Follow-Up on Strategic Positioning

I wanted to thank everyone for commenting on the previous blog entry.  To pick out some of themes from this:


  • I think we do need to think about how we wish to define reputation and this underlies my initial post and a number of the comments.  I think the key point for us is that our definition of reputation may not be the same as that for other universities.  Sandra Harding at JCU often quoted Coleridge in saying that universities need to “create the taste by which they are to be relished”.
  • Our campus network, and our ability to use this well, is a real strength.  We do rely on the critical mass generated by distance and online students to maintain healthy disciplines though.  It’s not clear to me that we are in fact losing market share to other distance providers yet (in fact the lateset data from Planning and Audit would suggest we aren’t), but there is no room for complacency on this score.  I think there is significant challenge from marketing-led providers such as OUA and we need to think how we will respond.

Teaching and Learning:

  • An interesting observation regarding whether we value quality teaching and learning.  Coming in from outside, it certainly seems that we do and that we have well-developed mechanisms to support it.  In particular, the work that has been done around the Discipline Review and the Annual Course Performance Reports is really good and all those involved should give themselves a pat on the back.  I recognise that the shift to the 60/30/10 workload model has sent stronger signals around the value of research but that needn’t to my mind necessarily diminish the value of teaching.
  • As a sector, we need to be much more thoughtful about what delivers a good quality educational experience.  This is not to suggest that we haven’t done a lot of work on this already but one of the frustrations for the Government is that whilst we are prepared to say what we don’t like about suggested ‘quality’ measures, we do not necessarily have better suggestions.


  • I think we need to think both about what research we should be doing and how we want to approach that research.  As noted, in terms of the ‘what’ I would prefer to couch this in terms of service to our communities and this raises the question of what are the most important needs of our communities?  There is never complete clarity about boundaries to research areas because universities are supposed to be about encouraging freedom of inquiry and therefore you always want to leave some room for creativity.  In terms of the ‘how’ there were some useful discussions over the last week at the Research Centre Directors’ retreat.  It seems to me that the current policy settings are driving improvements but we did discuss the need for the strategic investments via Research Centres and the Faculty Compacts to be amplifying the peaks as well as lifting the general level.

Economic Rationalism:

  • Finally, good to have the challenge to business speak and economic rationalism.  I guess in my view these are a lens through which to view university operations, but not the only one. Personally, I find such language a convenient means to discuss the business aspects of a university and as long as we all want to be paid to attend, those need to be honoured.  Having said that, no commercial entity has yet (as far as I’m aware) evolved into a true university so economic rationalism will only get you so far.  In my view, that’s why it’s important to understand the intellectual contribution we want to make to our communities, Australia and the world, and the economics and business decisions need to be in support of that.  Markets do have seductive power, and one of my concerns is that we not follow where they might lead unthinkingly.
  • On that score, a useful challenge about the primacy of ‘marketisation’ and it prompted me to wonder what a better way to phrase the question around student experience might be.  Perhaps the question ought to be: “How should we be so that we delight, excite and ignite our staff and students?”

4 thoughts

  1. Because we need to avoid the impression ‘boy, have we got the solution for you!’

  2. The hoary question about economic rationalism isn’t a discussion we are having in isolation and regrettably it is a concept forced upon us by the funding sources that keep us alive and kicking. We are stewards of public monies and we do have responsibilities that go with that role. I also hate the very tired terminology about quality improvement and productivity but it is a reality we need to face, particularly in light of the new TEQSA frameworks that clearly seek a QI focus in everything we do. Students are also talking along the lines of their univeristy experience being a product they purchase and they need to be satisifed to want to purchase more or to encourage their friends to purchase the same product. It will always be a difficult management task to offer a high quality yet cost effective experience and we serve no-one well if we ignore the commercial realities of our organisation.

  3. Having just returned after some leave I am a little late joining the discussion but would like to add a few comments.

    A strong and shared understanding of strategy and brand is essential to the organisation. It allows us to present clear and consistent messages about who we are and what we are achieving in areas such as teaching, research and our commitment to our communities. This is even more important in an organisation such as ours where our activities are complex and varied. There is so much great work occurring in so many different areas it’s hard to find the common threads. To keep putting great work out without a sense of the big picture or main game actually muddies the waters and dilutes the message.

    I have been on a personal quest for an organisational brand for over ten years and the process has been painfully slow. And when I say brand please understand that I don’t mean logo. I am really pleased with the new logo, it makes us look fresh and contemporary, but it is still only the visual representation of our brand. The image people see that conjures up the brand – the feelings they have about us.

    I think there are a lot of reasons why this journey has taken so long. It isn’t easy to define such a complex organisation, brand either hasn’t been understood or is seen as marketing fluff and until recently it certainly hasn’t been fashionable. If fact I believe the rise of brands in universities is directly linked with the increase in competition. The more we have to fight for students the more people understand the value of marketing and brand. It is true there has always been competition but it is far more aggressive than it has ever been with universities pouring millions into marketing annually. Not to mention the private providers.

    I have been relatively pleased with the new brand concept of ‘strategic partnership’ – seeking out and working with the right individuals and bodies to get the most effective job done. And so I should be. I was, after all, heavily involved. But I do believe this is an area we do particularly well. Policing, IT Masters, Dentistry, TAFE … the list is endless. I also like the concept of not necessarily taking the best students but taking every student and ensuring they become the best they can be. Most of us are truly engaged with our students in an incredibly positive way.

    However, I also welcome the opportunity to revisit this important area and build a stronger, more relevant and distinctive brand and associated strategy. I would just like to point out that if we really want to succeed there are a couple of crucial factors that we have to get right.

    1. Our position needs to be honest and achievable, not too aspirational. People will not see it if we don’t demonstrate it. We have to deliver what we promise.
    2. In order for any brand to be successful the whole organisation has to get behind it. Universities are naturally places of opinion and debate but with something like brand there is no place for this after the fact. Once a decision has been made all staff must get behind it to bring it to life. It is unlikely that any organisation would find a position that everyone agrees with but it is essential that everyone supports it as consistency is the key.

    I too caution against a tag line. They are rarely remembered without significant financial investment and understate an organisation as wonderfully diverse and complex as ours.

    The second topic I’d like to comment on is being “easy to do business with”. I might point out this is also essential to our brand. I applaud this commitment and believe that this will have more value to the organisation than any marketing budget ever will. It is certainly about systems and processes but it is also about conversations and good communication. This is a key factor for us, moving forward.

    Lastly one of my strongest concerns is organisational health and I believe it is an area we need to watch. A great sadness for me is how compliance driven we have had to become. People are being increasingly pulled away from their core activities by red tape. While I’m not sure this will be easy to change we do have to find strategies for dealing with it. People are certainly working long hours and resources are limited but I don’t think this is the main issue. I think the bigger issue is to ensure people feel valued, empowered to do what they best and able to make a difference on a day to day basis. I think the concept of delighting, igniting and exciting staff and students has great legs!

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