50. Management: do you really need an MBA?

‘How to manage’ has itself become big business – note the success of University Business Schools and the MBA badge that they offer; note the size of the management section of a bookshop. I don’t dispute the value of management education or of much of the literature, but my own experience has been different: learning on the job. It is interesting, for myself at least, to trace the evolution of my own knowledge of ‘management’. I don’t claim this as a recipe for success. There were failures along the way, and I have no doubt that there are many alternative routes. But I did discover some principles that have served me well – most of them filleted from the literature, tempered with experience.

In my first ten years of work, my jobs were well focused, with more or less single objectives and ‘management’ consisted of getting the job done. This began, at the newly founded Rutherford Laboratory at Harwell, writing computer programmes to identify bubble chamber events at the CERN synchrotron; on to implementing transport models for planning purposes at the then Ministry of Transport. I set up the Mathematical Advisory Unit in the Ministry, which became large and doing this was clearly a management job. I moved to the Centre for Environmental Studies as Assistant Director – another management job. These roles were on the back of a spell of research into urban economics and modelling in Oxford which also had me working on a broader horizon even when I was a civil servant – and of course, CES was a research institute. From 1964-67 I was an Oxford City Councillor (Labour) – then a wholly ‘part-time’ occupation on top of my other jobs.

What did I learn in those ten years? At the Rutherford Lab, the value of teamwork and being lightly managed by the two layers above me and being given huge responsibilities in the team at a very young age. In MoT, I learned something about working in the Civil Service though my job was well-defined; again, I had sympathetic managers above me. On Oxford Council, I learned the working of local government, and how a political party worked, at first hand. This was teamwork of a different kind. At CES, I built my own team. At both MoT and CES I recruited some very good people who went on to have distinguished careers. In all cases, the working atmosphere was pretty good. It was in CES, however, that I realise with hindsight that I made a big mistake. I assumed that urban modelling was the key to the future development of planning, probably convinced Henry Chilver, the Director of this, and I neglected the wider context and people like Peter Wilmott from whom I should have learned much more. That led to the Director being fired as the Trustees sought to widen the brief – or to bring it back to its original purpose, and it nearly cost me my job (as I learned from one of the Trustees) but fortunately, it didn’t. It was also my first experience of a govering body – the Board of Trustees – and another mistake was to leave the relationship with them entirely with the Director – so I had no direct sense of what they were thinking. I left a few months later for the University of Leeds and within a couple of years, I began to have the experience of broader-based management jobs.

I went to Leeds as Professor of Urban and Regional Geography into a School of Geography that was being rebuilt through what would be described as strong leadership but which amounted to bullying at times. I was left to get on with my job, I enjoyed teaching and I was successful in bringing in research grants and I built a good team. The atmosphere, however, was such that after two nor three years, I was thinking of leaving. Out of the blue, the Head of Department was appointed as a Polytechnic Head and I found myself as Head of Department. The first management task was to change the atmosphere and an important element of that was to make the monthly staff meeting really count – a key lesson – ‘leadership’ should be through the consent of the staff and this was something I could more or less maintain in later jobs. This isn’t as simple as it sounds of course, there are often difficult disagreements to be resolved. The allocation of work round the staff of the Department was very uneven and I managed to sort that out with a ‘points’ system. I learned the value of PR as the first Research Assessment Exercise approached – by making sure we publicised our research achievements and this helped us to a top rating (which wasn’r common in the University at the time).

The Geography staff meeting was my first experience of chairing something and I probably learned from my predecessor – how not to do it, how to ensure that you secure the confidence, as far as possible, of the people in the room. I was elected as Head of Department for three three-year spells, alternating with my fellow Professor. I began to take on University roles, and in particular to chair one of the main committees – the Research Degrees Committee – and this led to me being Chair of the Joint Board of the Faculties of Arts, Social and Economic Studies and Law – equivalent of a Dean in modern parlance – which represented a large chunk of the University and was responsible for a wide range of policy and administration. There were many subcommittees. So lots of practice. The Board itself had something of the order of 100 members.

In the late 80s, I was ‘elected’ – quotation marks as there was only one candidate! – as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for 1989-91. There was only one such post at the time and the then VC became Chair of CVCP for those two years and delegated a large chunk of his job to me. The University was not in awful shape, but not good either. Every year, there was a big argument about cuts to departmental budgets. I began thinking about how to turn the ‘ship’ around – a new management challenge on a big scale. It helped that at the end of my first year as PVC, I was appointed as VC-elect from October 91, so in my second year, I could not only plan, but begin to implement some key strategies. It’s a long story so I will simply summarise some key elements – challenges and the beginnings of solutions.

The University had 96 departments and was run through a system of over 100 committees (as listed in the University Calendar) – seriously schlerotic. For example, there were seven Biology Departments each mostly doing molecular biology. We had to shift the ‘climate’ from one of cost cutting to one of income generation and this was done through delegation of budgets to each of a reduced number of departments (96 to 55) which was based on cost management but critically, with delegated income generating rules – and this became the engine for both growth and transformation. There were winners and losers of course and this led to some serious handling challenges at the margins. (I tried to resolve these by going to department staff meetings to take concerns head on. That sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t!) There was a challenge of how to marry department plans with the University’s plan. The number of committees was substantially reduced – indeed with a focus on three key committees.

In my first two years as VC, there was a lot of opposition to the point where I even started thinking about the minimum number of years I would have to do to leave in a respectable way. By the third year, many of those who had been objecting had taken early retirement and the management responsibilities around the University – Heads of Department, members of key committees – were being filled by a new generation. I ended up staying in post for thirteen years.

Can I summarise at least some of the key principles I learned in that time?

  • Recognising that the University was not a business, but had to be business-like.
  • Having our own strategy within a volatile financial and policy environment; then operating tactically to bring in the resources that we needed to implement our strategy.
  • What underpins my thinking about strategy is an idea that I learned from my friend Britton Harris of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. He was a city planner (and urban model builder) and he argued that planning involved three kinds of thinking: policy, design and analysis with the added observation that ‘you very rarely find all three in the same room at the same time’. Apply this to universities: ‘analysis’ means understanding the business model and having all relevant information to hand; ‘policy’ means specifying objectives; ‘design’ means inventing possible plans and working towards identifying the best – which becomes the core strategy. This may well be the most valuable part of my toolkit.
  • Recognising that a large institution – by the end of my period, 33,000 students and 7,000 staff – could not be ‘run’ from the centre, so an effective system of real delegation was critical.
  • The importance of informal meetings and discussions – outside the formal committee system; I had at least termly meetings with all Heads of Department, with members of Council, with the main staff unions, with the Students Union Executive.
  • Openness: particularly of the accounts.
  • Accountability: in reorganising the committee system, I retained a very large Senate – about 200 of whom around half would regularly come to meetings.
  • And something not in the job description: realising that how I behaved somehow had an impact on the ethos of the University.

By many measures, I was successful as a manager and I learned most of the craft as a Vice-Chancellor. But I was constantly conscious of what I wasn’t succeeding at so I’m sure my ‘blueprint’ is a partial one. I learned a lot from the management literature. Mintzberg showed me that if in an organisation, your front-line workers are high-class professionals, if they didn’t feel involved in the management, you would have problems. (In this respect, I think the university system in the UK has done pretty well, the health service, less so.) Ashby taught me the necessity to devolve responsibility, Christensen taught me about the challenges of disruption and how to work around them. I learned a lot about developing strategy and the challenges of implementation – “strategy is 5% of the problem, implementation is 95%”. I learned a lot about marketing. I tried to encapsulate much of this in running seminars for my academic colleagues and for the University administration. Much later, I wrote a lot of it up in my book, Knowledge power.

So do you really need an MBA? I admire the best of them and their encapsulated knowledge. In my case, I guess I had the apprenticeship version. Over time, it is possible to build an intellectual management toolkit in which you have confidence that it more or less works. I have tried to stick to these principles in subsequent jobs – UCL, AHRC, The Alan Turing Institute. Circumstances are always different, and the toolkit evolves!

Alan Wilson

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