Home Transformation Can universities use Agile Methodologies to promote agility ?

Can universities use Agile Methodologies to promote agility ?

by Srinivas Saripalli

This articles seeks to explore agile methodologies as they are used in universities. As is well-known, agile principles are similar but different people and organisations use them differently. At the core of agile methodologies is the belief that these principles are there to induce creative problem-solving strategies. These principles also call for companies and organisations to adopt innovative solutions to run their companies and organisations.

Originally, agile principles were custom-made for the software industry. Agile principles were in response to the challenges as faced by software development companies. But as time went on, other companies and organisations caught on the importance of agile principles and began using these agile principles to solve their problems. Other organisations to catch on the importance of agile principles were universities, so this article will explore how agile principles are used by universities around the globe. It explores how universities have used and can use agile principles to solve their problems and increase their productivity in creative ways.

Universities are multi-faced organisations. They carry out different tasks, and these tasks and missions can sometimes sound contradictory, but after all has been said and done, universities have to reach a common goal even though their tasks are many and sometimes overlap. The many and varying tasks that universities are enumerated as follows:

  1. universities have to teach.
  2. they have to conduct research.
  3. they have to serve their communities.
  4. they have to contribute to the country’s economic rejuvenation and urban revitalisation.
  5. universities are also expected to be keepers of history. They are tasked with safeguarding our knowledge.

Obviously so, these activities are many and do at times overlap. True, universities have for years played this balancing act, but it helps to understand the effects of this balancing act. We have to look at how this balancing act affects us, and also how it should affect us. Universities, like many other organisations, have their own challenges. For instance, technology has been both a threat and advantage to universities. Also, universities have to compete for international students, lecturers and professors and admin staff. Universities also have to deal with funding challenges. It is a no-brainer, but even faced with these challenges, universities are expected to improve their processes and operations. They are expected to do this quicker and much cheaper.

As already said, this article seeks to explore how agile principles are used by managerial leaders in universities. The guiding premise of this article is the curious concept that creative universities should put more effort on themselves so they can create more creative ways of running their operations.

Why Universities Need Fast and Flexible Organisational Methods?

A sizable amount of literature abounds of the many challenges universities face on daily basis in the running of their operations. For most universities in the Western hemisphere, global changes have included the fact that many other universities in the world – many universities out of the West – are conducting competitive research. Also, Western governments are expecting more from their universities, and there is pressure from international ranking for universities to come out on top on a number of fronts. Another challenge has been the arrival of online, or digital, learning. Competition from Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have made Western universities question their offerings.

The temptation is to think the current period we are living in as special. The temptation is to think that we are different and special than previous generations. One might want to think that the challenges faced by universities now were non-existent in times gone by. We tend to think that international competition, focus on ranking, decline in funding, is something news. Even if that is the case, even if universities are currently more innovative, using more creative ways to solve their problems than before, we cannot run away from that fact that universities still have to be more innovative and apply more creative thinking in solving their problems. The sad thing, though, is that bureaucracy and being traditionally-minded can be difficult to overcome obstacles to creative thinking required by universities. If you compare a university and a small entrepreneurial business (especially those heavily-reliant on technology), you will realize that universities are slow to innovate. Universities are laggards.

In this manner, we see the importance of agile ways of doing. We see how agility and agile thinking is necessary for universities. The matter is people are aware of the importance of universities adopting agile methodologies, but still there is an irony that confounds people: While it is clear that it should be beneficial for universities to adopt agile principles, why then is it difficult for such universities to shake up their processes?

Universities in the Mirror: Why Universities Should Examine Themselves?

There is a likelihood that most people would benefit if universities tried things in less time. With that in mind, would it not be more beneficial if universities ran small experiments to see whether new methods of doing things were not better than they were currently being done now? It is ironic: why is it possible that organisations revered for their research capabilities seem unwilling to shake up their own managerial practices? If companies like Google and Facebook can be agile in their thinking and practices, surely universities can.

Speed and Flexibility: The Huge Need for Agile Universities

Before we consider software developers as the start point for agile universities, let us note that the word ‘agile’, at most, is used colloquially. When we think of agility in people, we think of well-balanced people. We do not see someone who is agile as someone who is likely to fall. We believe that agile people are in better positions to deal with challenges and forever-changing situations. We think of athletes and sports stars. Rarely when such people fall, the impact would not impact them in an overly-negative manner. The same qualities we associate with athletes, sports stars and healthy people are the same qualities that we might want to associate with organisations such as universities.

If people are disheartened at the inability of their organisation to be agile and flexible, and they are not confident that their organisations do not have the abilities to respond to challenges quickly and flexibly so, we can then not these as examples where the word agile is being used in a negative way.

Individuals can be accused of being agile, but seldom do we think of organisations being too agile. In this instance, we can see that being agile is a thing we attribute to people and organisations. Little, though, is said of what is to be done to increase agility. For you and me, being more agile means that we may have to take up exercising our bodies. But, how do organisations become agile? How do universities become more agile? What exercises can universities take up to become more agile? These are the questions this articles seeks to explore.

Size and age can give us clues as to how agility can best be achieved. Newly-formed and small companies are at most times capable of speed and flexibility. Since there are less people to talk to, less people to ask for permission and approval, less people to convince, small organisations are better suited to make quicker decisions as compared to big, hierarchical and cumbersome organisations such as universities. The advantages of small companies and organisations lie in their smallness. Another thing small organisations capitalize on is: lack of precedent. In other words, compared with universities, small businesses and organisations are trailblazers. In contract, universities and big organisations – and, of course, courts – have to follow tradition before they can make decisions or rulings. Since almost all things done in small businesses and small organisations are new, change will not impact in a more disruptive way. At a small organisation, you are not likely to hear one worker say: ‘This is the way we always do things around here. We cannot do that. We have to follow precedent.’ For new organisations to compete in the marketplace, sometimes they find that in order to succeed, they need to deliberately try different things. The bias is that novelty and experimentation will make small organisations and businesses stand out from traditional rivals. Can the above said principles or biases work well when practiced by universities? Can smaller universities run more quicker and more flexible? And new universities – can they also be flexible and quicker like new start-ups and businesses? These are interesting questions to explore and examine?

Upgrading the Degree: From Software Development to Universities

The development of software programs is a monumental and delicate task. A million things can and at times do go wrong. This can lead to projects being delivered late. Projects can run over budget. Moreover, upon release, the software programs can fail to satisfy the needs of customers. In extreme cases, projects can be cancelled and not released to the market at all. What a waste in expenditure and time when these things happen and software fails to reach the market as intended. Software researchers and software engineers came up with ideas and strategies to try and understand why these challenges prevailed. This they did in order to come up with solutions as to prevent projects being delivered. This they did to come up with solutions that would prevent software projects from going over budget. This they did to stop underway projects from being cancelled. The researchers and engineers came up with many solutions. Crystal and Scrum are just some of those methods. February 2001 saw the release of The Agile Manifesto. This manifesto laid out the thinking behind agile software development.

Amongst some of the principles the manifesto articulated were:

  • To give the highest priority to the satisfaction of the customer by delivering early and continual updates of software
  • To cater to new changes even if the software program were in the final development stages
  • To foster collaboration between business people and software developers during the entire project
  • To have motivated people take charge of the projects.

The University is Agile at Research

Experts point out that universities are agile in the way they allow students and professors to conduct research activities. Researches at universities can either apply for research funding internally or externally. Universities also offers users resources like computer laboratories, libraries and special collection buildings.

Teaching the University the basics of Agility

The Agile Manifesto is noted for its use of short and clear language. The aspirations and philosophy it describes show the beliefs software engineers had of their software. Could universities rewrite this software manifesto and rewrite it to cater for their academic and research needs? Of course, this will not be an easy task. What compounds the issue is that there is no single activity that the university is said to carry out.

As a provocation, it might be useful for universities to focus on their mission statements, rewriting the statements like they were manifestos. Bu tailoring the manifesto to the mission of the university, people might come up with more agile ways of how universities can operate.

Just as software developers develop software, it might offer solutions if we think of one of the tasks of universities as ‘developing their students’. Getting close to software-speak, we might say that universities are in the business of ‘developing learning experiences’. As in software develop, such experiences are hard to carry out, the processes can fail, and have bugs and not result in desired outcomes

In Conclusion

The aim of this article was to make people reflect on how universities carry out their activities. Challenges faced by universities affect other organisations and companies as well. The area of software development is an area universities can look to in order to become more agile. The premise guiding this article is that because of the hugeness of the challenges universities face, they have more reasons to adopt agile methodologies. In conclusion, the bigger the organisation, the more reasons it should adopt agile methodologies.

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