Mordor, Middle Earth and Mergers: A tale of why communication matters

Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.

According to one group of contacts, the outlook for further education is particularly bleak. In this version of events, area reviews sweep the land like the eye of Sauron. The fellowships of FE are to be usurped by a swathe of expedient mergers, which will feel (for one side at least) like a siege, rather than a marriage of venerable houses.

Among other manager and teacher friends, these dour predictions are little more than high fantasy. The area review process is an unfortunate distraction. Mergers have long been a feature of the landscape and reviews will not, for practical and economic reasons, lead to a significant increase in their number. Institutional autonomy will hold fast. As Samwise Gamgee says: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. It does look likely that the rate of merger will accelerate, although we cannot be certain when or where this will happen for the right reasons (i.e. to better meet student, community and employer need and improve opportunities for staff).

However it is clear – from the literature and recent history – that where mergers in both further and higher education have been unsuccessful, there are a number of common factors.

Firstly, unrealistic expectations bear down on the enterprise like an army of orcs. Mergers are likely to disappoint those looking for savings in the short and medium term, and those who underestimate the challenge of integrating two recently distinct organisations. Failure to manage those expectations can lead to untimely intervention from funders, governing bodies and regulators.

Secondly, as one college Principal recently wrote, ‘the risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial’. We have seen very strong colleges for instance, led by capable teams, badly injured in the effort of dragging another off the field of combat.

Thirdly, they fall victim to ‘poorly managed post-deal integration’ – lack of appropriate planning and poor strategy and management[1]. Under this heading I would include poor communication and the inability to express a clear vision.

Where mergers proceed, institutions must set out a strong educational case[2] – otherwise they are unlikely to persuade their key publics (staff and students primarily) that it is the right thing to do.

But merging institutions often struggle to make this case. Sometimes there just isn’t one to be made. Sometimes the consultation stage is too shallow to provide any robust evidence either for or against the merger and the opportunity is lost. Or in Tolkien’s words: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

And sometimes the institutions involved simply do not possess the capacity to communicate effectively in such challenging circumstances.

It’s tough. We are bringing together a group of communication experts, all of whom have first-hand experience of mergers, to help institutions overcome the communication and relationship management challenges that they will face.

These include creating and relaying consistent messages at a time when boards or leadership teams want to bring different agendas to the table. At the very point when employees are anxious and management teams are changing, those leading the process need to deliver stability and reassurance while retaining trust through timely, open and honest communication.

Unfamiliar structures – including regional boards and interim leadership groups – add another layer of complexity. The pressures of leadership, momentum, mission, unity, quality and due diligence threaten to relegate communication to an afterthought.

Among the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself often a symptom of the nervousness of key groups, colleges and universities can miss the opportunity to provide an alternative to negative narratives (the institution as victim) or to retain valued heritage rather than abandon it in the rush to create a new organisation.

The most significant challenges typically materialise after a merger; managing the cultural differences between previously competing institutions and minimising the disruption to employees of physical relocation and procedural changes, requires careful, considered and professional two-way internal communication.

Nevertheless some mergers succeed where, for instance, consultation is effective, ethical, and informative, institutions focus on engagement and retention, understand the risks in under-communicating with employees and place a premium on the individual without distracting from the day-job. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” says Galadriel. The outlook is not necessarily desolate.


[1] BIS, ‘Current models of collaboration – Post 14 Further Education’, June 2015

[2] Oakleigh Consulting Limited, ‘Literature review for the higher education collaborations, alliances and mergers project’, HEFCE, 2010


Four findings from research on employers and apprenticeships

Over the summer we conducted three separate research projects for different clients on the subject of apprenticeships.

While each project was tailored to the client and included different elements – such as a major catchment area review in one and lead generation in another – they all included detailed qualitative research among (different types of) employers.

What I personally find most interesting are the similarities between projects. Here are four trends, and why we think they are important:

  1. Creating a typology of organisations most likely to take on apprentices is difficult – for a good reason

Pages 18 to 27 of  BIS research paper 204  from December 2014 provide a detailed profile of the types of apprenticeship employer; the paper also includes data on what employers will look like in the future (as does the UKCES Employer Perspectives Survey 2014). It is tempting for individual providers to think that their local or regional profile will match this national data.

That is very unlikely because:

  1. Individual catchment areas don’t typically mirror England in terms of industrial sectors and it is (the patterns of) these sectors that most heavily influence what apprenticeship provision looks like.
  2. When you are researching at a smaller scale it becomes quickly very clear that organisational culture, personal experiences of apprenticeships, the frequency of junior vacancies and preconceptions of how young people behave are as important as organisational structure when it comes to predicting propensity to take on an apprentice.

To put it another way, among supporters of apprentices there’s typically a commitment that extends beyond the practical. While (in our research and the literature) businesses are most commonly hiring apprentices in order to fill specific current or projected skills gaps (and generally not, by the way, in order to get hold of cheap labour) the decision-makers very often want to get involved because they or the wider business has an affinity with youth development or workforce diversity as social issues – and they believe apprenticeships are a positive force in this regard.

There are two reasons why we would argue that it is imperative providers understand this distinction. Firstly, it’s vital to understand how practical drivers for taking on an apprentice differ from the emotive in order to tailor marketing communications and your broader employer engagement. Ultimately people make decisions, not business units. Secondly, this passion that apprentice employers display provides a major opportunity for providers; which of these might volunteer to help improve your tutor CPD or provide equipment in kind in order to ensure their apprentices are getting the highest quality training?

  1. Apprentices (and providers) are ambassadors in more ways than you might think

We were particularly struck during all three projects by the extent to which the views of decision-makers were shaped by their previous experience of individual apprentices. This included businesses who had never employed an apprentice but whose HR directors, say, had worked in one who had. More surprising still was the influence of training provider sales teams and the frequency across all three projects in which employers said that their view of apprenticeships as a concept had been negatively affected by pushy, poorly-informed sales teams. In this respect, all providers are in this together and your competitors are shaping your reputation.

  1. Understanding the word does not mean businesses understand the concept

A simple view of Google trends will demonstrate the growth in public awareness of apprenticeships as a term. This does not necessarily translate into understanding in any detail. Confusion among businesses not currently employing apprentices (85% of organisations nationally) was widespread in our studies, with a particularly noticeable propensity to conflate apprenticeships and internships. Awareness of higher apprenticeships was markedly low and again this is borne out by the literature. There is obviously still much work to be done in this regard despite the very laudable efforts of Government, agencies and PR consultancies over the past decade. This point is related to our findings at #1 – if first-hand experience of an apprentice is a major driver of awareness and opinion and the vast majority of organisations do not yet employ an apprentice, it’s not much of a surprise.

  1. Population change as a short-term threat

There is a lot of talk in HE circles at the moment about the impact of the big drop in the youth population up to 2020 on university recruitment – the population of UK 18-year-olds is set to fall by around 80,000 (11%) by that time. There appears to be less noise in relation to apprenticeships but it’s just as big an issue in terms of under 19 and, later on, 19+ apprenticeship recruitment. If you are a college or training provider and not taking population change into account in your planning you’re probably making a big mistake.

Why a change is not as good as a rest when it comes to education policy

Year on year the revolutions of educational change appear (at least to me) to spin faster, backwards and forwards, like an enormous washing machine. Centralisation, decentralisation, diplomas on, diplomas off, EMA to bursary and perhaps back again, three more types of colleges to add to the confusion,  hello quango, goodbye quango, new curricula, frameworks, white papers, funding streams, fee and floor targets, subsidies, tables, measures, rules.

Aside from how confusing all this must be for the lay-person and the boring but true fact that it takes years to see the impact of most policy changes (and so many seem to be changed before the effect can be felt, as if someone were impatiently switching between washing programmes), what’s the impact on people who work in schools, colleges and universities?

Last year a group interested in reputation and communications in further education (of whom I was a member) commissioned a piece of research looking at what people who work in FE think of their jobs, the sector they work in and the people who lead it. We were particular keen to understand whether employees were likely to act as advocates for their college and FE in general and, if not, why not.

The result was a forensic examination of what gets people out of bed in the morning to work in a college and what makes them want to stay under the duvet. One surprisingly – at least to me – common source of disconcertion was government policy. Or more specifically, its fluctuations.  Staff ‘are challenged by the changing nature of government policy [my italics] and the effect this has on working conditions and the quality of delivery to students’ according to the research (which included a survey of over 1300 staff and a complementary qualitative study). ‘Employees commented on leaders being overly concerned with government targets and being reactive rather than pro-active.’ Conversely strong leaders were praised for ‘protecting’ their staff from the slings and arrows of policy changes.

Frederick Herzberg (who you can see doing his best impression of Columbo in this BBC 2 film) developed a theory of job satisfaction in the 1950’s which split the needs of the working woman and man into ‘motivating’ and ‘hygiene’ factors. Hygiene factors – such as working conditions, salary, the way we are supervised – keep us from being unhappy (as Professor Herzberg says in the film). Motivating factors – responsibility, the meaning and significance of a role – make us ‘want to do it’.

The FE staff study suggests that there is a strong connection between rapidity of change in the context of  education policy and the stripping away of hygiene factors for people who work in that system, to such an extent that roles become denuded of meaning and, correspondingly, motivating factors.

The story for schools is not very different. This paper on ‘the emotional state of teachers during educational policy change’ presented at the European Conference on Educational Research in 2003 by Brigitte Smit ends with the warning:

“This inquiry revealed that educational policy change creates considerable uncertainty and even ambiguity among teachers. This was evidenced in teachers’ anxiety, professional isolation, and loss of connection and trust in the education system. If policy is serious about implementation, policy makers need to take cognisance of teachers’ emotional responses and dispositions towards educational change.”

With the advent of any new government there is a tradition of pejoratively labelling those resistant to change. They are the lump, the mass, the blob, them. There is also a cultural cliché of the moaning teacher, taking too many holidays, insufficiently progressive (whatever that means). And while there may certainly be more than a grain of truth in the assertion that professions (of whatever type) are inherently conservative, name-calling misses the point.

Even if every significant change to education policy over the past fifty years was benign, enlightened and conceptually the right thing to do at that point, they could still collectively amount to a list of mistakes as a result of their ubiquity.

If what you are doing (or perhaps more tellingly, how you are doing it) de-motivates a significant proportion of that workforce then something is wrong, surely? A more useful question – if the impact of hasty change is generally accepted to be negative, why does it happen so regularly?

I’m not on first name terms with very many politicians (OK, none) but they don’t strike me as (generally) deluded or unintelligent. Nor do the people who advise them. But when they are proposing and promoting new policies do they sincerely believe that they are introducing a change for the better or are they rolling with the political cycle? This is a system that promotes differentiation and punishes stasis – the irrepressible one-upmanship of party politics, engineered by the need, desire (call it what you will) to be re-elected and powered by wonks, think tanks, columnists, editors, analysts, advisors and a cast of many thousands, including people like me who make a living helping institutions respond to change.

Or, to put it another way, if you put too many clothes in a washing machine they come out creased.

I’m not advocating the dislocation of the political from education policy; we spend so much on education as a state that this would seem at best naive. Change can, of course, be genuinely progressive –  witness the Education Acts of 1902, 1918, 1921 and 1936, for instance and the implausibility of Wackford Squeers in an era of Teaching Councils.

But we do need a better system for testing and regulating the impact of policy (per se) on the people who work in schools, colleges and universities as well as on pupils, students and their parents.

More on what research tells us about how policy change affects the reputations of education systems among the latter anon.