Focus, communicate, commit, and endorse locality – suggestions for managing academic initiatives

Focus, communicate, commit, and endorse locality – suggestions for managing academic initiatives

The continuously changing field of academic research amplifies the complexity of university management practices. A case study of an academic research initiative at Aalto University provides four suggestions for academic leaders and university management in charge of academic research initiatives: 1) Build common focus; 2) Establish continuous communication; 3) Foster commitment, and; 4) Endorse local initiatives.

Results

The studied academic initiative was initially established to reinforce strategic research competences in a particular research area, through collaboration among professors. Due to the initiative’s wide scope of goals and an interdisciplinary approach, the first steps proved rather laborious as participants sought to collaboratively define agendas for the initiative. As a result, the first year of operation appeared to produce few tangible results. The difficulties in buildings a common focus, and the consequent slow start of the initiative were interpreted as signs of ineffectiveness by the funding university. Simultaneously, the funding university faced a generally declining financial situation, and the cumulative effect led to considerable budget cutbacks for the initiative.

In addition to the lack of common focus, insufficient communication between the initiative members and university top management also played a role in the negative funding decision. Moreover, the communication was hampered after key individuals at the university top management changed during the first year of the initiative.

The sudden drop in funding created a sense of discontinuity for he project. This divided project members into those who focused on their existing research areas, and those who sought small-scale projects within the interdisciplinary team. However, commitment was considered to be exceptionally high, which allowed researchers to successfully achieve results despite the limited resources.

Furthermore, the management decided to endorse an innovative learning space for students as part of the initiative. This allowed the initiative as a whole to assume a new orientation towards student activation. The new orientation was supported by a bottom-up management approach focusing on locally developed activity.

Effects

The findings provide useful insights for academic leaders and university management into avoiding some of the difficulties that surface in the changing university system and new university organizations. More specifically, the study offers suggestions for managing interdisciplinary research initiatives toward successful research outcomes. The findings indicate that management practices aiming at short-term results tend to undermine the generation of novel findings through interdisciplinary research initiatives. These valuable initiatives rely on long-term support from university management.

Future Opportunities

The continuously changing field of academic research amplifies the complexity of university management practices. University management is forced to balance between efficiency, accountability, and competition, on the one hand, and collegiality, academic freedom, and long-term commitments, on the other. In this context, the analysis of cultural changes in the nexus of competing views, values, and goals is increasingly necessary to preserve the university as a central component of the contemporary society. Special attention should be paid to changing work roles and practices, the measurement of the quality of academic work, as well as to the new forms of collaboration between academic disciplines.

Photo credits: Helsinki University of Technology Main Building by Balcer~commonswiki

RYM Program

Energizing Urban Ecosystems (EUE)

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Aalto University

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https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/handle/123456789/19251

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