Good structures need good people

26th May 2000 at 01:00
YOU KNOW when you see another samizdat copy of the well-known quote by Petronius Arbiter that some form of restructuring is in the air. I'm sure you know the one I mean - about reorganisation producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation. If I had a pound for every time I've seen that pinned up on noticeboards. Anyway, there is a restructuring going on here and inevitably there are those who are uneasy about it although there are some who welcome it.

We are in good company. Just about every college I hear mentioned has either restructured, is currently restructuring or is about to restructure. I don't know how this compares with the private sector, but I would judge that changing structures has become a more frequent occurrence for most organisations in recent years.

Why should this be? In the past, and not only in the education sector, organisational structures were seen as relatively fixed and changed infrequently, usually as part of some major effort to get things right. But this model no longer applies. The environment in which most organisations now operate is changing much more rapidly and this in turn requires greater flexibility.

Environments are typically characterised as stable or unstable and there is little doubt that the environment within which the FE sector has been operating is highly unstable. Recent changes include: new educational initiatives; constant changes to the funding model; changes to the curriculum; new paymasters; and new sources of funding. Perhaps most significantly, the imperatives requiring greater efficiency have produced the greatest changes and have spelt the demise for good or ill of more expensive structures that were established under previous regional council control.

Money is not the only reason. Various well-established articles on organisation theory suggest that types of organisational design are linked to the external environment within which an organisation operates. They also suggest that a contingency approach should apply - that there is no one bes way to structure the organisation; rather the most effective structure is one that adjusts to the requirements of its environment. Other writers go further in suggesting that the aim of restructuring should be, not to design the ideal structure, but to build into the organisation the assumption that continuous adjustments are an essential part of effective management.

In practice most colleges that have restructured in recent years have done so for a combination of three reasons: educational, efficiency and effectiveness. The particular weight attached to any one of these would depend on the prevailing circumstances within the college's internal and external environments. But all three would be in there somewhere. Of course, depending on one's own position on the matter the particular view taken on the stated rationale for the restructuring will lie somewhere between the forces for change or for the status quo.

The choice of a particular structure essentially comes down to individual judgment. The difficulties usually emerge when vested interests begin to manifest themselves often accompanied by the sounds of self-interest masquerading as educational principle.

But no matter how unstable the external environment, and whatever combination of education, efficiency and effectiveness is seen as important, the simple truth remains that the structures are only as good as the people who operate within them. The main issues to be considered in designing a structure therefore should include not only the size of the management team, the degree of decentralisation to be operated or the inter-departmental links, but most critically the skills and experience of the managers.

Restructuring is a critical exercise and should not be entered into lightly. Good managers can compensate for an inadequate structure, but I am not so sure a good structure can compensate for inadequate managers.

Norman Williamson is principal designate of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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