A conceptual communication model to mitigate reputational risk within a higher education institution
Van der Vyver, J.
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The South African higher education sector has experienced various changes during the last couple of years, from the decolonisation of the academic curriculum to the #FeesMustFall protests, and more recently Covid-19. The quest to find solutions to challenges faced within the higher education sector was magnified by poor communication. Communication is much more than the mere transmission of information; it plays a vital role in daily life and is the basis of all human interaction. This is also true for organisations, including higher education institutions .Effective communication not only helps a business to sell its ideas but also helps to foster respect from peers, superiors and other stakeholders. Communication is the starting point of building relationships between stakeholders, as well as creating trust in management and the goals of an entity. The success of an organisation is solely dependent on it is stakeholders' buy-in, their support and teamwork to achieve the strategic and operational goals, which affect productivity and, ultimately, the profit margin. The reputation of an organisation is an external reflection of internal organisational behaviour and actions, showcasing the ability of an organisation to deliver valued outcomes to its stakeholders. An entity's reputation is affected by the actions of every business unit, department and employee that come in contact with another stakeholder or client. Reputation is frequently regarded as the brand of an organisation, or how internal and external communication occurs, however, it is considerably more complex. It is crucial to understand that the reputation of an higher education institution can be affected by several different risks including but not limited to (i) financial risk, (ii) strategic risk, (iii) operational risk, (iv) compliance risk, (v) teaching riks, (vi) conduct risks, and (vii) ethical risks. Even though higher education institutions do not have answers to every risk they face, they can be more aware of the increasingly broad spectrum of threats affecting them, especially reputational risks and be more proactive in managing these risks. As such, the purpose of this study was to create a conceptual communication model for higher education to mitigate reputational risk. The target population and sampling frame for this study constitute the 26 registered South African public higher education institutions. From this sampling frame, a convenience sample of one faculty within a traditional university in Gauteng was chosen. Support staff members, lecturers, researchers and managers within schools, researcher units and business units, as well as faculty management members across the different campuses were invited to partake in this study. An interpretivist approach was followed, including using several qualitative techniques in order to obtain valuable data. A literature review and document analysis were done to develop a conceptual communication model, from the literature available, but that is also suitable for the higher education sector. The researcher conducted four rounds of Delphi, where focus groups, as well as semi-structured interviews, were held with the primary goal to identify their perceptions, views and comments on the current communication model. The individuals who participated during the focus groups and semi-structured interviews also provided feedback on how the model can be improved. After each round of Delphi, the conceptual communication model was adapted accordingly, to develop the best-suited communication model. The rounds concluded when an end-user agreement was established. During the research, it became apparent that higher education institutions have no official communication model and rely on the organisational chart (also known as an organogram). The latter poses several shortcomings as the more employees a business has, the more ways communication can occur. Unfortunately, an organisational chart only indicates the formal relationships/communication that occurs and disregard the pattern of social relationships that develop and also often do not show horizontal relationships. An organogram also induces certain structural rigidity and may encourage bureaucracy. Another shortcoming of organograms is that units, actions or functions are separated into different groups, leading to (i) poor or ineffective communication, (ii) lack of understanding between departments and units, (iii) each unit or department can start to focus more on departmental goals and start to neglect the company's objectives and (iv) innovation can be repressed, which may cause the higher education institution to become less competitive during the 4th Industrial Revolution. In addition to this, it was established that the current “communication model” itself poses a reputation risk, not only to the missed communication lines but also how the communication model is implemented. The way communication occurs is just as important as what is communicated. This research study contributed to developing a conceptual communication model to mitigate risks that may cause reputational damage to the higher education institution. The conceptual communication will, however, only be effective if it is implemented correctly. The lack of implementation leads to frustration, mistrust in the management system and organisational buy-in, which can affect the organisation's reputation. A suggested implementation process was provided during this study to ensure the full impact of the suggested changes to the communication mode and to make these changes part of the new organisational culture. As this study only focused on developing a conceptual model for an academic faculty of a university, it will be worthwhile to conduct a longitudinal study in order to implement the model fully and to measure its impact on the faculty concerned. Even though the researcher only focused on developing a conceptual communication model for an academic faculty of a university, challenges faced concerning the ineffective communication received from the University Management Committee was mentioned. A study focusing on developing a conceptual communication model to mitigate reputational risk for the university management university staff will be beneficial. A study focusing on communication between the different support units and towards students can also be considered. Future research, therefore, includes, developing a conceptual communication model for a university environment, in order to mitigate reputational risk within the higher education institution concerned.