Last month, Professor Michael Kremer was announced as one of the joint winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics. He is best known for his work on the O-ring theory of development – what might be termed the weakest-link theory. It is named after the rubber ring whose vulnerability caused the 1986 Challenger spacecraft disaster in which lives were lost. Despite all the world-class science and engineering, despite the gifted astronauts, the mission proved disastrous because of a tiny but crucial fault.
The weakest-link theory
The idea of the weakest link is not new, nor particularly earth-shattering. Anyone who plays team sports will have witnessed competitors focusing on your weak players as a winning strategy. What is interesting is the way the theory changes how organisations are likely to develop in any sector.
Increasingly, we are seeing a growing divide between the best and the rest. A tiny handful of top football managers now manage the tiny handful of top clubs. We might marvel at Liverpool’s performance but we no longer marvel at their results. The top teams in all the main leagues are easy to predict. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City. They all dominate in a way that is still a relatively new phenomenon. They have the best players, the best coaches and the best medical staff. They probably have the best board members, the best marketing and PR specialists and the best lawyers, too.
If you book a restaurant for a special occasion, your enjoyment could be undermined badly by any one factor: the cleanliness of the toilets, attentiveness of staff, quality of the lighting, décor and cutlery – or even the quality of the food.
Premier League football and restaurants show how the weakest-link theory changes organisations. A brilliant chef can be completely undermined by poor waiting staff – it’s crucial that the high quality of your cooking is matched by high-quality service. In football, a great attacker will similarly want to work alongside a great midfielder to be able to show off their superlative skill.
The weakest-link theory suggests that organisations will either accumulate a multidisciplinary set of the best or decline into an accumulation of duffers. The question is: are colleges likely to go the same way as restaurants and top sports teams?
Celebrating excellence, not competence
In many ways, this is an open question. There are geographic barriers that make it hard to simply get the best staff. We are not a sector that pays its star performers massively more than the average, so relocating is not attractive. There are also funding barriers. Where top restaurants can charge premium prices and so pay premium wages, college students usually generate the same funding. Colleges also tend to have similar cohorts of students, even more so as the number of colleges grows smaller, so you will not generally get a different set of customers by moving around. There is also a case for arguing that being competent rather than excellent in some areas is enough. Perhaps we don’t need the best librarians or cleaners, just good ones?
The world does not stay still. There is already evidence that schools in tough areas struggle to get great (or even loyal) staff, suggesting that the best teachers want better parents and less problematic pupils. Anecdotally, many of our teachers locally say they want to work in schools with an academic sixth form. When we researched how parents might respond to us creating a specialist A-level sixth form, the overwhelming (perhaps depressing) finding was that they would not let their children attend if they were surrounded by level 2 hairdressers and carpenters.
Closer to home, I have been told by college principals in financial difficulty or after a poor Ofsted how impossible it is to get good staff to even apply for jobs.
Promote the best and brightest
We need to remember to sell ourselves: to shout out about the best and brightest aspects of our colleges. For example, while salary and conditions are important, maybe telling prospective teachers they will have superb equipment, IT specialists and funding for a master's or PhD could be a selling point? Maybe telling them they will be working alongside Tes FE Awards teachers of the year and WorldSkills champions will be a winning line? So too might showing that having the best finance team means they get a budget bigger than they ever dreamed of? Equally, selling superb marketing staff as meaning you need never worry about having enough great students might swing it?
On the flip side, attracting top support staff by showing that the college attracts the best and brightest students and serves the biggest employers in your community, thus boosting your personal reputation and CV by association, is a good strategy.
Who knows – perhaps pointing out how many sector principals your college has produced might tempt the best managers your way?
It is unlikely further education can escape trends in organisational development, so we should be thinking hard about this. We need to make sure we know what our O-rings are and attend to them. However, our strong social mission does mean great people sometimes stay loyal when self-interest might dictate a move would be good.
I was humbled last year when a superb member of staff turned down a lucrative offer from the University of Cambridge because he thought what we were doing and achieving at Bedford was more important. Even in the modern world, the underdog can occasionally come out on top.
Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College