Why do we need a strategy?

Everyone will be familiar with ‘Vision 2021’ and the aspirations for NU contained therein. But why do we need such a document? Those of us who are old enough to remember what the sector was like in the ’70s, will recall that the concept of formal objectives and targets was much less prominent. Glibly, we focussed on recruting the best people and did our best to support them to excel in research and teaching. There is nothing wrong with this of course – indeed, it remains a strong aspect of our thinking today. However, the external environment has changed dramatically in the last 30 years or so, and in order to excel we need much more. Specifically, we need greater focus – a strategy that maps out the path that we need to take to get from where we are now (and a frank appraisal is critical here), to where we need to be (as defined in Vision 2021).  But, playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment, what’s wrong with where we are now? NU is a member of the  Russell Group of research intensive universities, which by any metric contains some of the top universities worldwide, and by many measures we have a respectable position in that group. Isn’t all this talk of objectives and targets a distraction? No – the fallacy in this complacent view is the expectation that our peer group organisations will stand still. Like it or not, we are competing with them for the best students and for research funding. The biologists amongst us will recognise a Darwinian environment, where adaptation is critical for survival. In this regard our strategy is in essence a blueprint that determines how we plan to adapt, not only to survive but to grow. The environment in question is peppered with drivers such as the outcome of the Browne Review, REF, the ‘impact agenda’, NSS scores and the like. We ignore these at our peril. We must be prepared to embrace change, and universities that prove to be most adept at this are likely to emerge at the top of the pile once this current period of dramatic upheaval subsides. Of course, we need to be able to measure how well we are doing at key points on the journey, and this is where Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets are critical. If we find we are not meeting our targets, then we must be prepared to modify our approach – our strategy is thus a living document that evolves in synchrony with a changing environment. Importantly, it also focusses the organisation on common goals which, although perhaps requiring different actions in various units, effectively harness the remarkable power of teamwork.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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