The University of South Australia is 28 years young and for the past 20 of those 28 years it has had an academic organisational structure which comprises four divisions (which some might equate to faculties) overarching a variable number of schools (currently 14 of them, with one college thrown in for good measure). The divisions have pro vice chancellors and the schools have heads of school and the whole thing works because that’s typically how universities work.

As we career towards 2020, it is abundantly clear that technology is transforming industry; the digital world is lifting and changing students’ expectations; business and society are more interconnected and their challenges require multidisciplinary responses, research with impact and graduating students who must be equipped for the future of work.

The future, of course, is wholly indifferent to tradition and past reputations, and success will go to those that adapt quickly and embrace change. 

Reflect on this through a disruptive lens and it’s clear that securing future success is almost precisely the opposite of how universities have been geared to operate. But how best to describe and advance a university of the future? Some principles: 

a) Silos cannot have primacy in a connected world. So when thinking on how best to structure a university, reducing or removing silos should be very much front of mind. 

b) Restoring allegiance to the goals of the institution would be nice. Having staff work for the university, not just in it. 

c) ‘Product’ is not a dirty word. Universities are about the generation and transfer of knowledge through research and education. The unit of education is primarily the degree. The best institutions have a strong teaching/research nexus, which means that research is similarly linked to the unit of education – our product. So why not think about programs – products which are by nature contemporary – as the building block for structure … as other industries do?

Open and accessible as we are, we crowdsource ideas. in 2013 we were the first university in the world to use IBM’s Innovation Jam technology to engage the entire organisation at every level to discuss core business challenges. In 2016, we went back to our community to check in on our progress and further refine the shape of the institution as it grew.

While there was a temptation to move ahead with Unijam3 to explore new organisational structures, we invited through an open call, volunteers to shred up the existing structures and, informed by our principles of a program focus – to set about building a new organisational structure. 

No schools. No divisions. That was the final riding instruction. Decouple your thinking from ‘as is’ to properly imagine ‘to be’. 

We brought together more than 700 people, professional and academic staff and some students, this time to physically explore and co-create future program-focused structures for the University. We gave them sticky notes and sheets of butcher’s paper and things to play with: program-focused playing cards and Rubik’s Cubes. Our volunteers had the freedom to brainstorm, to challenge, to use the program cards to rapidly prototype, build and to re-build and to articulate any number of future possible academic unit compositions, engineered not around discipline or tradition, but around our products, our degrees, their complementarity and their alignment to future industry. 

Across more than 100 iterations of structure building, our staff worked on what rapidly coalesced as a logical transformation of our program offerings with an eye to future careers and to what makes UniSA stand out from its peers as a University of Enterprise. From 88 random sets of combinations of people, working in newly formed groups in an unrehearsed team exercise, we saw the emergence of patterns of program combinations that made sense. That mapped to future careers and which were not shackled by disciplinary traditions. Seven academic units constructed around program offerings with a management structure that empowers at the local level and which is geared towards strengthening teaching and research – the academic enterprise. 

We now have a new academic structure in waiting, geared for the future and self-determined by the wisdom of crowds. Our crowd. Now we get on and deliver it.