Critical Agility: Focusing Strategic Attention in the Research Enterprise

By Rand Haley

What should guide the strategic focus of university and academic medical center research enterprises as they strive to strengthen their contributions to institutional and societal missions, attractiveness to leading faculty and students, and competitiveness?

I propose a new concept for exploration, which I call Critical Agility.

U.S. universities expend over $60 billion per year conducting research. This research activity has historically led to discoveries with meaningful impact across economic, health, and social dimensions. At the institutional level, the challenge is how best to support faculty and other researchers within a complex organization with myriad activities and missions, including education, research, patient care, and economic development.

The strategic leadership and management of university research enterprises is complex. These enterprises are powered by entrepreneurial faculty with strong governance responsibilities and supported by numerous, often uncoordinated, mechanisms. Their goals range from knowledge discovery to dissemination (perhaps as commercialized technologies), to outreach, and to economic development (including their role in local and national innovation ecosystems).

Over the past decade of providing strategy and management consulting to universities, I’ve observed that despite the complexity of research enterprises, many institutions focus too much attention on increasing annual research expenditures and related rankings. Has that complexity caused leaders to overemphasize research volume as a strategic focus?

This seems to affect top universities with more than $700 million annually in research expenditures as well as those that spend less than $100 million. Despite cautions about overbuilding research enterprises, the phenomenon persists, perhaps because it’s tough to identify other simple strategic frameworks – ones that can easily be communicated.

Critical Agility offers an alternative. A robust but easily visualized and communicated concept, it’s a strategic approach that can help institutions fare far better than continual emphasis on research expenditures and awards. It consists of two elements: critical mass and agility.

Critical mass recognizes that a certain threshold of capacity (including faculty and other researchers, especially in strategic areas of inquiry) is tremendously important to the health of research enterprises. It’s a precursor to competitiveness for federal and other research funding streams, particularly in disciplines where larger-scale, multi-investigator projects are common.

Significant strides can be made in critical mass without major increases in overall research volume, and many institutions would be better served by focusing less attention on volume and more on alignment of investments with areas of strength.

Agility refers to the enterprise’s ability to adapt and be resilient. It enables strategic adjustment to research investment areas, perhaps to better respond to federal or industry funding priorities or to better address state or local needs.

The concept of agility includes an institution’s research support “fabric,” including infrastructure (from core facilities to administrative services), incentives and barriers (both real and perceived), and the environment supporting graduate students, post-docs, and other researchers.

Agility need not conflict with volume; a very large research enterprise need not be a large ship, as the metaphor goes, lacking the agility to change direction. But it should draw more strategic attention from faculty and leadership.

As reported in Science, over 80 scientists from a UCLA brain imaging laboratory were recently recruited to move, en masse, to the University of Southern California. Research enterprise agility will certainly be tested at both institutions as they work to respond to their suddenly altered environments (regardless of effects on each institution’s aggregate research volume). A more common example where agility may get called into play is when external funding for a major research center runs out and it becomes evident that a robust and adaptive sustainability plan is lacking.

By focusing strategic attention on Critical Agility – a compromise between the complexity of research enterprises and overly simplistic measures of research volume – how might universities benefit? Are institutions currently employing similar frameworks? If so, what have been their experiences? If not, what are the barriers?

RHaley--2013-08—Rand Haley is a Principal at Berkeley Research Group, where he helps universities navigate complex strategic challenges at the core of their research enterprises and overall strategic positions and directions. Rand can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter @univrand.

0 thoughts on “Critical Agility: Focusing Strategic Attention in the Research Enterprise

  1. “Strategic agility” is a new bottle for an old concept that occasionally has been well-employed for the purposes suggested by Mr. Haley and more. “Centers” and “Institutes” have been used successfully in some academic medical centers for four decades to serve this function. (I am excluding from this discussion the over-used and abused word “center” when it refers to a cluster of clinical activity isolated from medical research or teaching.)The University of Alabama at Birmingham was an early exemplar of the Center concept. Centers were initiated and led by faculty with an exceptionally high level of what I call “responsible entrepreneurialism” and a commitment to institution building from the program level up.
    The early UAB centers operated under “constitutions and by-laws” developed by faculty leaders from multiple departments in the medical school. They were very successful in attracting financial support from NIH and the state government and in building UAB’s research reputation. Many other institutions tried to emulate UAB’s success with the center concept. Some succeeded but many failed. The failed ventures often found the process of building a governance structure an inconvenience and decided they could live without it. They were wrong. Others worried excessively about which department or investigator was going to be credited with a Center grant and failed to develop internal tracking systems for appropriately identifying the contributions of multiple investigators. Still others lost sight of the purpose and value of the concept and used centers as retention mechanisms for faculty who couldn’t or wouldn’t differentiate between their entrepreneurial independence and responsible entrepreneurial behavior. Another category of mis-application of the center concept was to give them equal administrative status with departments. From an institutional standpoint, instead of being cohesive, multi-investigator, multi-department instruments, these centers became divisive and diversionary from the institution’s overall academic mission: education, research, and clinical service. Mr. Haley tosses in Economic Development as a fourth leg on a three-legged stool, while missing the point that Economic Development, in the best cases, is a side benefit of all successful academic medical centers.

    Mr. Haley raises a good point about the possible over-building of research facilities in universities and academic medical centers. Thirty years ago, I wrote in an internal document that “space is the currency of academic medicine.” I still believe that is true. Faculty rank and salary go only so far in rewarding responsible entrepreneurial behavior of faculty. “Autonomy” is more often the goal and it is signified by the ability to recruit and assign space to other faculty (within institutional policies, of course) in pursuit of shared programmatic goals. Space is the currency that fuels those ambitiions. While it is possible to over-build research (or clinical or education) facilities if there is no plan (with contingencies) for how the space will be occupied and how the required financial support over the facility’s expected useful life will be generated, responsible entrepreneurs don’t commit that kind of error.