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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

The concept of the expert organisation

 Paul Green and Aytaj Pashayeva


Due to rapid change in the Higher Education market over the past two decades Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) have had to adapt and evolve in order to be effective and efficient. This is not only focusing on teaching and research, but also their resources such as knowledge and skills in more innovative ways. The responsibility of which would naturally lie with the human resources (HR) department in order to provide an environment for knowledge creation and utilisation. Knowledge is a major resource in the world, which stems from the relatively recent development of the knowledge economy; where knowledge is an asset, carrying opportunities for creation, development and management on one hand and a tool for leading the trend among others on the other hand. The challenges for HEIs is to determine what is the best way to adapt to the changing conditions and to maximise its own potential as a Higher Education Institute; one potential solution is the Concept of an Expert Organisation.

Expert organisations, also known as professional organisations can range from a single self- employed person to global corporations, multilateral companies, research and development organisations, think tanks as well as higher education institutions.  The major reasoning behind such an approach is that the provision of knowledge can bring advantages over other traditional firm theories. This means it is becoming a more prominent feature of not just the private business environment but also in other sectors such as higher education. Success of knowledge-intensive organisations relies strongly on the efforts of knowledge workers who have high degrees of expertise, education or experience and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge (Davenport, 2008). Knowledge workers in this context are the assumed role of experts or professionals in HEIs.

This paper views Higher Education Institutions as knowledge-based professional/expert organisations that build their major educational and research activities based on expertise of professionals. This paper will cover 4 key areas when considering the concept, firstly the paper will attempt to define the concept of expert organisation. This will be followed by a view on why universities can be considered expert/professional organisations and any implications of such an approach. There has been much debate on the most appropriate ways to govern and manage HEIs  and this paper will assess the reasons why universities would take such an approach over other traditional approaches. The paper will conclude with a summary of various options for implications by different authors to improve human resource management in expert organisations.


The Concept

A professional or expert organisation is one which is not limited to higher education but an organisation in which ‘professionals play the central role’; a central role which specifically and directly influences the primary organisational objectives (Scott pg.65, 1965). An example of this in other sectors would be hospitals employing doctors or a firm of lawyers hiring lawyers. These employees are intrinsic to the primary organisational objectives. This can also be said of HEIs, although there may be debate on whether they are classed as organisations or not, there is no denying that hiring professors and lecturers are directly related to HEIs primary objectives. Expertise can be understood more as responsibility over certain tasks and autonomy over one’s work (Scott, 1965). Thus, it is believed that experts do not always need to report to somebody. This kind of an approach is more results oriented, which means the focus is on not how a job is being done but rather what results a person/department/institution are getting. This is similar to a professor's job, with respect to research activities which are often decided by the individual not the institution. Compare this to administrative staff in HEIs, who would not be classed as experts; they need to report to seniority regularly and operate in a much more top down hierarchy.

Scott (1965) goes further by explaining that organisations can either be autonomous or heteronomous, however continues to explain that expert organisation are typically autonomous, largely because experts as seen above have more autonomy over their own work. This means that the degree of autonomy can be defined by the degree of autonomy the experts in the organisations are afforded. Taking this notion and specifically applying it to higher education, there are counter arguments as to how the autonomy of a HEI should be defined. Although autonomy of HEIs can be defined based on the internal factors (academic self governance) or external factors (government influence, stakeholder impact), throughout this paper we will approach HEIs as autonomous organisations from the internal management perspective, where duties and tasks are delegated to organisational members. The definition of autonomy in terms of an expert organisation states that an organisation is autonomous if;

 “..organizational officials delegate to the group of professional employees considerable responsibility for defining and implementing the goals, for setting performance standards, and for seeing to it that standards are maintained”.

                                                                                                            Scott pg.66, 1965

According to the author, autonomous organisations usually allow skilled experts to carry out tasks independently and little external surveillance is needed. Nevertheless, autonomy in higher education is a much debated subject, one which is a priority for members of the European Commision for Education. Scott (1965) does explain that universities do fall under the notion of a professional organisation as they hire experts and they are (potentially) autonomous. Not all staff in a university are afforded autonomy but this is accounted for as the aforementioned criteria for autonomy does not discount any type of supervision and also has an appreciation for institutional regulations. 

One of the most important elements to understand when looking at the concept of the expert organisations is the place loyalty has in the environment. Wallace (1995) said that experts, within an expert organisation are loyal to their profession and not necessarily their workplace. This is considered more relevant in bureaucratic organisations. This is because experts have a set of strong professional ideals and stronger commitment to their field (Clark, 1983), which may clash with the organisational view. Wallace has highlighted a gap, or an issue which when considered in a HEI environment would need to be addressed by the Human Resources Department. The question is how can this be achieved? Wallace (1995) continues by expanding on Scott’s (1965) work, whereby if the expert organisation hires a majority of experts/professionals the goals of the organisation will be largely consistent with the professionals it employs.


What makes HEIs expert/professional organisations?

Work from Scott (1965) infers that HEIs are indeed expert or professional organisations. Seivby (1997), continues on this theme agreeing that along with some intangible assets, people in an organisation are the most valuable. The majority of employees in a higher education institute are considered experts who represent different professional networks and societies which means that their importance supports the concept of an expert organisation. According to Aarrevaara (2005), HEIs are expert organisations, this is because they include many experts and specialists in various fields with a wide network and a specialisation. He also suggested different approaches to experts as a part of human resources management. Aarrevaara also states that HEIs aim to function as professional expert organisations as universities become more autonomous and less dependent on public funding. 

The autonomy which is described not only refers to institutional autonomy but also inter-department autonomy. This is because the role of the university is changing and expanding, other services they now provide are research, consulting, conferences, networks and collaborations. This can be characterised by the rising importance of the ‘Third Mission’, which is the renewed focus on university-based capabilities and activities that can contribute to social and economic development (Gassler et al. 2001). Although this has been directly and indirectly occurring since the inception of higher education, it is now encouraged to become core to institutions when striving the first two missions - teach and research.  This means that experts in each area of activity would provide a natural source of self responsibility and subsequent autonomy. All experts in each department are still required to meet quality standards set by the HEIs, which means that overall there is a quality gain relative to other institutions. By viewing a professional organisation’s hierarchy and its autonomy structure it can therefore be compared with a HEI. Wallace (1995) analysed a professional organisation in this way and found that professionals/experts do often work in departments which are separate from the traditional hierarchical structure. Just in the same vein as in universities, such professionals must adhere to general business regulation and procedures but do have a firm hold of autonomy in terms of tasks. In practice the HEI experts are not completely autonomous because they are  not only salaried but also are dependant on institution’s resources/funding to conduct their activities. The resources are a necessary means in order to serve the goals of the institute. However through discretion they are able to leverage control over ‘the performance of their professional work tasks’ (Wallace, pg. 230, 1995). 

Another indicator of the concept of the expert organisation appearing in HEIs can be seen not just at an academic level, but also in the number of expert board members, as this is seen to be increasing (Aarrevaara, 2005). An area of interest with reference to this paper is how HEIs are managed practically speaking. One prominent trend in HEIs noted by Sveiby (1997) is the rise to prominence of the expert managers in human resources departments. It can be said this highlights  the importance of the role of HR in the modern day HEI. 

The worlds organisations are relied upon in all aspects of life, irrespective of their status, whether it be public, private, profit or non-profit. All organisations are based upon knowledge, however not all organisations focus their efforts on that particular resource. The Expert Organisation, is one which has specialised knowledge in a particular field or fields, this is not exclusive knowledge, but requires superior knowledge of staff who are highly qualified (Tav’car, 2005). These type of organisations can be characterised as ‘People Organisations’ because of their focus on knowledge of their employees (Tav’car, 2005). Expert Organisations utilise this knowledge within their primary business area usually the area which organisation operated for a long time. For example, a University with a reputable business school is an expert organisation, because of its specialised knowledge in the area of business. This of course can be extrapolated to many other aspects of an institution. 


Challenges of HEIs as an Expert Organisation 

The Expert Organisation is complex and faces great pressures with regards to knowledge management; experts in HEIs as shown above are often loyal to the profession and not to the organisation. This complexity poses many challenges to the organisations. In order to manage experts and knowledge they firstly must be understood. The complexity and nature of understanding knowledge within an organisation can be linked to reduced flexibility. This can be for a number of reasons, namely because an organisation with a large number of experts who, as mentioned previously largely work autonomously, would not be able to be directed into new areas easily or respond to new challenges effectively. Experts would be more inclined to follow their own interests or desires, such a one dimensional approach may also create a tunnel vision effect, not allowing for fresh perspective. The effects of this can therefore increase the complexity within an expert organisation. The challenge facing Expert Organisations is to be able to provide a balance between maintaining flexibility whilst taking advantage of the their position as an expert organisation, or knowledge based institution. 

It has been shown that for the most desired results from knowledge management. A holistic approach may be more suitable (Tav’Car, 2005), organisations in the late 1990’s often approach knowledge management from a project based angle. This then limited the organisational knowledge to a specific area or group. Organisations looking to take a knowledge based view are tasked with embedding the strategy throughout the whole organisation otherwise they will increase complexity without an increase in competitive advantage. 

As knowledge based organisations are established upon the expertise and skills of their workers,  knowledge work performance and its management remains a key challenge. Major issues related to performance management stem from a lack of fixed measurements, which in turn are generated from the intangible nature of service outputs, complexity of interaction between knowledge worker and customer, which in the case HEIs is interaction between professors and students. Jaaskelainen and Laihonen (2013) believe that in a knowledge based organisation there are at least two specific aspects that have to be taken into account in measurement and management of knowledge-intensive organisations: the performance and well-being of individual knowledge workers and the ability to provide value for the customer. The authors suggest merging individualism in performance management in creativity based organisations with knowledge based organisations and replacing it with a bottom up approach by having the workers set their own individual performance goals. This view is consistent with Scott (1965), whereby experts in higher education would have autonomy with regards to their own activities. This would naturally provide a more bottom up approach to a HEI’s structure. 

Knowledge-intensive organisations put much effort to make existing knowledge useful for their customers and improving customers’ performance. Looking specifically at HEIs, they create and maintain knowledge, which is collated, controlled and produced by experts. This knowledge is then used by customers - students/other 3rd parties - whose performance can be dependent on such information. This does have consequences for the pricing of such service outputs and outcomes. Services by knowledge intensive organisations such as HEIs are usually priced based on the costs of the organisation rather than based on the value that customer defines which causes either too low or too high prices. Thus, it is very rare to see these organisations take into account the customer value whilst designing and pricing their services (Jaaskelainen and Laihonen, 2013). 


Implications for Human Resources 

According to Scott (1965), experts are less committed to their institutions and more related to their specialisation, discipline, network and societies, in the case of HEIs. For instance, in the research with professors in the US they were asked whether they would prefer to leave their discipline and stay in the institution or leave their institute but stay in the discipline. The majority of surveyed professors chose the second option; leave their institution and stay in the discipline (Clark, pg. 30, 1983). Therefore the implication for HR is the retainment of resources (professors) and therefore the retainment of knowledge/expertise. Aaveraara (2005) suggests that HR should focus on professional expertise development for expert staff (inc. professors). This would then increase loyalty and affiliation with the institution resulting in higher entrainment levels. 

Clark also adds that most of the professors are not willing to take up administrative or even managerial positions. Thus, HEIs are organisations whose major activities are built on experts’ knowledge are in need of experts to manage the knowledge and experts. According to Sveiby (1997), experts have shown resistance to working under direct supervision, especially if their superior does not hold the same level of expertise. This infers that experts prefer to work with more autonomy and if it is necessary to have a superior then they would at least have the same level of expertise. The role of HR in this instance is that HR provides an additional level within the hierarchy, which is likely to have resistance from other experts. This means that higher education human resource experts are necessary in order to command the same respect as other experts within an organisation. 

Another important aspect needed to be considered for the expert organisation is frequency and means of feedback. Scott (1965) explains that although experts prefer to work independently they appreciate timely feedback on their performance to assure that their efforts are responding to the goals of the organisation. The issue for HR is that feedback loops for experts are not viewed as important as for other staff because they see them as experts. According to the author, lack of collective feedback has pointed by experts in organisations as missing element in HR management. Scott (1965) also highlights the importance of motivation and incentives for experts; additional salary and  additional tasks to break the routine are crucial in management of experts. These are elements which are not always realised by HR and can be a contributing factor for not realising an experts potential. Aaveraara (2005) discusses this topic further by stating that professionals and experts need a different approach in human resource management. According to the author, professionals and especially experts in higher education are less motivated by financial reward. Their primary motivations lie within organisational conditions and resources such as the working conditions, up-to-date equipments and facilities to perform their research and teaching activities. 

While researching universities in the UK, Archer (2005) discovered that the biggest challenge for university staff management is to persuade managers at all levels to accept their role in human resource management. Many surveyed HR heads brought examples of managers who did not seek advice and neglected issues instead. Thus, department heads in universities are often unaware of expert management strategies and issues. This necessitates HR departments to work with department managers to manage experts indirectly by providing trainings for department heads and executive managers. 

Moreover, such implications put more responsibility on the shoulders of institutional researchers, as they carry out a role of providing evidence for policy implementation by HR. Terenzini (1993) states that institutional researchers often support all departments of HEIs with analysis as a base for institutional change and improvement. Thus, this imposes necessity on HR departments to work closely with institutional researchers to address expert needs.



The concept of an Expert Organisation is one which has been shown to be an appropriate way in which to describe current Higher Education Institutes. The function of universities very much suits the model of other expert organisation such as the example of a lawyers firm. The paper has shown that the expert organisation is one which operates at its most efficient and effective when taking advantage of its specialised knowledge, the most effective way to identify knowledge is dependent on the experts within the Human Resources department of the given institution. 

There are however potential challenges to such an approach, such as the retainment of experts, questions remain over the loyalty of experts and their affiliation with an organisation. By ignoring such an issue the consequences of such are likely to be an easy loss of experts, if there were to be any increase in competition. There are many challenges for HR and across all other management levels, the primary reason being that there is clearly animosity between university experts and superiors (if their level of expertise is different). Although there are other practical issues at the human resources level, these primary issues take precedent. The Concept of the Expert Organisation suits the nature of Higher Education, especially in the modern education environment.  

The issues of complexity and the flexibility of the concept of the expert organisation pose problems for universities. The environment is changing, more rapidly that at any other time. This means HEIs need to react and pro-actively respond to these changes. With these potential limitations of the concept, this may hinder a HEI progress over another HEI. Although one thing that remains ambiguous is whether the Concept of the Expert Organisation is a choice or whether it’s just a reality that affects certain organisations. Of course, the opposite view to this is that, awareness of the concept brings with it a certain amount of control, and future control over future strategies.  



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