In the early years of my academic career, I was insulated from the politics of the university and the complexity that is the research funding reality in Canada. Once I was sufficiently far enough along in my career, I started assuming leadership positions. Quickly I observed a roadblock that limited what could be achieved. I have seen this pattern over and over again, to the point where I started becoming vocal about it. The problem is simple: division instead of unity. Let me give three examples from my career.
Canada is largely decentralized in its administration. Ottawa has responsibility for some areas (e.g., national defense) and the ten provinces for others (e.g., education). So when you get an area that overlaps national and provincial interests, problems ensue. Starting in the mid-1990s I became a passionate advocate for creating high-performance computing infrastructure for researchers. Early on, it became obvious that there were problems. Ottawa had one idea of what was needed; the provinces had others. The end result was what you would expect: friction that continues to this day. The reality is that if everyone could come together and work as one, at least in the high-performance computing area we could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create a national strategy, and give better value to researchers. But, hey, we would reduce or eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.
In Canada, we have a variety of organizations that support some aspect of information technology for researchers (e.g., one organization is responsible for research networking; another is responsible for the high-end computing you put on the network) and a plethora of funding agencies that provide money for IT infrastructure, software, support people, and research grants. Heaven forbid that we simplify the Canadian system and merge some of the organizations to create critical mass (instead of critical mess). We could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create a national strategy, and give better value to researchers. But, hey, we would eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.
As Vice Provost and Associate Vice President for Information Technology at the University of Alberta (I had the longest title of any administrator – size matters!), I was responsible for the institutional IT strategy. But there were over 50 independent IT groups across campus, each with a separate agenda, budget, and vision. The reality is that most of these groups did not have sufficient funding to accomplish their goals; they were continually in a reactive mode putting our fires, rather than being in a proactive mode and providing new value to their stakeholders. Many of these groups were unsustainable, especially in an environment of repeated budget cuts. It made sense that there needed to be some unity of purpose. If everyone could came together and work as one, at least in the IT area we could reduce duplication, simplify processes, create an institutional strategy, and give better value to faculty, staff, and students. But, hey, we would reduce or eliminate some (very important) empires, and that would be a terrible thing to do.
How do you solve the problem? First, you need to recognize that there is a problem. This is can be harder than you think since some groups will deny that there is a problem as a way of protecting their independence. Second, you need to open a dialogue between the groups. Unfortunately, dialogue can be perceived as a threat. Finally, you need a solution. The obvious route is to merge the groups, but the political or social reality may make this impractical. There are other ways that may be as effective (or more effective) to achieve the goal of a united voice. For example, creating a vision that everyone can buy into, or creating a greater level of communication or cooperation, might achieve most of the benefits. Regardless of the solution chosen, effecting major change is rarely easy.
My frustration with the fragmentation that seems to surround the groups that I interact with led me to create a mantra that has served me well over the years:
United we grow
Divided we status quo
The phrase is simple and gets at the heart of the matter. To many people, the status quo is acceptable; resistance to change is palpable in so many areas. But the world changes and organizations/processes need to evolve. Often the only way to effect substantive long-term change is to have a united purpose and achieve critical mass. Do you want one hundred small villages or one powerful country? Which will offer better value for the stakeholders in the long run?