Higher education institutions are people-processing organisations

Home Focus Higher education institutions are people-processing organisations

When I was young, I was puzzled when people older than me told said that sugar came from a plant called sugar cane.  Although I enjoyed eating sugar cane, I did not understand how sugar was processed from the cane and packaged in 2 kg, 5 kg or 10 kg bags. 
This became clearer to me when we studied geography at high school, and when we toured a sugar processing and refinery plant. We were taught that the sugar refining process was so delicate that caution and professionalism were to be taken into account in order to produce the required product which met international standards. That was the time I appreciated the work involved in processing the commodity, from the cane field, through the processing plant, and to the consumers. 
Extending this sugar story to higher education institutions, it can be said that universities actually process people in a similar fashion. In other words, universities are people-processing organisations. Universities shape people’s thinking and behaviour. As people-processing centres, universities have to offer holistic programmes and operate under professional parameters in order to produce knowledgeable graduates at the end of the process.
 Equally, it is essential for universities to treat students as special and delicate individuals. Students need this special treatment in order for them to effortlessly acquire the requisite skills and competencies for them to enter the knowledge based economy with confidence and eagerness. Students need to be treated like clients, the same way business people treat customers. If customers are badly treated by business people, they will shun their businesses.
 University education is business itself. It is not an understatement that thriving universities, especially private ones, handle hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars each year. Much of this money is ploughed into the systems to make the people-processing activities of the universities smoother and efficient. 
 Traditionally, scholars in university management have identified and described four models of university governance which may be applied to all higher education institutions the world over. The models are: the university as a bureaucracy; the university as a collegial system; the university as a political system; and the university as an organized anarchy. 
In organisational management, the organised anarchy system is also known as the garbage can model where chaos is the order of the day. In order to perform the people-processing function effectively, it has been suggested that higher education institutions must create an enabling environment by using the models in strategic ways. 
This means that institutions must get good practices from the bureaucratic, collegial, political and anarchical models. These models affect decision making and the implementation of policies in institutions. In addition, for the people-processing function to succeed, universities make decisions which affect academic staff, non-academic staff, students, parents, and government – for those institutions funded by the state. In dealing with all these and other stakeholders, there will always be areas of consensus and disagreements. It is the duty of the leaders and managers to skillfully navigate through the reefs and steer the ship safely to its destination in cases where there are divergences.
 But what is the fuss about these models in the people-processing function of the higher education institutions?  My argument is that the advantages of the bureaucratic, collegial, political and anarchical models must be applied accordingly in order for institutions to perform the people-processing function in a successful way. In other words, managers of higher education institutions, or other organisations for that matter, must properly integrate the bureaucratic, collegial, political and anarchical models to their competitive advantage. The four models actually complement one another if correctly used. 
 It has been found that leaders in higher education institutions and other organisations often times unconsciously integrate the four models with much success. However, it has also been reported that blunders have been committed and in some cases, over relying on one or two of the models has resulted in the collapse of some higher education institutions and organisations the world over.
 Therefore, as strategists, higher education leaders and managers need to fully grasp the pros and cons of each of the four models. The leaders and managers must then incorporate the advantages of the four models into the strategic plans of their institutions and organisations. By so doing, it will be easier for them to make informed decisions that will support the people-processing function of higher education institutions.  When the people-processing function is well executed, institutions will have self-confidence and stakeholders will be proud to be associated with the success of the institutions. 
 Therefore, there must be total commitment to the values and ethos of the organisations from leaders and managers of higher education institutions and organisations. When this happens, leaders and managers will earn trust and respect from the stakeholders.

* Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com