You are here: Home / Organisational Design / Operational autonomy

Operational autonomy

The experience from Ultraversity, IDIBL and Co-educate is that this work focussed learning model needs to be delivered through an operationally independent unit, as it involves a non-traditional curriculum and unique ways of working which challenge normal university structures, processes and culture. As its typical student differs from the norm, it also requires different marketing and lower pricing, both because its students have been shown to be price sensitive and because as an online course it has lower estates overheads than a traditional university course.

Given the very different model of learning involved, it can be classified as a disruptive innovation in the sense defined by Clayton Christensen. After extensive study, Christensen identified how incumbent market leaders mostly fail, but sometimes manage, to respond successfully when confronted by disruptive innovations. He found they fail because the existing culture, structures and processes effectively kills off any attempt to establish the disruptive innovation within the the organisation. In the relatively few cases where an incumbent has succeeded, he found they almost always established their response to the disruption in a financially and organisationally separate unit.

The experience of the Ultraversity reflects this. When it was separate from the main body of the university, under the wing of the UltraLab, and carried out its own marketing and advertising and could price it lower while still doing better than breaking even, they had several hundred students each year. However, after the closure of the Ultralab, the Ultraversity was moved into the Education Department. There its marketing and advertising was merged with that of the rest of the department, thereby failing to reach the kind of students likely to attend, and the price of the course was also put up in line with other university courses. The annual enrolment declined dramatically, ending up with around 25.

At the University of Bolton, it was originally planned to integrate elements of the action research course into existing programmes, with the full model to be implemented in its own courses at a later date. While some academics, mostly younger ones, were enthusiastic, it did not fit well with normal academic practice and many feared it would block discipline based career progression. So when the pro vice-chancellor who had championed the approach, later retired, the knives were drawn.

With hindsight it would have been better to do it the other way round: set up a separate unit to run the full programme, as had been initially the case at the Ultraversity, and then introduce it gradually to those academics who were interested, enabling them to learn by observing and participating in the facilitation of courses in the separate unit, before integrating elements of it in their own courses. Being optional, it would also have avoided other academics reacting negatively and seeking to undermine it, from fear they may be forced to adopt it in their courses.

Reading Clayton Christensen’s work was retrospectively enlightening, but it would have been better to have read it before starting out!