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

FE isn’t a brand – and why that matters

Earlier this month the TES published a double-page spread (and splashed the story) about a six month study of further education reputation undertaken by Richard Gillingwater, of corporate communications agency Acrue Fulton.

In the article Richard ‘says FE’s national brand needs to be rebuilt, and unveils his plan to help the sector make people sit up and take notice’ (to quote the TES blurb).

While I applaud any media taking interest in further education and recognise Richard’s impeccable credentials, the available evidence suggests that it is impossible to rebuild the further education brand. That is because further education, with one important exception, is not a brand.

It is at best a sector and most probably a system.

There are numerous, occasionally conflicting, definitions of ‘brand’. It is one of those words, as Jerry McLaughlin delicately puts it, ‘that is widely used but unevenly understood’. Where academics and practitioners tend to agree is that a brand is a product, concept or service publically distinguished from other products, concepts or services. “A brand is what a firm, institution, or collection of products and services stands for in the hearts and minds of its target audience.”[1]

Brands, as the derivation from branding-iron suggests, are commonly expressed through the medium of a brand name, a trademark, a logo.

FE is not ‘publically distinguished’. It has no recognised logo, no trademark. More importantly, all but one of its target audiences (those who work in it) are insufficiently aware of it – who it serves, its constituent parts, its ‘key facts’ for want of a better phrase – for it to qualify as a brand.

In the past decade a handful of studies examining FE’s reputation have been commissioned. They all tell pretty much the same story – like this one from 2007. If you look under the bonnet of each of those studies, the respondents typically have some understanding of further education and FE as a concept[2]. Sometimes this is deliberate, as in the case of this 2012 study of FE employees.

To my knowledge (and according to reviews of available literature like this one from Anne Parfitt at Huddersfield Uni and this paper from David Roberts at the Knowledge Partnership) there has been no audit of further education’s reputation among a general population. By that I mean parents, students, prospective students, client and non-client employers. More basically, people who don’t work in organisations involved in the delivery or receipt of further education.

No such study has been commissioned, I’d suggest, because potential investors think it would be a waste of time and money. In 2011, the Association of Colleges and polling company ICM undertook a study of college reputations among such a general public. Two thirds of respondents thought Trinity College Cambridge was an FE college, and half said that colleges are still under local authority control and not inspected by Ofsted. In those other studies among ‘stakeholder’ audiences, respondents demonstrate a higher level of awareness of colleges than they do of FE. So it follows that a general public would demonstrate an even lower level of awareness of FE than they did of colleges in 2011.

You can undertake a completely unscientific test of this proposition yourself by asking three people who aren’t an FE lecturer, manager or service provider the question: “What is further education?” If any of the answers correspond, buy yourself a drink.

None of this is meant to detract from Richard Gillingwater’s research and points about FE reputation per se. It’s just that when it comes to branding, FE never made it onto the ranch. This matters, because if Government or its agencies (for instance) want to bolster reputations they should focus on FE’s constituent parts rather than the whole. And in doing so they should recognise that a strong brand depends on a minimal level of awareness – which, by the way, is why the continued, deliberate fragmentation of the term ‘college’ through the proliferation of new forms of institution is likely to prove so corrosive in the longer-term.

 

 

 

 

[1] A quote from Luc Speisser of Landon – whose 2012 blog entry on explaining a brand I would highly recommend.

[2] Take a look, for instance, at the list of respondents on page 3 of this 2007 study, commissioned from Ipsos Mori by then head of the Learning and Skills Council Mark Haysom (who, by the way, now writes critically acclaimed novels).

Who and what influences choice in further education?

In the past couple of years we have specialised in helping clients study attitude, awareness or behaviours among groups important to their organisation.

We also help clients adapt according to the results of the research.

Projects include studies for further education (FE) colleges – typically focusing on recruitment and seeking to help a client understand and respond to who and what influences student choice in their area.

We’ve found a number of patterns across our work in this field and thought that FE colleagues might find it useful if we set ten of them out here.

  1. The decline of the influencer. In 2012 a national study of students aged 11 to 21 and their parents (in which I was involved) indicated that parents exerted a high level of influence on student choice of institution[1]. In our subsequent studies on behalf of colleges – as the agency YouthSight suggests in relation to university applicants – the influence of other people on post-16 student choice of place of study appears to be in general decline. In our latest study (of a 3000+ population of higher education applicants to a large GFE) just under half of respondents said they had not been influenced by anyone. Where third parties do influence choice, mum and dad and family friends most commonly top the rankings.
  1. The rise of search. Online search is overtaking the prospectus as the channel applicants find the most useful for finding out about a prospective place of study. This shift and trend #1 are probably linked – rather than asking or expecting advice from friends or family on study options, students are more commonly actively searching online for institutions which fit their requirements. So colleges need to know what information potential applicants are looking for in order to make an informed decision, and ensure it is easy to find on their website. Online search is commonly also the most useful channel for applicants who have yet to commit to an institution and want more information – so keeping a website up to date may be the most effective ‘keep warm’ tactic for any college. Online search, by the way, dominates where full cost recovery provision is concerned. Social media discussions, adverts and newspaper articles are typically cited as the least useful sources of information about a prospective place of study. 
  1. The power of course. A good reputation for teaching is, typically, the third most important factor for 16+ students considering where to study. Locational factors – where a college is based and the transport network which feeds it – are commonly cited as the second most important factor. Course most regularly tops the rankings. Students may compromise on sports opportunities, on the time taken to travel, on the way buildings look or the facilities within them, but they are unlikely to make concessions on the subject and type of course they want to study. Which highlights the importance of teaching excellence and market research for colleges – while providing another depressing piece of evidence for those of us concerned about the black hole that is schools-based careers advice. 
  1. Gender differences in influence. Where we have explored this issue, we’ve seen notable differences in the way males and females make decisions about where to study. In crude summary, female applicants to further education courses are more discerning – they commonly take more factors into account than males when considering their options. They are also more likely to be informed in their institutional choice by school or college tutors than their male counterparts, who are more inclined to be influenced by friends. 
  1. Hedging bets. This phenomenon first came to light in a study we undertook of a population of 7000 students who applied to a college but enrolled elsewhere in early 2013. 20% of applicants considered the college as a ‘back-up’ choice. In the majority of cases, according to qualitative responses, they were encouraged by school tutors to apply to more than one institution. There appears to be a corresponding general growth in the number of institutions applied to – but we haven’t adequately tested that proposition to be sure. There are ramifications for conversion rates here, and related expectations about the effectiveness and performance of recruitment activities. 
  1. Last-minute change of mind. In the same piece of research, 10% of applicants changed their mind about the course they wanted to study in the period between applying to college/s and enrolling. This change of mind lead to a change of institution (because, as we have seen, course is the most important factor in choice, and in the case of this 10% they – rightly or wrongly – didn’t think the college in question delivered the course they had now settled on). Which means that colleges need to make applicants aware of the broad range of courses available (or at least of the mechanism for finding out), even if an applicant seems pretty sure about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. 
  1. Uncommon applications. Looking for ‘insurance’ offers may sound more like the behaviour of a university applicant than a prospective college student. Whereas university applicants have a system in place – UCAS – to standardise those applications, that is not the case for (non-HE) college applicants. The differences in the application processes between colleges and schools can be confusing, and the more students ‘shop around’ the more puzzling it can be. In one study among non-enrolled applicants, a significant minority expressed low levels of awareness of the particular hoops – application, assessment, interview or audition – that constituted the application process according to course type. Setting out the college processes – including what applicants can expect in terms of entry requirements, timings for interviews and communications from the college – in ways that are easy for applicants to understand is clearly important.
  2. Silence is goodbye.  We are sometimes asked to test (via mystery shopping or quantitative research) if open day, interview and enrolment practices are up to scratch. Where colleges most commonly ‘lose’ applicants it is in the period between application and interview, when the responsibility for a prospective student is passed from (say) a central recruitment or marketing department to administrators in a school or course area responsible for booking interviews. Where there is a delay in an application (say, prior to interview) most students do not follow this up – they assume they have not got a place. Similarly, where there is no response after an interview, most have been offered a place at another college or school, and they don’t chase the college in question either but apply elsewhere. The impact of poorly managed communications is clear.
  1. But goodbye may not be forever. In two separate studies this year (2014) we’ve asked non-enrolled applicants whether they would be interested in hearing about courses at the institution they rejected for another. In both cases a significant minority said they would. A majority of alumni, asked a similar question, were interested in further study. When applicants reject an institution in favour of another it does not necessarily mean they have a low opinion of that college – it may be a case of right place, wrong time. Or that the course they wanted to study was not available. These results also hint that FE alumni networks may be significant and (as yet) overlooked sources of recruitment.
  2. The timing of communications matter. The majority of our education research is undertaken among groups of students aged between 16 and 21. We have experimented with different methodologies depending on the client, the geography and types of students. Generally speaking, research is most fruitful when we’re contacting respondents by mobile phone between 5pm and 8pm. Where colleges are able to raise an expectation among student groups that they may be asked to take part in research, the response rate is (much) better. There are ramifications for data management and protection and communications planning here.

[1]Parent Power Dominates Education Choices’ – Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education and Skills Group.