Reorganization and Sustainability: Reflections and Projections
For the past two decades we have been talking about the need to reorganize higher education as part of the sustainability transformation. Much of the early discussion centered on the need to break down the academic disciplinary silos and from those discussions we saw the emergence of interdisciplinary departments, split appointments, and later, integration of knowledge from multiple disciplines into diverse learning settings. Similar discussions were taking place on the operations and administration side of the campus where even deciding where a sustainability staff position should reside was difficult because there were as many logical places as there were aspects to sustainability. In fact, these positions became especially important in demonstrating the need, not only to break down the silos within each of the areas but the need to break down the barriers between operations and academics to create a unified community.
It is in this context that AASHE emerged as an important proponent for ending the silo structure in higher education. But like so many organizations that start small and grow, as AASHE staff began taking on more specialized responsibilities (producing newsletters, planning events, developing specific programs), silos began to emerge. Among the 25 AASHE staff dispersed around the country we began to see a failure to optimize the knowledge and skills of the group. I realized that as Executive Director, I had helped create these silos that we called departments and that it was my job to dismantle them if I wanted to contribute to a sustainable AASHE. So began the process of reorganizing the AASHE staff so we could meet four very important goals.
First, we wanted to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of the staff. Given the wide range of experiences and training of the staff I was convinced that our problems weren’t a lack of talent – we have an incredibly talented staff who come from various sectors of higher education (from sustainability coordinators to institutional researchers to faculty), from other non-profits, and from the for-profit world. What we needed was a structure that would allow staff the flexibility to move among the various initiatives and projects where their skills and knowledge would be used in the best interest of AASHE and would allow them to maximize their professional development.
Second, we wanted to improve our internal communications so there would be better exchange of information among staff. As a virtual organization, we sometimes face challenges in ensuring that we all know what we need to know about what the rest of the organization is doing. We needed to restructure in a way that would ensure we could solve this problem.
Third, we had identified a few holes in our structure that needed to be filled (e.g. marketing) and needed to find ways to move the appropriate talent around while maintaining the quality of the services we provide. On the other hand we found some areas where we have duplication of activity in various departments and we needed to reduce that duplication to free up staff for other work.
Finally, we needed to create a more nimble organization that could more quickly respond to the needs of the members. We recognize that the future will require all organizations to be adaptable and that to be adaptable it is necessary to create structures that allow staffing to shift relatively quickly. Our approach is to not add and subtract staff but rather to move them among various projects that fit their knowledge and skills sets.
So several months ago, I began conversations with the staff about a reorganization. At our staff retreat a number of proposals were developed and they were later reduced to a few which were vetted with the staff until we finally had a single proposal that I presented to the Board of Directors for their review. The board supported moving forward with the reorganization and we have now completed the initial phase of the process.
Instead of 7 departments we will have three work areas (Operations, Information Technology, and Programs). Each of these areas is led by a Director who is a member of a Leadership Team consisting of the three directors and the executive director. The Leadership Team is responsible for ensuring that the organization is following the strategic plan approved by the Board of Directors. They are also charged with ensuring that their work areas do not become silos and that there is cross-area coordination and communication on projects. Directors are also responsible for the assignment of staff within their work area to ensure that skills and knowledge are optimally used to meet member needs. My role of executive director will significantly shift from internal management to external relations and the Board of Directors has revised my job description to reflect that shift.
Reorganizations are not easy on the people in an organization. They require rethinking what we do, how we do it, and who we do it with. They involve shifts of power, responsibility, and authority in a variety of directions. They typically create unease, unhappiness, concern, and disappointment in their early stages. But when done well, they create a more vibrant, effective, exciting organization to be a part of. I want to commend the staff for the support they have given to this process and their willingness (sometimes eagerness) to embrace a new structure for working together to both serve and lead our membership. I am very proud of them. I appreciate the support that the board has given us and I look forward to the new ways AASHE will be able to work with our members.
Our new organization chart can be found at http://www.aashe.org/files/aashe_organizational_chart_8.7.12.pdf .
We will begin shifting to this new structure during the month of August and hope to be fully converted by September.
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