C5: Bringing sense-making into University strategy implementation: the state of “not knowing it all” and the role of RMA as a coach

Johanna Kolhinen & Jenni Virtanen, Helsingin yliopisto
Aiheet: 3. Tulevaisuus, Keskitaso

In this paper, we investigate a case of strategy implementation at the University of Helsinki (UH) focusing on how to enable academic freedom and ownership in a process of strategy implementation. The case: Building a Roadmap for implementing research themes at UH highlights the use of participative, interactive development methods (such as workshops), allowing the creative power of the academia to be put in use in an organisational development context. We study the narrative of the case with sense-making (Weick 1995; Brown et al. 2015) perspective with auto-ethnographical method. The approach is rooted in organisational research that is interpretive, social constructionist, processual and phenomenological.  

To engage ourselves in such interpretive process in practice requires a shift in how we see our own position as Research Service professionals. We argue that the open-ended process can be supported best with a coaching mindset and facilitation skills, allowing us to safely enter the state of “not-knowing-it-all-yet” and enduring the uncertainties as the learning unfolds. This way we can create a new state of collective strategic understanding, that only take place in interaction with each other. 

Strategic thinking has gained more and more interest in the University context in Finland. The University’s institutional journey from a governmental office to an organisation that is not business-driven either, has challenged the way we see strategic management at the University. The Universities have written their strategies to ensure their success in the future but at the same time the conceptual strategic thinking has remained rather distant to the actual academic core people. 

Research Services are offering support for strategic management, balancing the necessities of governing and embracing academic freedom. Traditional, top-down linear models of implementing strategy fit poorly into the context of a creative professional organisation. To deal with this contradiction, we adopted a view where the strategy implementation is seen as an act of organisational development, the University as a complex adaptive system (CAS) and us, the Research Services specialists, as facilitators of such development work. 

At the beginning of 2021, the leadership of the UH academic units as well as specialists from the Research Services began to collaboratively draft a University-level roadmap for implementing the research themes outlined in the UH strategy 2021-2030. The working group was formed from representatives of each faculty and independent research institute. The group convened five times in 2021. A project group at Research Services with multidisciplinary backgrounds and skill sets, including facilitation and coaching, was responsible for preparing series of workshops and formulating the discussions into a roadmap. 

We aimed at creating a shared meaning-making process by facilitating discussions in the workshops in an open-ended manner. As a result, joint understanding of the role and content of the roadmap was gradually formed. The UH roadmap focuses on multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity, transcending boundaries and forging partnerships. Roadmap also found its place between the University-level strategic plan and units’ implementation plans, bridging the gap between the top-down strategic goals and the activities actually carried out among the grassroots, the academic units.