LAST WEEK we had our annual corporation residential meeting, following the familiar pattern of working all day on Friday, dining in the evening, and then finishing at noon on Saturday. But whereas previous events have been held in the conference suite of a chain hotel, this year we used the premises of a royal foundation, a religious retreat in London.
The accommodation was sufficiently economic (and spartan) to satisfy the most demanding of external auditors, but the real reason for visiting was to enjoy tranquil surroundings and a building that is full of character.
It was an interesting experience for us all, but what our two governors made of it I am not quite sure - particularly when our first session concentrated on the background to the recently "named and shamed" colleges, and the consequences to the governors of these colleges. It left some repair work to be done, explaining that in all the years since incorporation less than a handful of governing bodies had been forced to stand down, and that despite the position regarding the liability of individual governors being unclear no governor (to my knowledge) has ever been found to be individually financially liable for the activities of his college. And anyway, it would never happen to us.
However, my abiding memories will be of the bell. It is too many years ago for me to remember being within the protective walls of school, and I had forgotten how the bell orders your life. Lunchtime, dinner, the coffee and tea breaks scheduled in our programme, were all announced by bells and if we did not react it was repeated in a longer and more demanding tone a couple of minutes later. I was surprised by how comforting I found it to be, operating in a world where order and certainty existed, where someone else had to worry about time, and control was externally imposed.
I have been on training courses, indeed attended and sometimes run meetings where strict timing was observed, and if a speaker had not finished what he was planning to say, then it remained unsaid. This actually is a very good discipline, sensibly applied , and after the experience of last weekend I have resolved to use it more often. But the cause of my feeling of well-being went far beyond this (even before dinner).
My paid employment is with one of the largest UK telecommunication equipment companies, operating in a market that is changing so rapidly that the only thing you really know about your three-year business plan is that the past year will be at least 50 per cent wrong. The company has been aggressive, growing by acquisition and development, and discarding under-performing areas. We are adjusting to the third major reorganisation within 18 months.
The contrast with the college's residential retreat could hardly be greater. Job descriptions, which set boundaries on the areas in which employees operate, have gone; divisional structures are not defined at a detailed level, and change as people move to new priorities and into new teams on a weekly and monthly basis.
For individuals the city, or even the country, in which they work may move on a month-to-month basis, with hot-desking across several sites increasingly common. The activities an individual carries out are in many cases self-determined, with the manager primarily acting to set the strategy and monitoring success or failure. Clarity of mission, common values, and employees' understanding of how they contribute to the strategy, is what binds the business together and prevents chaos.
If there were a scale measuring organisational order, with the religious retreat close to one end, and my company near the other, I suspect colleges would still be moving from order towards the middle.
And there is a message there. We need to have colleges that are dynamic, proactive, and at the forefront of change. Many have already achieved much, but for the majority there is still the need for a substantial change of organisational culture. And the external environment is changing on all sides, from competition to co-operation, from independence to partnership. Changes to curriculum, funding mechanisms and inspections are also happening and shortly we will have the outcome of the post-16 review. Change is not comfortable for most people involved in it, and there needs to be an emphasis on supporting staff at all levels within colleges to ensure that people are not left behind.
It might be tempting to turn to the comfort and reassurance of the retreat, but that can only ever be a fleeting relief; long-term we all have to deliver in a world of change and disorder; and it is for college governors and senior managers to set the framework that allows this to happen.
Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges