Strategies for Engaging Senior Management

The Building Capacity Programme was not just about getting existing resources embedded into practice; it was also about recognising and finding a vehicle for dialogue between those involved in innovation in institutions and the Senior Management Team (SMT).

In the majority of projects, the senior managers involved were usually at PVC level, with responsibilities for student experience, learning and teaching or quality.

The projects identified a range of activities that senior managers undertook including:

  • Getting institution-wide agreement to difficult business issues.
  • Enforcing compliance with the project by other stakeholders / departments.
  • Ensuring the project supports institutional strategy.
  • Raising the profile of the project with other senior managers.
  • Making decisions or supporting the decision-making process.
  • Obtaining resources.

How do I get them listening?

The projects used a variety of methods for gaining interest in, and commitment for, their aims.

At the University of Bradford, the project team wanted to ensure that senior management was engaged in confirming the University priorities. Senior managers were encouraged to vote on which of the shortlisted projects they would most like to see implemented. A high level summary of the three project options was sent with an invitation letter to the Academic Strategy and Performance Committee (ASPC), which includes the Deans, DVCs, PVCs and Vice Chancellor. A few senior non-ASPC staff were also asked to vote as they would be stakeholders for one or more of the implemented options. They were asked to read the summary online and vote on their order of preference. Approximately 60% of staff invited to vote filled in the form. A high level of buy-in to the proposals has become clear through continued contact with the project team during development; further, one IT stakeholder has since been piloting an open source social network (one of the options, but which came second in the vote) in their own time.

Interestingly, the project manager (John Fairhall) reported that “the development option that came top of the vote was not on the University’s strategy roadmap, and yet is likely to have a large impact in addressing University strategic goals”.

Another strategy, adopted by Birkbeck amongst others, was to involve and engage with a champion for the project. The Birkbeck project was sponsored by the Pro-Vice Master for the Student Experience and the Assistant Deans for Recruitment and Retention. These champions highlighted the need for the project and ensured that there was a high level of awareness about the project across the College. The project team also made sure that the project was regularly on the agenda of various relevant committees, working groups and other fora to ensure that a range of colleagues were kept informed about and involved in the progression of the project.

At the University of Bedfordshire getting senior management to both introduce and mandate the process they developed has moved it from idea to implementation within a year.

The University of Leeds aimed to bring about senior management-led change in a number of strategic priorities across research and learning and teaching through their use of JISC artifacts. One of the key learning points from the project is that senior management support is essential in the decision-making process to ensure buy-in across the institution; a number of key people involved in the project were either the leaders of learning, teaching and research in the institution, or were able to directly influence those leaders.

The Leeds Building Capacity project engaged with senior managers in a range of ways:

  • inclusion in the project advisory group
  • monthly meetings with the pro-deans for Student Education and Research and Innovation
  • regular updates with, and advice sought from,  the PVCs for Student Education and Research and Innovation

What drawbacks do I need to be aware of in needing SMT commitment?

Some projects commented on occasional difficulties with working with and engaging senior staff. These were obstacles that projects had to overcome, or find strategies for working around, and so are included here to help other institutions avoid similar pitfalls.

At the University of Worcester it was observed that in some cases “the perspective of senior management differed from the perspective of ordinary staff ‐ the former saw how the project was suited in terms of the university’s overall strategy, whereas the latter saw the project more in terms of their own immediate area of work.”

Their Building Capacity project was reliant on senior management to convey a strong message to ordinary staff about the importance of the project, and its potential outcomes. However, occasionally the way in which a senior manager thought about and promoted the project at a strategic level seemed to be an obstacle to communication.

At the University of Leeds it was observed that senior managers are generally very busy people. There needs to be a realistic expectation of the time they can give to a project. Staff on the Leeds Building Capacity project worked on giving PVCs and Pro Deans regular brief updates on the project rather than expecting them to be available for and committed to meetings, seeking their advice or clarification on strategy only when necessary and critical for the success of the project.

And the critical success factor is…

The Writtle College Building Capacity project advise “…insist on getting very serious “top down” input right from the outset…” so that there is a “clear understanding as to the project being institutionally supported…”.

This message has been similarly reported by virtually all of the 26 Building Capacity projects as one of the critical success factors for their work.