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Francis - The Frustrated Academic

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

"Like tipping weed-killer on a garden": How Centralisation & homogenisation Destroy innovation 

Francis scored his job as 5/10

Francis is a senior lecturer in one of Australia’s higher education institutions, a job that traditionally he has thrived in:  “I love working with ideas, to have them expressed and shared, and influence other people… ideas are important and valuable.”


But, as Francis explains, many organisations don’t know how to cultivate idea production. “When it comes to managing ideas, there’s a bit of a paradox….  Research and ideas by definition are about uncertainty and unknowns, but most of management is about reducing uncertainty through control… Organisations need to allow people to take risks instead of controlling everything”.


To Francis’s frustration, following a trend in the sector, the university has recently restructured in the opposite direction, introducing ever more controlling systems and structures. Such organizational-level changes usually have significant trickle-down consequences for employees’ work design, and that is the case here[].


The first change was centralization, or moving decision-making away from local units to the small senior group in the institution. Although the change was intended to save costs and increase efficiency, the result (common with change of this type) has been to slow decision-making down, often to a stand-point, and to stifle local innovation[1]. In Francis’s words, “centralization is theoretically more efficient, but, when it comes to ideas, it’s like tipping weedkiller on a garden”.  


Francis refers to a second change occurring in the organization as “homogenization” or “wanting every task and metric to be the same across diverse units”. As one example, Francis described how the previously specialist support staff that helped to recruit students for a niche academic program were considered “too expensive” and so were replaced by staff with generalist knowledge. Targeted recruiting techniques, suitable for the specific type of students, were abandoned in favour of one-size-fits-all approaches. The net effect was fewer students recruited, and a lost opportunity for growth. As Francis claimed, “It’s like saying we don’t train surgeons anymore ‘because there is only 50 of them, and we don’t have the adaptability to tailor training to a smaller niche group’ – it just doesn’t make sense as a strategy”.


The organisational redesign affected Francis in several stages. First came bewilderment and shock at the direction of the change. Next came an effort to try to wrestle back some control by taking on a management role. And then, when he realised that – even as a manager - he faced the same blocks to getting things done, Francis gave up and stepped down from the role. And now, in the final stage, Francis is looking to leave the organisation altogether, conforming with research that shows that individuals with scarce skills tend to leave an organisation when they become disengaged[].


Unfortunately, not everyone can so readily escape into a new garden. Francis worries about the colleagues he will leave behind, especially support staff who he sees as “intensely overloaded” by the inadequacies of the restructure:


“The people around me are angry, depressed, upset, but are not able to exit so easily. Also many of them have a belief in a ‘just world’ - they believe their hard work and sacrifice will somehow in the end be recognised and respected. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. And this makes me sad.”

[1] Damanpour, F. (1991). Organizational innovation: A meta-analysis of effects of determinants and moderators. Academy of Management Journal, 34(3), 555-590.

A little more..

What I like about my job.

“To work with ideas, to have them expressed and shared, and influence other people… Ideas are important, valuable”

“Like many academics I don’t think I really like working with students very much… in that they are people, and people are generally draining in some way. It’s not they are not enjoyable, energizing, fun.. But interacting with people is quite effortful. So going from solitary tasks to working with 100s of people is quite demanding...”

Stressors of an academic.

 This isn’t to say it is an easy job. As Francis explained: “The tasks are ill-defined so they can keep going for ever… the research and ideas part of the job especially can’t be contained, so to be successful you have to work pretty much most of the time…”. 


Francis’s view concurs with the research evidence [2,3], which shows that long working hours is a key pressure for academics.


"As a Deputy Vice Chancellor of research once told me, being a successful researcher these days is similar to being an elite athlete – “it’s incredibly competitive”.


[2] Winefield, A.H.; Boyd, C.M.; Saebel, J.; Pignata, S. Job Stress in University Staff: An Australian Research Study; Australian Academic Press: Bowen Hills, Australia, 2008. 

[3] Gillespie, N.A.; Walsh, M.; Winefield, A.H.; Dua, J.; Stough, C. Occupational stress in universities: Staff perceptions of the causes, consequences and moderators of stress. Work & Stress 2001, 15, 53–72.

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