian dystopia. The alternative is centralized coordination. Central coordination means just that - one central point which is tasked, not with making the decisions but with getting the job done as well as possible. And if you want a job - a project, a new initiative, a technology - done right, it needs to be supported by everybody who will be involved. In the popular business vernacular, you need "buy-in" from the "key stakeholders" - and the fact that these have become derisive terms of irony speaks volumes about our failure as organizations to actually practice what we preach.

But real central coordination, with real buy-in, is possible. It just takes a different mindset at the center: one that takes its central task to be getting everybody on the same page. The most powerful tool for doing so is, and always has been, persuasion - a combination of attention to incentives (what's in it for me?) and common values (what's our collective mission? Why do we do what we do?) Central coordination looks very little like the exercise of power, because the person at the center doesn't actually make very many decisions - he or she helps the community make decisions for itself. In doing so, everyone understands not only what the decision is but why it was made and why it is the best option of the moment - in other words, "buy-in".

I remain baffled as to why central coordination isn't more prevalent than it is. Its results are clearly superior, and it far more popular with the people across a university actually doing the work. The only explanation I can think of is that it's hard. Central decision-making is easy: you sit in your office and dictate. Central coordination has a very herding-cats quality. But in the end, it's vastly more effective.

It does not, of course, appeal to those who want to be "in charge" - who like to be "the Decider". Those folks (and I have known too many in higher education administration) are generally far less effective, although what they do looks like "leadership" to the uninformed (think of Scott Adam's warning: "Don't Step in the Leadership"). And the more of those get put into positions of authority, the more faculty and other "key stakeholders" around campus turn against the idea of centralizing anything at all, preferring to be left alone in the wilderness rather than dictated to by a strongman (or woman).

In the end, most universities limp along with some combination of these: some of their "leaders" will be central decision-makers and some will be coordinators. As there doesn't seem to be any systematic incentive to select the latter over the former, I suspect that will continue to be the case. But for those who really want to "unleash their university's potential" (or some similar, bombastic-sounding phrase): find the coordinators and put them in charge. You'll be surprised how much they can accomplish.

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