Shopping around for a better way to operate? Try John Lewis

I used to work for the John Lewis Partnership, and it’s a great way of working. Universities could look to worse for inspiration.

John Lewis’ shares are settled in a non-revocable trust. The beneficiaries of the trust are the employees (“partners”). The trust deed sets out the ultimate purpose of the organisation: “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”. Via a substantial and formalised system of representative democracy, the employees are directly responsible for the success of the firm. The organisation is kept flat and equitable via a restraint on pay differentials, preventing expropriation of business wealth by managers.

Trust universities could follow suit. Universities would be placed in non-revocable trusts: as institutions of the knowledge commons, ownership should be irrelevant, but purpose all-important. The raison d’etre of trust universities would be to support the teaching, learning and research work of their staff and students, all of whom would be “partners”.

Democratic structures enshrined in the trust deed would ensure that partners were responsible for, and empowered to effect, the efficient operation of their workplace towards socially, economically and culturally beneficial outcomes. Like John Lewis, their failure to do so could lead to organisational demise.

Read full story in Times Higher Education.

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