Our sector: Aligning aspirations of the annually elected with the long term

Do an MBA they said, it will be fun they said. Turns out it actually was. I started my MBA January 2016, shortly after taking up the role of Guild Manager at Glyndwr Guild. During the next two and a half years we transformed into Wrexham Glyndwr Students’ Union. As intense as the MBA was, it definitely directly contributed towards the success of the new Union as I was able to learn and progress along with the growth of the Union, applying things from my modules (such as law, finance, CSR, strategy) directly to the Union.

After completing the modular part of the MBA, it was time to choose a dissertation topic, and what had become clear to me over the two years was that no matter how good a students’ union is, something still eludes us. How on earth do we align the aspirations of our annually elected sabbatical officers with our long term strategies?

Months of research, literature reviews, interviews, compiling information, analysis and interpretation followed before I was able to come up with a method which I believe could help students’ unions align their sabbatical officer (and student!) needs with strategy.

The results of the study highlighted some extremely interesting data which could potentially lead to more in-depth studies around this, so, what did I find:

The Significance of People This played a huge part in the findings; an acknowledgement on the significance of the human factor in students’ unions. The CEO, their experiences, the sabbatical officer, their emotions, how the economy is impacting students and how they in turn react to it. We are creative any dynamic organisations, full of emotions, yet we find ourselves trying to be logical and systematic all the time in the way we write our strategies; we need to find a way to make these two things integral to one another and not opposing forces.

The Speed and Reason for Change We typically have 3-5 year static strategic plans whilst the world around us is moving at an incredible rate. A strategic plan written 3 years ago would not be taking into account today’s technology, social media or student needs. Sabbatical officers want to make change, they have less than a year to do it (let’s be honest, October to March is their key interaction time) and we are doing them and the students they represent a disservice by pigeonholing them into a plan which was written before they were elected.

Synthesising Culture and Strategy In the research, whilst all CEOs interviewed said their organisations had KPIs, not one of them likened their perception of organisational success back to the KPIs they’d just discussed. That’s not to say KPIs are defunct, indeed, they give direction and objectives, however, if an SU didn’t meet their KPIs, is it to be assumed they’re an unsuccessful organisation? Absolutely not! I would doubt that our universities judge our success on the meeting of internal KPIs, but rather judge us on being a professional, supportive and inclusive organisation with a positive culture. Could an organisation that achieves this really be considered unsuccessful because they didn’t meet their KPI of moving up 15 places in the BUCS rankings? And flipping that on its head, could an SU that has met all its KPIs but has a negative culture, isn’t trusted by students or its university really be considered a success?

Effective Communication; to whom? A picture paints 1000 words…the table below shows a typical strategic plan research cycle, in ‘year 0’ we do research with our membership…by year 3 the vast majority of these have gone. Who on earth is our plan representing at this point? Whilst some part time/PhD students might be around at that point, are we confident they participated in the first place and if they did, are their views the same as they were 3 years ago?

Students’ Union Specific Activities Our constitutions and the Education Act override any strategy. Our charitable objects usually state that we will represent students, provide social, cultural and sporting activities and the Education Act covers our elections. This isn’t to suggest that these activities should not be part of a strategy, but it allows for the consideration that strategy can be simplified as these activities can be delivered and appraised through other mechanisms.

Synthesising Business and Behaviours I’m going to ask you to watch a 70 second video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFEarBzelBs. No matter your thoughts on Apple, that video is the greatest example of what I’m about to say. That advert was made in 1997. It is still relevant today. They did not show a single product, price, speed, unicorn or buzz word, but somehow, I, the laymen viewer trust that organisation. I trust it because it demonstrated behaviours I believe in; bravery, respect, courage, intelligence, creativity. It’s absolutely timeless and could be show on TV today and still be relevant. Apple just became the first company to be valued at $1trillion so they can’t be doing too badly! Why can’t we do that (not the $1tn bit), but why can’t we base our selves on our behaviours instead of throwing glitter and buzz words at everything every 3 years? Create a brand of values that means today what it did 20 years ago and what it will mean in 20 years’ time.

So, what is the answer to all this? The model I came up with can be seen below:

It suggests researching with students and sabbaticals every year (a scary thought maybe, but using the technology available to us) to ensure that student views are current and representative. This allows sabbatical officer aspirations to be included in project plans and KPIs each year, strongly connected to what our students have said; you could have a document underpin this year if you wanted?

The key here is that an overarching vision, value, behaviours and core activity would underpin all of this and probably would not change for years! You might notice when doing your research that in year one and year two, student opinion doesn’t really change, the same for year three and year four…but if you stepped back and compared year five to year one, you’d probably see a huge difference. Only you wouldn’t have noticed it happening. This is because you will have evolved over time to keep up with what your students, and sabbaticals want! Surely, that is far less scary for everyone and gives a much better service to our students?

I do hope you’ve found this interesting and it’s created some ideas for you. I’m not suggesting this would work for everyone, but it’s aimed to create discussion and challenge. I would be very happy to discuss this in more depth or send you the full research (this has boiled 18,000 words down to 1000) so please contact me on Sarah.Ellis@Glyndwr.ac.uk or @SarahDCEllis on Twitter and I’d be happy to help.



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