Developing a New Identity for the Medical University Graz: Forging Uniqueness Amidst Academic Conformity

  • The client is a medical university, the Medical University Graz.
  • The rectorate decided to reposition the university, create a new identity, and start a future-oriented transformation process, leading to well-reflected and responsible staff and students, the creation of spin-offs, and recovered patients.
  • Based on the claim of “Pioneering Minds – Education and Research for Patients’ Health and Well-Being”, theLivingCore has created the future-proof profile of the medical university. Further, we developed future-oriented organizational processes and structures as well as laid the foundation for multiple transformation initiatives, bringing the new positioning to life.
  • Medical University Graz has adopted the new positioning and started a transformation process leading to the creation of a medical science innovation hub. The insights and results from our collaboration have already started influencing strategies beyond the Medical University of Graz, how universities should approach the topic of innovation, and the creation of spin-offs (as part of their third mission).

At the beginning of our project with the Medical University in Graz, a young researcher told us in an interview:

“I work at a university, and what bothers me is that I want to have the freedom to explore things that I don’t know and deal with challenging questions, but in reality, I have to focus on scientific trends and follow them. Everyone is thinking about AI, machine learning, CRISPR, and so forth. A lot of my energy goes into the publishing hassle and dealing with department politics. How do I fit in? Am I doing everything right, according to the procedures? There is so much politics in science, it almost makes you forget what you are doing it for…”

This researcher was not alone with his thoughts, and the university’s leadership took it as a challenge to create a new kind of education and research atmosphere. Also, universities are urged to be more successful in terms of fulfilling their third mission and become more autonomous financially. This conundrum led to the first question our client asked us:

“At a time when universities are increasingly driven to conform to prevailing trends and economic pressures, how can we create an environment that encourages people to dare to try new things and explore novelty?”

Competing with academic powerhouses like London, Graz, like any other medical university in Austria, faces an uphill battle for recognition. This led to the client’s second question:

“How can a rural university like Graz use its location to compete with such giants? How can we, as an institution, follow the necessary procedures and policies of science while at the same time fostering a distinctive niche and developing a unique positioning?”

Three strategic steps to shaping a university’s unique identity and spaces

The Medical University of Graz commissioned theLivingCore to develop such a profile in a process of co-creation. The process was structured in three phases:

1. Understanding the status quo

We began our project with a deep dive into the current state of affairs at The Medical University of Graz. We conducted surveys, ethnographic observations, qualitative interviews, and on-desk research.

We see this phase as an integral part of the transformation process already. For example, in generative interviews with different stakeholders, we explore issues, potentials, possible future developments in a highly personal and engaging way and, by that, involve them actively in inspiring positive change.

The goal of this phase was to deeply understand the academic, geographic, economic, and social context and to learn about the university’s internal processes, structures, cultures and narratives. This, in turn, helped us in uncovering hidden potentials that we would use in a next step to create a connectable, relatable, and future-oriented profile for the university.

2. Sense-making and developing a unique positioning

In this phase, we integrated and made sense of the vast amounts of quantitative and, more importantly, qualitative research data from the first phase and identified themes and potentials that connect the legacy of the university with a promising future. The outcomes of this work are condensed in a so-called “core process model”.

Future core processes describe the essential and strategic actions an organization must take to fulfill its purpose. They are co-created in close collaboration with the client.

Based on the research findings and the newly created core processes, we then developed a plan to re-envision the university’s identity, ensuring its unique positioning and offering direction to realize it.

Med Uni Graz: Pioneering Minds – Education and Research for Patients’ Health and Well-Being

The above profile describes the new positioning of the Medical University in Graz. It is inspired and guided by a holistic view of the human being, taking into account its biological, psychological, and social dimensions, thus broadening the scope of the medical and educational approach.

It guides the medical staff in their daily work: in patient care, teaching, and in interdisciplinary basic and applied research. In this way, the work of the staff has a direct social and economic impact in the region and beyond.

3. Bringing the new identity to life

How do you bring a new positioning to life? How do you make it more than just a claim on the letterhead? The rectorate of the Medical University in Graz took up this challenge and worked with us to define three “transformation streams”. These were created to ensure that the new positioning actually impacts the functioning of the entire organization on a deeper level.

The first stream focuses on patient care. Graz Medical University broadened the scope by adding the concept of “well-being” to the medical approach. It was no longer “just” about proactively keeping or making people healthy but about recognizing that sometimes the real task is to ensure their well-being, for example, in the face of terminal illness.

To this end, the Medical University Graz actively pursues the “biopsychosocial” approach to patient care. Patients will experience a comprehensive healthcare journey, gaining more agency and participation in the design of their care.

The second stream focuses on students and staff. It was clear from the beginning that the university wanted to attract pioneers in all positions and jobs. Cleaning or administrative staff should have the same opportunities to be pioneers as researchers and students.

For example, the Medical University Graz has redesigned its curriculum and admissions process to test and develop students’ empathy and caring skills, not just their intellectual abilities. Both students’ and staff’s personal growth and development are fostered, directly benefiting patient care.

The third stream focuses on innovation and knowledge transfer. The aim is to ensure the requirements of translational research: results from academic research benefit society – breaking out of the “ivory tower” and bridging the gap between basic and applied research (fulfilling its third mission).

A key project within this stream has been the establishment of an innovation center (now known as the Medical Science Innovation Hub) at the Medical University in Graz, which brings together pioneering researchers, students, and people from other disciplines/industries with a focus on creating spin-offs that have an impact on and benefit for society.

Conclusions and Learnings

The Medical University of Graz has made an amazing leap forward in the years of our fruitful collaboration. They have not only repositioned themselves strategically but have also launched new processes and initiatives to deliver on the promise of their new identity.

Finally, we would like to share with you some of the learnings from our project that have inspired us, and that may do the same for you.

1. Reframe your (organizational) mind

The human brain is wired to resist change; it is afraid to fail, and it has dearly held beliefs about how things (should) work. “Organizational brains” are not so different. In fact, they are even more stubborn. Yet, overcoming (organizational) beliefs and ensuing patterns of thought and action are the key lever to creating sustainable change. Easy to say, hard to do. That is why we highly recommend supporting your staff, especially your managers, to learn how to become aware of their own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about transformation and how to reflect on them. Plus, build up a support system to train new, transformation-oriented habits and give them tailored coaching.

In many projects, we see that this is a gravely neglected aspect of the transformation process. and one that will surely backfire if you don’t focus on it.

2. Shape a future that respects the past

This is the way to create sustainable change. For example, in the case of the Medical University of Graz third stream of transformation related to supporting the creation of spin-offs, we decided to prioritize meaningful and sustainable social impact over the quantity of new companies created. This is in line with the humanistic orientation of Austrian universities in the past and uses this strength to build a future direction.

3. Cultivate a Future-Oriented Mindset

It’s critical that you foster a forward-thinking mindset and ensure that the people who are critical to the success of the project are driving the new positioning. You can’t go it alone, especially in a complex organization like a university. Right at the beginning, invest your time in doing a proper stakeholder analysis and mapping: identify the various roles needed and draft fitting methods to involve the stakeholders. For this, we’ve developed a stakeholder mapping game, with which you will be able to set up, monitor, and adjust your stakeholder involvement strategy as needed. 

4. Measure Impact Differently

Tweak your evaluation systems so that impact and excellence are measured not only by traditional metrics such as the number of publications but also by tangible effects on society. It may be hard to take the first step and be different, but positive examples always inspire change in an ecosystem. And the results of our project are already being used as an example of a wider change in how Austrian universities operate.

5. Perseverance is Key

Finally, stay the course in the face of challenges. This is essential to realizing and maintaining a unique identity. Just as an airplane needs the resistance of the air to lean on and take off, a new identity must define itself by overcoming challenges and making meaningful choices that define it.

Did this project inspire you to think about the future of your own organization? Do you have questions about how these findings might be relevant to your work? We invite you to book a short introductory call with our founder, Thomas Fundneider. Simply use the form below to find a convenient time.

It’s easy to get started

Are you interested in out-of-the-box approaches and ready to take the next step?
Then we invite you to start a conversation with us.
All our successful projects start this way.

Image Rights: Cover image – Medical University of Graz. All other images – theLivingCore