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What is it about the Titanic approach that is so addictive to managers?

At some time in the ‘90s, universities in the UK started undergoing a series of structural spasms. The emerging ‘new management’ disposition began to make itself felt through the preponderance of a common trope, that of ‘restructuring’. Departments and Faculties were suddenly seen as archaic constructs that blocked progress, clung to traditional hierarchies and maintained the academic tribes. Members of these tribes, of course, were loyal to their discipline rather than the institution which just so happened to be paying their salary and providing a desk at this particular stage of their personal intellectual journey.

And so it was that change began. First in mergers, described as ‘seeking synergy.’ On the larger scale, the notion of interdisciplinarity was used to effect combinations that might not at first sight seem entirely, well, synergistic. The latest areas ripe for discovery lay at the boundaries of traditional disciplines. Progress was being held back by these simplistic ancient affiliations. Or so, the story went. Not that there isn’t some degree of truth in that proposition, or at least it sounded plausible.

Titles too mattered. What’s the point of calling ourselves ‘English’ when we could be ‘Literature & Culture’. Library? You must be crazy, that’s not what young people relate to. How about ‘Learning Centre?’ As for those dull module and course titles? ‘P101 Basic Physics 1′ ? Come on, put some effort into it. What about ‘Energy and the Universe’ or ‘The stuff of matter’. There, that’s better.

Many of the older structures (not quite as ‘ancient’ as their detractors implied, since few of our recognised academic disciplines even existed in previous centuries) were inhibitory; many of their heads treated their domain as a personal fiefdom. Yes, all that is true, but the key question is, why would any other formal structure based still on a hierarchy (and indeed one in which the highest levels were beyond sight from down in the trenches) be any different once it established itself? Rather, is it not the case that those who are productive, creative, bold, are thus despite, rather than because of the organisation to which they belong? Is, to revert to Sociology 101, agency something which the experienced academic is able to acquire by stealth, once they identify the interstices between the the various structures and formal processes? Isn’t it likely that they pay what heed they must to regulations and organisational charts in order to carve out a space for themselves to pursue their own goals and that the ‘best’ structure is the lightest, least restrictive, least hierarchical (or, in many cases, patriarchal)?

Management consultants coming in with grand plans for restructuring (which are often ‘off the shelf,’ but expensive) at the behest of the senior management is, sadly, not a cliché, but the lived reality of many higher education institutions. And yet, whilst the management fads of the aiport book stand (I blame internationalisation. Too many Presidents and VCs flying around the place!) linger on in the universities, the irony is that for many in the commercial sector, creative output is portrayed as most likely in unconstrained, ad-hoc and non-hierarchical contexts. Of course, that too may be a fad, but it would be a pleasant change to see it come into our workspaces rather than yet another round of re-structuring.

Every three to four years, another spasm, another re-arrangement. Still not right, but we’re getting there. Just one more change. And so it goes, the addiction, the dependency, the constant uncertainty and, frankly, the enormous waste of time, effort and resources.

But if I want to use the hackneyed phrase, then what are the looming icebergs? Well, to management they’re rankings and funding. It’s the latter that’s most capable of doing the sinking. For those below decks, its the increasing workload, declining resources and the relentless rise in short-term demands. The threatened sinking there, is of the spirit, of hope.

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