In recent months we have seen a number of college mergers. Some instigated by Area Based Reviews and some planned previously. Regardless of the starting position, one thing is clear, the most successful mergers are those which begin to function as one new unit as soon as possible after the merger.
For this to happen requires effective harmonisation across a range of areas e.g. staff contracts, policies, key systems, processes and procedures and most importantly the curriculum to be offered.
Synthesis of the new college from the individual parts
All too often in the past mistakes have been made because one college is viewed as larger than, or stronger than the other. The view taken is that everything in the larger/stronger college is better. Experience tells us that this is just not the case! There are many examples of pockets of really good practice in smaller or weaker colleges and it is tragic when these examples are lost.
The way to avoid this happening is to regard the new combined college as a completely new entity. One that has been formed from the most effective individual parts of the original colleges. This way the best of each may be preserved!
It is difficult to appreciate fully the intricacies of those matters needing attention in a merger. Much needs to be done before the merger date, some of which is obvious, but some which is unseen but just as vital. The obvious areas concern things such as staff contracts, software systems and procedures and signage. However, others remain unseen in the background. These include service and supply contracts, choice of professional advisors, banking arrangements, and financing. Ensuring that all these areas are identified early and dealt with efficiently is challenging!
One way of ensuring that your merger process is not more challenging than it needs to be would be to appoint a dedicated Manager who will use recognised project management techniques. Whilst this might not justify a full-time commitment, what it certainly does demand is the attention of an individual with top-table authority who is not distracted by day to day issues and problem-solving but can devote all their attention to one subject, the merger, in short, a Project Manager.
Curriculum Development and Planning
The extent to which parts of each of the merging college’s curriculum offers were different from, or similar or complementary to each other will have been considered carefully when decisions about whether or not to merge were being taken. For the sake of ensuring the future success of the new College, these areas need to be given urgent thought. Once the decision to merge is reached, Marketing & PR, curriculum and resource planning are just some areas that will rely heavily on clarity. Lack of suitable preparation in these key areas could prove catastrophically expensive. However, good planning and forward thinking can ensure that the merger has a flying start.
Systems and Procedures
It is essential that harmonisation of systems and procedures takes place as soon as possible following the merger. A way to ensure this is achieved is an efficient and effective use of process mapping and modelling techniques. The situations in each constituent college are mapped and then teams, which include members of all participating colleges, are brought together in workshops, in a combined effort to model the way forward. Not only is this a most effective way in which to achieve harmonisation quickly and effectively, it is also an effective way to achieve another merger essential- the one of ensuring that all staff feel that they belong to the new college.
Whilst it is inevitable, following the agreement to merge, but before the merger happens, that there will continue to be separate organisation structures, a combined structure for the new college needs to be agreed as soon as is practically possible. This is necessary for various reasons to do with the provision of clarity for the way forward, also the creation of a suitable environment in which effective recruitment to the new structure may take place.
In summary, the most successful mergers are the ones where there is careful advance planning and well conceived implementation.
My blueprint for a successful merger is:
- The appointment of a dedicated Project Manager
- The recognition of good practice regardless of where it previously existed
- Robust planning, especially in curriculum at the earliest opportunity
- The use of process mapping/modelling to harmonise systems and procedures
- Accessing external skills where needed to supplement the existing teams
Malcolm Cooper, MD, MCA Cooper Associates