Town and Gown

I ran the Cambridge Town and Gown 10k on Sunday. It set me wondering about the history of the phrase 'Town and Gown'. Apparently its usage dates from the Middle Ages, when students admitted to European universities often held minor clerical status and wore clothing, including gowns, similar to that worn by the clergy. This dress code made students a recognisably distinct community from ordinary city residents. Thus town referred to the non-academic population and gown the university community.

One article notes that 'Historically, colleges and universities literally walled themselves off from their host communities. This was particularly the case in urban settings … community and government agencies, in turn, have often viewed colleges as pariahs, complaining about their tax-exempt status, physical encroachment, and noisy students. The term town-gown itself typically conjures up acrimony and tension which has frequently played out when academic and community stakeholders have interacted'.

Over time the conflicts have ironed out and the run seemed like a celebration of achieving inclusiveness and diversity in the pursuit of a common goal – in this case fund raising for muscular dystrophy. The 1500 runners included students, townspeople and visitors reflecting all races, nationalities, physical build, ages (if you count the supporting cast of babies, toddlers, elders) and running ability. It was a great event. Making the event successful for the runners was a similarly diverse organisation of volunteer marshalls, police, first aiders, technology people and others.

So what does it take to bridge acrimony and tension (town v gown) and end up with a collaborative event? And does a single event like this reflect a true bridging or is it a one-off example of what could never happen on a day to day basis? I ask because I meet distinct communities every day in my working life: central v regional, head office v product lines, digital v technology, sales v marketing, etc. Alongside these distinct communities are worthy statements about silo busting, or collaboration, or 'one organisation', or multi-disciplinary teams or valuing diversity, or inclusiveness – or all of these, and yet degrees of acrimony and tension seem to be a lot of what is actually in play.

Part of my organisation design work is to get to the equivalent of the Town and Gown run – a fun and productive experience that values participation, diversity and inclusiveness – but I need to design it into the day to day and not just see it arise for a specific event.

Some questions directed towards solving issues of acrimony and tension are asked in The Palace: Perspectives on Organisation Design and these have helped in the work I am involved with:

  • How can we transform individual interests into common concerns?
  • What are the 'pull' factors that will encourage new ways of working?
  • How can we involve customers (internal and external) as co-developers?
  • What values do we hold, what interests do we share?
  • How can we experiment and involve recipients as co-developers?
  • Are we committed to listen, learn and adjust as we go along? Do we need any processes to help us do this better?

With these questions in mind we have collectively developed some guiding principles for organisation design and development that have the active support of the leadership team(s). As we work we see the principles in action are beginning to have some effect in bridging the tensions, defusing acrimony and supporting the more participative, inclusive, diverse organisation we are aiming for.

What are your techniques for bridging tension and acrimony between distinct communities in your organisation design work? Let me know.

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