Key considerations in organizing and structuring university research.

Author:Nguyen, T.L. Huong


Once concentrated in the more developed countries, university research capacity building has now become an increasingly important task in both developed and less developed countries (Nguyen, 2013a). In particular, for countries and institutions that are starting to build or trying to improve research capacity and performance, the know-how of university research management is very important for organizational research capacity building. Nonetheless, university research management has been regarded as an "uncharted territory" (Edgar & Geare, 2013), an area "largely unexplored" and a "modestly known" research topic (Bosch & Taylor, 2011). In an attempt to enrich this body of literature, this paper maps out the most essential elements in organizing and structuring university research.

Using Mintzberg's (1979) theory on the structuring of organization as a guide for specifying the main tasks in organizing and structuring research at universities, first of all this study describes in detail five of the more visible parameters and five less visible parameters in research organizational structure. We argue that in order to build a strong research organizational structure capacity, a university needs to pay attention to both the visible and invisible elements. Then, to "test reality" we explore how these ten proposed rules of organization are applied at the Group of Eight universities in Australia. The Group of Eight (Go8) is a coalition of leading Australian universities, comprehensive in general and professional education and distinguished by depth and breadth in research formally incorporated in 1999 [].

This study is helpful for research policy and management researchers and practitioners. It defines clearly generic elements in structuring and organizing research. In thinking about organizing and structuring research, people may simply equate it with a research organizational structure chart. This study shows that in fact apart from some more visible structuring activities, a university must consider carefully a number of intangible tasks which are extremely essential for sustainably developing its research capacity. By using the framework provided in this study as a tool, university research leaders and managers can assess the level of comprehensiveness of their current research organizational structure. From this evaluation, they can identify the gaps and develop relevant strategies for better managing research or for building relevant capacity for organizational research development.

The framework outlined below was developed during the course of an empirical study of research management and capacity building amongst leading research universities in Vietnam (see Nguyen 2013a, 2013b). This paper deals mainly with the theoretical conceptualisation of that framework and its applicability to the Group of Eight universities in Australia.


Structure seems to be at the root of many of the questions raised about organizations (Mintzberg, 1979). Organizational structure refers to:

the typically hierarchical arrangement of lines of authority, communications, rights and duties of an organization; it determines how the roles, power and responsibilities are assigned, controlled, and coordinated, and how information flows between the different levels of management. How an organization is structured depends on its objectives and strategy. (, para 1-2)

A university's three major tasks are teaching, research, and services (Boyer, 1990); the organizational structure of a university, therefore, is often based on how a university balances these three main functions, particularly teaching and research. If a university prioritizes teaching, it may only care about structuring its organization in a way that best promotes teaching and learning. However, if a university wants to promote research, it must consider building its organizational structure so as to enhance research activity. In other words, in shaping research policy and practice, a university needs to have a sound and appropriate research management structure (Bosch & Taylor, 2011; Pettigrew, Tee, Meek, & Barros, 2013).

Although a university needs a strong research management structure, surprisingly, very few publications have discussed the key elements in organizing and structuring university research from an organizational structure perspective. One argument may be that there is no single model for a university organizational structure because differences in organizational structure reflect local circumstances, in particular, institutional culture and history, an institution's strategic and operational plans, and the financial constraints of the institution (John Taylor, 2006). While this is a sensible argument, there remain generic organizational structure issues that all universities must carefully consider. In shedding lights on these issues, this paper employs Mintzberg's (1979) theory on the structuring of organization to specify the main tasks in organizing and structuring research. Mintzberg's (1979) is used as a guide because this is a classic, comprehensive work on organizational structure that is highly cited. This framework consists of four generic parameters: (1) design of positions (a. job specialization, b. behaviour formalization, and c. training and indoctrination); (2) design of the superstructure; (3) design of lateral linkages; and (4) design of a decision-making system.

Parameters (2) and (4) specifically relate to one of the central issues of management, including research management: centralisation and decentralization. In practice, this is not an either/or issue. Rather degrees of centralisation/decentralization are best considered in terms of a continuum, from total top-down approaches of structural design and decision-making systems to bottom-up ones--although Clark (1983) categorises national system of higher education according to where the majority of their institutions are placed on such a continuum. Moreover, it appears that research intensive universities tend more towards the decentralization of authority structures and decision making. These issues will be elaborated further below through the elaboration and application of the Mintzberg framework.

In teasing out the specific elements of organizing research, the study also relies on a number of other studies on research management such as Briar-Lawson (2008); Harman (1998); Kirkland (2010); Krauser (2003); Langley and Heinze (2009); McNay (2010); Paul (2008); Pettigrew, et al. (2013). These research management related studies help to delineate the four general parameters in Mintzberg's (1979) model into ten specific tasks: (1) create research positions, (2) create research management positions, (3) develop rules for research integrity, (4) develop rules and procedures for managing the lifecycle of a research project, (5) develop a mechanism for evaluating the quality of research outcomes, (6) prepare researchers and research managers for the necessary skills and knowledge, (7) decide primary organizational units for research delivery, (8) create a research office, (9) create research oversight committees, and (10) decide vertical and horizontal decentralization.

It should be noted that this list of tasks is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular university's research organizational structure. They are not listed in the order of development, either. Rather, it is meant to stress ten elements, which are common to most universities' research organizational structure. The importance or weight given to each domain will vary according to context, in particular stages of organizational research development. These generic and specified tasks are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1 displays ten generic parameters for organizing and structuring university research. In this framework, the five more visible parameters consist of: (1) create research positions; (2) create research management positions; (3) decide primary organizational units for research delivery; (4) create a research office; and (5) create research oversight committees. These parameters are considered to be more visible because some specific positions involving people are the end products of these actions. These more visible organizational structure tasks often result in an organizational structure chart, which is usually displayed on a university's website. The four less visible parameters are: (1) develop rules for research integrity; (2) develop rules and procedures for managing the lifecycle of a research project; (3) develop a mechanism for evaluating the quality of research outcomes; (4) prepare researchers and research managers for the necessary skills and knowledge; and (5) decide vertical and horizontal decentralization. These parameters are regarded as less visible because, after these tasks are carried out, no specific positions occupied by human actors are created. The end products are often a number of policies or knowledge and skills. The following section discusses each of the parameters in more detail.

Design of Positions

Job specialization

Two specific tasks in the job specialization parameter are "create research positions" and "create research management positions".

Creating research positions

Until 1810, universities did not explicitly incorporate research into the traditional function of teaching (Wittrock, 1993, as cited in King, 2004)). Today, a number of both old and new universities are still in the process of making the university not only a place of teaching, but also a place of learning (Boyer, 1990). Depending on the intensiveness of research activities and probably how research is funded, academic positions may be specialized into research and teaching combined or research-only positions. Concerning level of expertise, universities may categorize research and teaching combined positions into...

To continue reading