Posted 10/03/2021 by: Professor David Lloyd

Warning - this blog contains some very long sentences*...

Last week we took our senior staff offsite for two days for a planning retreat. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a particularly newsworthy event, but in these prudent times it caused some raised eyebrows in certain quarters. It shouldn't have, but it did. Perhaps that's a testament to an admirable commitment that people have to ensuring we stay on track to manage our finances through what will be a difficult year, and that’s a good thing, or perhaps it speaks to a less admirable sentiment that holds that a policy of prudence shall provide the means to stymie all activity and creativity, always and forever more. Before I loop back to that, I’d like to tell you a little about what went on at ‘The Retreat’.

Actually, before I do that, I’d like to tell you a little about why we held ‘The Retreat’ in the first place.

A few years ago, in 2019, I was preparing for our annual senior staff retreat and in the spirit of recycling I was looking back at presentations I’d given in previous years – to reaffirm messaging, to ensure consistency of messaging, but largely to see if any of my jokes were still funny and could be used again. I happened across a slide from my first senior staff retreat, back in 2013. A pre-unijam1 slide which, on the day in question, was used as a placeholder / screen saver – it was a table mapping of the eight tables in the room with the names of the 64 attendees at that event. With hindsight I reckon HR put it together so that I would appear to know the names of the people in the room as I’d only just started as VC a month beforehand. Whatever its origins, while I was prepping for the 2019 retreat in search of amusing slides to re-use, I was looking at the 2013 slide deck. I was struck by the change in the composition of who was going to be in the 2019 room – at the turnover we had seen in six years as we crossed the horizon, rebutted merger overtures and made our plans for Enterprise25 – the senior staff who had started the journey six years prior were not all the same players as we continued on our merry way. We had our retreat, some people politely laughed at my recycled funny slides, we planned for the academic organisational transformation and I put up the 2013 table placement slide to show just how much had changed in a short space of time. 

And then of course 2020 happened. An operationally disrupting global pandemic coincident with the single largest organisational change undertaken by UniSA in 20 years. While everyone was working remotely from home and ‘on mute’.  Who says we aren’t up for a challenge?

Fast forward to 2021 and we find ourselves quietly celebrating our 30th year as a university, recognised as one of the world’s very best young universities and, thanks to prescience, prudence and people (some new Ps?) we have survived 2020 largely intact, without shedding jobs and, frankly, in considerably better shape than many of our peers in the sector. From my perspective though, we hadn’t bedded down our new structure and most importantly, we hadn’t connected as a team in the ways we previously did. The impact of remote working, the flip to 100% online learning, dealing with student hardship, strategizing for a future with no international mobility, the November shutdown, the cancellation of graduations, the suspension of normality and the sustained emotional and physical tiredness that the year had inflicted on us all – our AOT, which ordinarily would have been celebrated the UniSA way – with us coming together, engaging as peers, working through the kinks and improving ourselves through open, flat communication and knowledge transfer – none of that had been possible, none of that had happened. We had executive deans, general managers, deans of programs, deans of research from our seven new academic units – all in place with our professional unit directors – but so many of those present had never met one another face to face to cement our new structure, ways of operating and sense of one team. They’d spent too much of 2020 in coping mode, and now, in 2021, it was additionally clear that even more would be asked of them as we faced another year without an onshore international cohort of scale.

Oh, in case you didn’t know, at the same time as all of this was going on, the Federal Government changed the entire funding system for universities nationally, just as universities’ capacity to sustain world class research from their own funding base evaporated and the other ‘flawed business model’ of the mechanics of our national research funding landscape was laid bare for all to see, but somehow wasn’t called out or hasn’t been appreciated for the impending calamity it is, what with everything else going on in parallel – and to make life even more interesting, two weeks ago our new Minister announced what appears to be another policy shift, away from performance (rankings) towards economic relevance (commercialisation) which, on face value, sounds sensible and doubtless plays well with focus groups and those who think universities are up to no good in general. As an aside, I might pen a different blog in the future about the folly of shifting targets for a national research ecosystem that is geared to do one thing well and is doing that one thing exceptionally well, in what might be interpreted as a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the fact that it hasn’t really been appropriately resourced to do that thing for years, but will subsequently be blamed not only for no longer doing that thing well when it inevitably drops in the global rankings (oh! don’t they feed into international student choice and decision making and don’t those choices underpin the fourth largest export industry in Australia, not to mention a significant part of our wider national tourism industry, our competitiveness and national productivity?) but also for not doing the new thing it’s now expected to do because you can’t get to doing the new thing well without a solid base of the old thing. Confused? Sorry, but do try to keep up … but I digress.

It’s startling that prior to last week, the most recent gathering of the senior staff for detailed planning purposes was held in 2019. 2020 simply didn’t permit a retreat to happen and we found ourselves in 2021 with a cohort of new staff in new roles in a new structure facing new challenges against a backdrop of newly shifting policy sands. A cohort charged with modelling one team behaviours but who’ve never met one another face to face. That got me thinking about the purpose of prudence. It is, at its heart, a requirement for us to act wisely in the expending of our limited resources in prioritising the important over the nice to have – and it was clear that some investment in team and in team building was necessary, now more than ever. As I prepped for the 2021 retreat – I (foolishly) took on the role of facilitator for the two days – (a task I found to be quite exhausting, kudos to those that do that job routinely) – I re-trod my familiar ground of harvesting my slide decks from years past for witty nuggets, but more importantly to ensure consistency of message, to convey the journey we have been on since 2013 as Australia’s University of Enterprise, and I happened across the 2013 table setting slide again. I did some complicated mathematics and figured out that 13 of the 64 people in the room last week were in the senior staff cohort in 2013 – and only 5 of them are doing the same thing they were doing back then. The rest were in new roles, were new to the senior staff cohort or were new to the university. Turnover in an organisation is to be expected and is a healthy phenomenon. But taking stock of turnover reminds us of the importance of continually messaging and checking in, and of connecting to purpose, to mission and to intent. The session last week allowed those things to happen, in a sense of a return to business as usual, and it reminded us all of the need for us to do that more frequently across the organisation. As we begin to implement a key initiative of Enterprise25, the Academic Enterprise Plan, it is clear that we also need to remind ourselves of our strategic intent under Enterprise25 – and indeed, how far we have already progressed down the road of its realisation, in spite of the chaos of the past year and all those things we could never have foreseen.

The retreat itself played out well. The recycled jokes were as poorly appreciated as they have always been. The re-iteration of our collective journey of Programs, People & Precincts provided meaningful context for why we are doing what we are doing, and our coming together afforded us opportunity to appropriately interrogate the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. We checked in on and interrogated our stated ambition, we took stock of the impact of the new normal on it and we re-iterated our intent to stay our course in its realisation, together. We had the opportunity to do what Zoom doesn’t permit, to talk around the edges of the agenda, to interact one to one as well as one to many – and we gave ourselves permission to ask the difficult questions of one another – in fact, we prioritised that as a cornerstone of our collective purpose. That openness to and acceptance of constructive questioning and challenge unearthed new areas of emphasis for us for the coming year – including a need to appropriately revisit the implementation of our fourth P – prudence – to ensure that responsibly managing finances doesn’t curtail our institutional creativity or our ‘can do’ approach. We’ll go back now to examine the VCAs and their application in expenditure control in 2021 – noting that our intent this year is to break even – and cognisant that this, in and of itself, will still present a significant challenge as the impact of COVID19 on our revenue streams – as a not for loss organisation – will continue to wash through over the next two years at least.

Most importantly, our experience affirmed for us the importance of connection – through our internal networks and how we engage with one another. As we begin to emerge from the gloom of pandemic into a new post-COVID normal and as vaccination gradually enables greater mobility over time, we are acutely aware of the need to provide clear touchstones and narrative around our intent and our journey – our ongoing mission - so don’t be surprised to see some more gatherings pop up across the university in the coming weeks and months – both physical and virtual – where we will be checking in, providing context, and most importantly, affording the opportunity for us all to challenge and to question – traits that makes UniSA such a great place to work in – through flattened constructive communication and equity of voice.

That has to be a priority for us all – to listen and to be heard as we contribute to building our collective success.  So, do watch this space. As our students return to our campuses, it’ll also be fun as we start getting back together as a staff cohort again – and a worthwhile investment for us all.

*There is a sentence in this blog comprised of 159 words. That’s a new personal best. The second longest has 145 words. Unnecessarily long, but fun to construct. For me. For that I apologise. Also, I thought I might get through this entire blog without a movie or TV reference, but I couldn’t help myself – there is one. I think it was subtle though.

Professor David Lloyd

Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.


Tag cloud