Blogs + think pieces

Seeing further

24th January 2018

Mission matters, argues Martin Doel, and college leaders should take it seriously

The first duty of leadership is to confer purpose and direction. That, at least, is my belief, confirmed both by personal experience and, more recently, by study and reflection in my new FETL professorial role at the UCL Institute of Education. This view will no doubt be contested. Many will recognise not a hierarchy of duties in leadership, but rather a series of complementary roles. Others will highlight another duty, such as engendering values or resource management, as pre-eminent.

To emphasise purpose and mission is not to devalue other leadership duties and roles, but rather to indicate that defining purpose is the starting point organisationally. It provides an essential anchor for an institution or enterprise and is integral (with values) in establishing identity. A more clearly defined purpose also supports collaboration and partnership, exposing points of shared interest or value and highlighting areas of overlap and competition. Furthermore, it enables focus and more discerning judgements in allocating resources and evaluating opportunities for growth.

My research as FETL Professor for Leadership in Further Education and Skills has demonstrated that I am not alone in this view. The first duty required of trustees of a charity, according to the Charity Governance Code, is to determine and safeguard organisational purpose. In a further education context, this requirement is reflected in the Association of Colleges’ Code of Good Governance for Colleges. If all this sounds a little college-centric, the central conclusion of Richard Rumelt’s excellent book, Good Strategy: Bad Strategy, based on interviews and case studies involving major corporations, is that good strategy is as much about what not to do, as it is about what to do; decisions being based on organisational capability and mission ‘fit’. To draw on my first career in the military, every officer is taught that the first prinicple of war is the ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’.

Less reassuring has been my experience of the application of this rule in further education. Together with a colleague at the UCL Institute of Education, I am about to embark on a structured study of how colleges and other FE providers set and review organisational purpose and reflect this in their strategies. But even from a cursory examination of college mission statements from websites, it’s clear that many are extraordinarily open, capable of very wide interpretation and provide little in the way of direction. One common mission aim is to enable all ‘learners to thrive and succeed’. Who wouldn’t want this to be the case? But who are the learners in question, what type of learning will they be doing and how will their success be judged?

All this, I know, can sound like yet more management speak. But effort spent in defining core purpose, and subsequently recognising essential values, is critical in ensuring sustained success in both public and for-profit organisations in further education. It is, for instance, critical in determining fit in a merger with another college; in re-structuring; in keeping everyone working in the same direction; and in evaluating actions in response to constantly changing government policies.

The perpetual churn in government policy is both an explanation of why purpose in further education may have become indistinct and in a state of constant flux, and a reason why it is so important to keep in mind. The risk is that, without a firm sense of self and mission, FE providers are drawn into a constant act-and-react cycle that undermines any attempt to have a strategy that extends beyond the next funding year.

These are issues that I will explore in my forthcoming public lecture, ‘Defining Further Education: Does it Matter?’, at the UCL Institute of Education on 15 February. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a critically important debate that we, as a sector, need to have.

Martin Doel is FETL Professor of Leadership in Further Education and Skills, at UCL Institute of Education

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