South African Research units and funding scenarios

I have been holding back on this post for a while, because it touches on a very sensitive situation here in South Africa regarding the student protests about university fees (see #feesmustfall). In South Africa, many of our research and technology development units that are publicly funded are hosted by universities. These centres depend on students and particularly post graduate students to deliver services to industry. At the same time these centres depend on industry to commission research, prototypes and to also take up the graduates. With the massive shortage of funding in the education sector, many of these centres and their hosting universities are starved of funding.

In August, I was helping a leadership team think through their industry strategy. I realised that their strategy was dependent on two implicit assumptions. Firstly, that the student unrest about the fees would be contained and short lived, with government miraculously finding funding from somewhere to relieve the pressure in the system. Secondly, they assumed that the private sector would somehow remain keen to invest in R & D, problem solving and prototyping despite the political uncertainty and adverse business conditions that we have in South Africa at the moment.

I helped the team to develop a set of scenarios, and this is what this post is about. It was a spur of the moment idea at the end of a meeting.

A simple way to develop scenarios would be to take the two assumptions (we usually use uncertainties) and to construct a simple 2 x 2 matrix. I know a 2 x 2 matrix has many shortcomings, but this simple matrix was to allow a team to explore several topics they have been hesitant to consider collectively. This was about helping a group make sense so that they could develop some actions together. With the leadership team, we wrote an assumption about the stability at the university on the horizontal axis. On the left we have a stable political environment at the university, with some high uncertainty about how long the peace would last and how much public funding will be available. On the right hand side we wrote that the situation becomes both unstable and uncertain. This axis is all about the stability of the hosting university.

On the vertical axis we wrote at the top that business people remain optimistic and continues to draw on the facilities and the services of the research centres, while at the bottom we formulated the opposite.

This simple matrix gave us four quadrants which we numbered 1 to 4 clockwise.

Scenario_Matrix

The instruction to the team was to think of each of the quadrants in the extreme of the two assumptions of the quadrant if they both played out. I won’t repeat all that was said here, but will just briefly capture some ideas. In quadrant 1, the situation at the university was stable, while business people continued to draw on their resources. The group agreed that this was the preferred quadrant!

Then they consider quadrant two, where the university was in chaos, and industry had to find alternatives for their services, or they were stuck. Trust relations developed with industry over many years were harmed (again).

In the 3rd quadrant, industry is depressed or paralysed, while the university is unstable. Everybody loses. Good graduates can’t find work, good researchers and lecturers lose hope and possibly leave the system, while business slowly but surely falls behind because the instability is very local. Globally competitors are investing, expanding and growing because the world goes on.

In the 4th quadrant the industry is depressed, meaning that demand from industry is possibly suppressed. The stability at the university is uncertain, meaning little investment takes place. The university does not have the resources to build capability or offers that helps industry, while industry does not have the resources to expand their investment. The whole system just hangs there waiting for something to give.

Now I know that this little scenario exercise was done very fast (we spent an hour on this), and yes, I know it does not address the fundamental issues that the university and government (and politicians) have to sort out. But the leaders quickly realised that their whole strategy was based on a quadrant 1 scenario. In fact, the very academics that always complains about the short term focus of the private sector were now trapped in a short term survival mode themselves. No industry or society can increase its wealth, prospects or competitiveness by waiting, especially when global competitors are at the door, looking for opportunities! This quick exercise helped the team to realise they needed to expand their offerings to be ready for the very likely other quadrants. They also realised that they had to think of ways of adapting their strategy so that the small steps they could take with their existing resources would lay “platforms” or stepping stones for an as diverse as possible range of future alternatives. For instance, one of the technology centres decided to shift its focus from a product development to a process enhancement focus, because there was a strong interest from industry to find ways of improving operations, cutting costs and improving flexibility.

The scenario dialogue enabled several follow up meetings  where the team could draw in more people and together re-imagine their future alternatives. Everybody was relieved that they had some options, where before this meeting they felt trapped without many options.

What I tried to illustrate in this post is that a simple scenario exercise could be a great instrument to help a team realise that despite almost certain disruptions, they could still think in the short term and the longer term. They had some options, they could even create more. By anticipating the future they also felt more ready for the disruptions that we are all waiting for.

For me it was also important to see how this team realised that their clients (industry) also faced huge uncertainties, and that if the research centre could offer services that reduce risks and costs while at the same time creating alternatives for market and technological development. Somehow shifting the focus from their own survival (and fears) towards the needs of industry and graduates looking to complete their research helped them move forward. Thus I could help the team consider how they could ensure their clients continue to innovate, which in turn helped the leadership to better understand how they themselves then have to be innovative.

Innovation was instigated!

 

 

 

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