Universities as a matrix organization

As Head of the Department of Musicology for the last four years, I have been acquainted with the inner workings of the University of Oslo (UiO). Before, I mainly looked at the university from the perspective of a researcher and educator. Now I have been involved in issues at all three “levels”: department, faculty, and central. I have also collaborated a lot more with all parts of the administration: studies, research, IT, economy, communication, archive, and HR. In general, I am impressed by what is going on “behind the scenes”. But there are also some challenges with the way things are currently organized, which I believe hinders progress. In this blog post, I will elaborate on some of these topics.

A “silo’ed” organization

UiO is a so-called research-intensive university and organized in the same ways as many similar universities. This includes a central level (Level 1), faculties (Level 2), departments (Level 3), and in some faculties, formal research groups (Level 4). We do not have any Level 4 units in the Faculty of Humanities, although we do have more informal research groups scattered around.

The faculties and departments have been more or less the same for quite some time. In the beginning, there was only Theology and Law, but nowadays, we have all the faculties that one would expect: Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Medicine, Social Sciences, and so on. And, of course, the Faculty of Humanities, that I belong to.

Each of the faculties is organized into departments, usually around 5-10. At the Faculty of Humanities, we have 7 departments after merging many smaller departments in the early 2000s. We only have two small departments that consist of only one discipline: Musicology and Media and Communication. That is if you think about Musicology as one discipline. In some ways, that make sense. After all, everyone in the Department of Musicology studies music in one way or another. But except for that, there are huge differences between the various subdisciplines.

This three-level organization (central, faculties, departments) is in many ways effective. A tree-based organization is a classical structure. It allows easy communication lines between the Rector and the Deans, who can talk to the Heads of Departments again. The base funding is flowing similarly. The money is coming in centrally and is being spread to the faculties and departments. It follows “the line”, as we say.

I had experienced some of the challenges with “the line” before I became Head of Department. For example, if you ask for help from IT, you need to follow your line. That is fine if you have a clear line. However, in many cases, you don’t. For example, our fourMs Lab is a collaboration with the Department of Informatics. The lab started physically at the Department of Musicology. Then it moved physically to a building “owned” by the Department of Informatics before it eventually moved back to the Department of Musicology. The researchers and students working in the lab are from both departments. And they have to ask for help from different parts of the IT organization. This is often confusing and not very effective.

All in all, working in “the line” can also be thought of as being “silo’ed”. There is a lot of talking about interdisciplinarity these days. However, working “interdisciplinary” (which in most cases means multidisciplinary in my experience) usually means working between departments and faculties. Our organization effectively works against this idea.

A matrix organization

I have for some time been thinking about whether a university like UiO could turn into a matrix organization instead. That is, instead of being organized into a hierarchical, linear structure that we have today, one could imagine an organization with both “horizontal” and “vertical” elements. The figure below shows an example of how this could be organized.

An example matrix organization (credit: Msilva83, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Apparently, some businesses are organized this way, although there appear to be mixed reports on how well they function. Some argue that the challenge is not to develop a matrix structure but to change the frame of mind. I don’t know much about corporate organizations, so my experience with universities primarily shapes my thinking.

While many universities have a hierarchical structure like UiO, there are also universities with more matrix-like organizations. Cambridge and Oxford come to mind, with their organizations into both colleges and departments/faculties. I only know these institutions from the outside, but as far as I understand, everyone affiliated with these universities belongs to both a college and a department. This appears to be a quite clear university-wide matrix organization. The fact that these two universities are also considered some of the best in the world should attest that this organization may have some qualities.

In the North-American university model, several universities also appear to have a matrix-like organization. From my time at UC Berkeley, I remember how the university is organized into colleges and schools that offer degree programs, while research activities are organized in a traditional structure of departments and faculties.

Making a change?

Changing a university from a silo to a matrix is not done overnight. One could even question whether it is possible at all. Still, I see a tendency that some matrix elements are “sneaking” in. At UiO, we have some university-wide thematic projects: UiO:Energy, UiO:Life Science, and UiO:Nordic. While these are time-limited initiatives, they have elements of a matrix-like organization: uniting researchers across departments. Although it is less clear, they also have some ambitions of uniting students.

On a much smaller scale, one could say that various interdisciplinary research projects that cross the borders of departments and facultys are also part of developing a matrix structure within the university. The challenge, however, is that such initiatives struggle with breaking free from the silo. How to solve that, I don’t know.

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alexarje

Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.