Communication and Blame in HE

I went to an interesting Flexible Service Delivery workshop provided by JISC last week and one of the presenters noted, almost in passing the culture of blame in HE and effective change. This has recently come to the forefront of my mind thanks to interviews with Enable, sharing those experiences with our Senior Management Working Group and the ASCILITE’09 Conference. These different experiences have all raised the “I want to do x but couldn’t because of y”. For example it is easy to say we can’t do something because of policies in place at an institution, but is this really the case?

The most popular example of this is the constant mentioning of an “Innovation Prevention Department” where  a particular department in an organisation is seen as stopping change from happening (this could be IT, HR, etc), which was raised at this years ASCILITE’09 and resulted in a number of comments by different bloggers including Mark Smithers (http://www.masmithers.com/) who mentions this tendency of staff to blame, in his case, the IT department for not being able to achieve an output;

“Unfortunately it is very easy to blame IT for everything from global warming to the Melbourne traffic, particularly when educators are being challenged to use technology more and more in their practice. But it really is time we stopped the blame game. Universities more than ever need to work collegiality to face some of the challenges of the next decade, if they don’t then they will fail miserably and a lot of people will be unhappy in the process.” http://www.masmithers.com/2009/12/09/direct-from-the-innovation-prevention-department/

David Jones (http://davidtjones.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/the-innovation-prevention-department-why/) also discusses the IPD themes, and talks about how there is a need, not to justify the actions within a particular department or from a particular policy but to understand the different perspectives and understanding historical background to innovation, the stakeholders involved and realising that real innovation can not be scheduled or costed from the beginning.
All this sounds familiar from the work of Enable. The Blame game is something that is often used to stop innovation, or change from happening or being as effective as it could be. As part of this idea of IPD, within Enable I have heard one department say that the policies and processes we have in place stifle their ability to be innovative with their curriculum, where another department says hey, no, those policies and processes have been fine and have successfully created an innovative curriculum within them. We are lucky in that this department is happy to share that good practice across the institution, what happens when that department is isolated or communication in an institution isn’t robust enough to pass this information to all? This typical two way perspective of policies was very interesting and appeared to link to the different attitudes within the faculties and the personalities involved. Often it was the underlying systems that caused problems – not the policies or procedures but how someone interpreted them. How do we get over this? I don’t think there is a simple answer to this, by making policies / processes too detailed we could become too controlling – stopping that which we want to make part of our day business – developing an innovative curriculum that is agile and flexible. I do think some of this comes back to communication and support – how do we support new staff working with existing policies and processes without them being influenced by staff experience within the department that may not be all positive? How can we communicate what we are trying to do to everyone involved? How do we get past those who say they haven’t got time to read emails / websites?

Other interview outputs included a department justifying the fact a faculty was struggling with understanding the procedures of award development with “well they just need to call us”. This gives me the general feeling of, with some staff, being unwilling to see that change is necessary in some cases (not all). That the staff need to know who to call! Again this is communication, do we need to think about staff development here, or even a simple induction pack for staff new to their posts (even if not to the institution) There appears to be a reluctance to be able to see others perspectives, and to say, actually perhaps I could do that better – or that although what is happening is successful 70% of the time, how can we reach the other 30%? Why is this? I’m not sure but one thing I hope is that with Enable and the use of Enterprise Architecture we will be able to take some of those issues raised here and by David Jones and move forward as an institution that does support innovation across the board. This approach, with the support of an “Enterprise Programme Office” (name to be confirmed!), should help us manage different perspectives of work being done, support the stakeholders viewpoints and help real innovation be sustainable. Helping people become more aware of the work they need to do to help us become agile and flexible.

Addition:

After talking about this with colleagues another part of  “blame” and managing change is the fact that some staff have been here so long that it is hard for them to see change as necessary, or that they can drive the change. It is often the case that they have seen change fail in the past which makes them resistant to new change.

I was also reminded about one of the top issues that have been highlighted by Enable, that technology is often the driver behind a new initiative without investigating whether that technology is the right solution or whether the processes behind it are robust/ effective. Often it is the case that we blame technology for not doing something or being less than intuitive and then we find it was picked for a different reason or has helped embed processes that are no longer suitable for the institution.