Brand values in higher education

Redefining internal culture to influence external change.
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The Engine Room’s work with outstanding further education provider Greenhead College, is the ultimate evidence that brand is about far more than just a logo.
This brief didn’t involve any consideration of the external manifestations of the brand, but instead involved the whole workforce in the exploration of culture, to support the college’s bold vision for the future. And 1,200 post-it notes were one of the most fundamental tools used to steer this inclusive project…
The challenge behind the change

Yorkshire-based Greenhead College is widely acknowledged – and independently ranked – as one of the highest performing sixth form establishments in the country. With in excess of 2,500 students – and counting – the college’s reputation has continued to grow since it was established in 1973. Academic performance is exemplary and with strong pastoral support, the onward success of students and the development of well-rounded individuals who can fulfil their potential, is key.

However, in an increasingly competitive landscape with mounting expectations, the College faced a seemingly relentless challenge to attract more students, with less funding, while maintaining exemplary quality standards.

A rich heritage had to be balanced with future-focused innovation – something that perhaps already lay at the heart of the College’s vision but wasn’t articulately conveyed.
In a pioneering move, the senior leadership team therefore identified that, following a period of significant change – and with further change inevitably on the horizon – this was a great opportunity to go back to basics. It was a chance to answer questions such as ‘Who are we?’ ‘What are our principles?’ ‘What do we stand for?’ and ‘Why are we different?’

“The theory was that, if organisations can’t understand or readily recollect all of that, how can they go on an onward journey together? Equally, how can they successfully bring others – such as students and their parents – on that journey with them?”

Darren Evans, design director, The Engine Room

The process of change

A design-focused approach was adopted from the outset, to uncover the true definition of the current culture – not just perceptions – and suggest opportunities for refinement, before the future could be tackled.

A total of 115 colleagues – from the senior leadership team through to part-time administrative staff – were invited to attend a series of exploratory workshops, as were students, governors, and other educational partners.

The group sessions sought to consider what is great about working for Greenhead College, what it is renowned for, how it compares in the marketplace, and what could be improved, to name just a few themes.

To help foster an early openness to all-things-brand, participants were initially invited to align their organisation to a well-known supermarket, writing just one word on a post-it-note to explain their selection. While the exercise was initially met with apprehension – not least because supermarkets and colleges are markedly different – the resulting discussion was very telling. For example, it soon became clear that singular words such as ‘quality’ could have extremely varied meanings from one person to the next, evidencing that brand is open to interpretation, and what defines it is often a myriad of things.

Key insight activities then followed. Questions were purposefully simple, typically asking for one-line or even one-word answers to ensure participants did not overthink their responses.  People were told to note their points, relatively privately, before being invited to stick them on the walls in the room.

This exercise followed the principles of the ‘rose-thorn-bud’ methodology, with the pink post-its (roses) representing what was good about the organisation, green (buds) demonstrating the opportunities, and the blue (thorns) showcasing the areas for improvement that risked diluting the culture if ignored.

Away from this group setting, the 1,200 post-it-notes were then clustered to allow salient points to be presented back to the senior leadership team, in a separate session, away from the college. This clear methodology gave context to a mass of data and helped contextualise what may otherwise have been considered an overwhelming volume of information.

Importantly, ‘theming’ the insights in this manner, meant they could easily be mapped against the organisation’s currently-articulated mission statement and values. This provided a powerful, digestible and effective way to distil the breadth of information down to a handful of must-know points.

It also allowed the post-it-notes to do the talking – it couldn’t be dismissed as third-party feedback from an external team that doesn’t truly understand the organisation. And it clearly demonstrated that while the college may say certain things, these points perhaps don’t always ‘show up’ in the eyes of the people who matter – employees.

Every identified mismatch, however minor, was seen as an opportunity for change – a chance to review a potentially outdated value or practice which could otherwise contribute to a feeling of unauthenticity if it wasn’t addressed.

“The production, collation and consideration of 1,200 post-it notes of information may sound like ‘data overload’, but the depth of detail that can be uncovered from this exercise – plus the visual impact of the resulting findings – delivered unparalleled insight. Such insight is of particular importance when working collaboratively on a culture project, and seeking to involve as many critical stakeholders as possible.”

Darren Evans, design director, The Engine Room

The change we created

Working in ongoing collaboration with the senior leadership team, Greenhead College’s proposition – and most notably its purpose, principles and personality – was then reviewed and rearticulated with the help of The Engine Room.

This was later replayed – again, visually – to everyone in the College. The theory was that, by colleagues rediscovering and redefining who they are, together, it would be possible to cement a greater degree of unity behind a shared ethos, which should drive a collective appetite for change on the upcoming journey.

“This project wasn’t intended to make external pressures go away, but The Engine Room’s collaborative, inclusive process has helped us articulate everything we stand for. As a result, we’ve rediscovered our mojo, enhanced morale and driven greater productivity and efficiency, as we navigate the road ahead, together.”

Simon Lett, Principal, Greenhead College

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