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Irish Academy of Management Annual Conference, 6-8 September, 2006.


Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble. Samuel Johnson. The organisational culture of higher education institutes has been described in the literature as a professional bureaucracy where change creeps in not sweeps in (Mintzberg 1996). Operating within the constraints of public sector leglislation higher education institutes typically have a largely autonomous workforce with a highly compartmentalised organizational structure. The difficulties involved in providing a central steering core present some unique challenges to its management (Clark 1996). When faced with mounting external pressures for accountability, quality assurance, flexible delivery and others the unique culture of higher education presents significant challenges for institutional management teams. In efforts to increase the responsiveness to change they have turned to corporate sector techniques such as strategic planning, total quality management, benchmarking and others in an effort to find the silver bullet to managing higher education. The effectiveness of such efforts is largely unknown and the degree to which they are embraced by what Clark calls the ‘academic heartland’ is circumspect (Clark 1996). Birnbaum refers to such non-native management programs as management fads and cites the example of Total Quality Management which was said to be used by 70% of all colleges in the United States in 1994 but by 1997 it had transpired that only a dozen or so colleges had actually implemented it as part of core operations (Birnbaum 2000). Hitt contends that organisations in the twentieth century have evolved from having a focus on efficiency and effectiveness to learning and knowledge (Hitt 1995). At this point therefore it is not inappropriate to ask whether higher education institutes themselves make best use of the knowledge available to them to improve their own performance – do they qualify as knowledge-based enterprises? This paper argues that before higher education proceeds again to imitate a knowledge based management model from the corporate sector that it pauses to take stock of its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Self study with peer review is a native management tool in higher education for quality assurance. It has stood the test of time and international scrutiny and it is generally accepted by the academic community(Van Vught and Westerheijden 1995). This paper reports on the results of an empirical study of two self study programs undertaken in one higher education institute over an eight year period. It investigates the relevance of self study with peer review as a tool for knowledge management in higher education and critically evaluates it with respect to the literature. It proposes recommendations and adaptations to the self study model which would increase its effectiveness in this area.