Cultural Alignment - the Bedford College Group | Learning & Development | Primeast

Clive Wilson reflects on the project he delivered for the Bedford College Group - exploring the societal purpose of a group of colleges and aligning its culture

The Bedford College Group delivers world class skills and education to communities in Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and the Southeast Midlands region. It has campuses in Bedford, Biggleswade, Corby, Kettering, Silverstone and Wellingborough and its courses offer an opportunity for everyone to progress, whether it is after completing GCSEs at school up to degree level or professional courses.

The Group approached Primeast for support in aligning the cultures of all campuses in support of an inspiring purpose.

Following consultation with the Group’s senior leadership team, I agreed to run a workshop at the annual staff conference in July on “The Power of Purpose” for all staff. The aim was to explore the Group’s purpose from their perspective, that of students and that of wider society. Gaining clarity on any organisation’s purpose is a vital prerequisite to cultural alignment as it answers the question “To what are we attempting to align our culture?”


At the conference we shared three insights on the nature of purpose.

INSIGHT 1: science shows that placing a life-form in a context creates purpose

Biologist and author Bruce Lipton discovered that stem cells placed in one solution become lung tissue whilst the same cells placed in a different solution become heart tissue. The conclusion is that life derives its purpose from its environment. It is a function of the energetic reaction between the life-form and its world.

INSIGHT 2: what works at one level of time or scale may well work at another

Benoit Mandelbrot founded the principle of fractal mathematics or self-similarity. Briefly, what happens at one level of scale is likely to manifest in a similar way at another scale. So, just as stem cells derive their purpose from their context, so do we and so do our organisations, even society. Importantly with humans and their collectives it’s even more interesting. It can be seen that we derive purpose from who we think we are and how we see our world. This is crucial in determining purpose for ourselves, our organisations and society.

INSIGHT 3: purpose depends on the observer

It is also clear that purpose depends on the observer. In a group of colleges, purpose is likely to be different for staff than it is for students. And the purpose from the perspective of society is different again. I’ve also discovered, through my work of over twenty years, that, once recognised, it is the societal purpose that is most likely to inspire most stakeholder groups.

Looking at the purpose of the Group from the perspectives of staff, students and society:

So, we conducted a brief exercise with over three-hundred staff to examine the perspective of the Group, first from the perspective of staff and then (in their opinion) from the perspective of students and society. We did not consider (due to time) the perspective of other stakeholder groups. But I know from similar work with other institutions that there are differences.

The results of this thought experiment were collated in the form of word clouds.

From the perspective of staff, what is the purpose of this Group of colleges?

From the perspective of students, what is the purpose of this Group of colleges?

What societal purpose does this Group of colleges serve?

Expressing the purpose in terms of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In the closing chapter of “Designing the Purposeful Organization” I suggest that, just as the performance of teams should align to the needs of an organisation, so should the performance (and purpose) of organisations align to the needs of the world. This insight prompted me to write “Designing the Purposeful World – the Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint for humanity”.

So, the next step we took with our audience of over three-hundred staff was to ask them to identify which of the seventeen SDGs (shown above) were most impacted by the work of this Group of colleges.

The responses were listed in terms of priority according to votes received with each of the top eight receiving over 20% of the votes from staff:

  1. SDG4: Quality education
  2. SDG3: Good health and wellbeing
  3. SDG8: Good jobs and economic growth
  4. SDG10: Reduced inequalities
  5. SDG5: Gender equality
  6. SDG9: Innovation and infrastructure
  7. SDG16: Peace, justice and strong institutions
  8. SDG11: Sustainable cities and communities

The remaining nine goals were all nominated by at least 4% of staff.

Conclusion of work on purpose

We tend to think that the primary purpose of further education is to learn, obtain qualifications and equip people for their careers. However, when we think about it, there is a much deeper and more profound societal purpose to education. It is a powerful way to align all those involved to the needs of humanity. Establishments are therefore encouraged to engage with all stakeholders in order to understand and enhance this sense of purpose.


Measuring culture

The senior leadership team of the Bedford College Group was keen to understand the culture of the group and that of each college. The principal purpose being to consciously align the culture of the group to the deeper understanding of purpose discussed above. After discussion with Primeast, it was agreed that we should use the survey method provided by Barrett Values Centre. The survey was managed and administered by Michelle Kerfoot, one of Primeast’s registered Barrett practitioners.

Briefly, the method adopted measured the values brought to this workplace by staff; the values currently playing out in the workplace; and those required for the Group to meet its aspirations. The target audience was broadly the same as that involved in the work on purpose described above. Again, over three-hundred staff participated.

Headline summary of results

The results confirmed the positive values brought to the Group by staff. For example, the top five were:

  1. Honesty
  2. Making a difference
  3. Caring
  4. Family
  5. Positive attitude

The values playing out in the current culture reflected the focus over recent years on being student-centred and building the group as a sustainable business. There were however some potentially limiting values that might be preventing the college from fulfilling its potential.

Again, the top five values in the current culture were:

  1. Student achievement
  2. Financial stability
  3. Reputation
  4. Results-focus
  5. Bureaucracy

Finally in the desired culture, the top five values were:

  1. Balance (home/work)
  2. Academic excellence
  3. Continuous improvement
  4. Teamwork
  5. Student centred

It was noted that, overall, there was a desire amongst staff to enhance opportunities to work together more effectively, removing the blockages identified in the report. The senior team also noted that this would be a priority in order to create the conditions for a more purposeful organisation.

It was agreed that combining the insights on purpose and culture gained from the work described would inspire all stakeholder groups and significantly improve performance – all with the end result of making a significant difference in the world.

How to make the changes:

Facilitated by Primeast, the senior team discussed various options for making the desired changes. The image below shows a summary of their preferred options which will be factored into the group strategy in the coming educational year.

[The Leadership Circle© is a world-class 360 Leadership Effectiveness diagnostic employed by Primeast for senior leadership development]

Closing words by Ian Pryce CBE, Principal & Chief Executive of The Bedford College Group:

“The college’s values were developed two decades ago. They have served us well, but we wanted to engage our staff, students and the wider community in defining our purpose and reviewing the values for the next decade. Primeast brought a structured and collaborative approach to the work, quickly providing insights into what mattered to people and how that fitted with the current values. It meant the quality of our discussions was much richer. The fact that over 700 staff participated voluntarily in the initial sessions showed how important this work is to them personally. That level of engagement will make for a more aligned and productive college at a time when our community needs us more than ever.”

Find out more about how Primeast can support you and your organization in co-creating your vision and purpose and transforming your organisational culture to achieve this, email us direct and speak to a member of the team.

About the Author

Clive Wilson

Clive is an enthusiastic writer, keynote speaker, facilitator and Primeast coach, whose main focus is the purposeful alignment and leadership of individuals, teams, organisations and communities.

Experienced in working with leaders and groups of absolutely any size across the world, Clive is committed to organisational sustainability in service of a better world.

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