Second Verse Same as the First

I recently attended a digital futures event which had been organised in the style of an unconference. This meant the focus was on attendees discussing issues that concerned them. After the keynote staff were asked about issues they would like to discuss and a lot of their responses linked to the work of Enable.

  • Perception of effort/ processes/ ‘tick boxing’
  • Concern about ability to be agile
  • Requirement for faster adoption to change
  • Lack of clear messages across institution
  • Concern about lose of subject specific adoption
  • Too much control of systems and not enough control on information
  • Culture
  • Perception of limited change management

All this could be considered a bit depressing, Enable started over two years ago and although it has achieved a number of small successes (Document Management, External Examiners, TransAPEL) this event is a clear message to all in the institution that there are still issues with the way the university is working. This message is something that Enable has passed up to senior management but has yet to hear back about what is being done. The Enable project recognises a number of developments that are occurring, however the communication with these developments has been either limited or through unofficial channels. This is due to the nature of the culture at the university and could also be linked to the perception of the project and the level of staff involved in the project.  It has been recognised by most people in the university that it is now in a prime position to change as it takes its first steps towards a new future and new university strategy. However will we be strong enough to make the big steps needed? Will we have the courage to do what staff are expecting of us?

The event also demonstrated that staff are not always aware of opportunities to engage with the  institution, and its projects. Even worse, that projects don’t always try to engage with their stakeholders, or recognise the right stakeholders for a project. For example a technology was introduced to staff with what appeared to be limited engagement, from the presentations given a number of questions were raised by staff during the lunch, during informal conversation. These questions focused on who had asked for the technology? What where their requirements? Was there any engagement with surveys such as the student mobile technologies/ faculty feedback? It was a shame these questions hadn’t been raised in the session itself. I wonder why, did I lead the discussions during lunch? Did staff feel more comfortable discussing issues with someone who wasn’t close to the projects? I’m not sure and I don’t think there is an easy way of capturing it. The survey I am doing for Enable (http://bit.ly/mgp1wy) will at least help identify how staff feel at different levels about engaging in projects within the institution, and whether they feel informed about these developments, not just at Staffordshire University but in other educational institutions.

In one session I attended focused on digital literacy it was a matter of debate as to whether there should be an embedding of technology into particular subjects. I found it a concern when two particular issues were raised – one was how do we know what technical skills an employer wants outside those that are subject specific (as the university has been discussing and raising the concept of Employer engagement I should have thought the answer fairly obvious), and some staff felt that their subjects should be exempt from digital literacy – although how that could be justified for one of the subjects discussed I’m not sure as I could certainly see a clear link between that subject (which shall remain nameless for fear of identifying the innocent!). Other discussions within that session where around whether we are forcing staff/students to use an internal tool when they would rather use an external one? Are we engaging in an exercise in futility which will soon require the university to hold equivalent software for all tools internally? Who should be guiding the decision on technologies here, and what is the message from senior management about the direction we should be going?

I found the informal discussions particularly useful, as they reinforced to me that our Enable message to senior management is the right one. There is a perception that we have been too  busy making small changes to processes and systems and that the time hasn’t been taken to clearly assess where we are, where we want to be and what needs to be done in the future to make us prepared for our next step. There is a recognised need by staff that the institution needs to take a breath, and get a complete view of its business & its supporting information, systems and processes. Staff need to feel engaged in this work and a great start has been taken by the new Vice Chancellor in encouraging staff to contact his office with feedback on the strategy. Certainly, from his blog, it is noted that a number of staff took him up on this offer (as did I on behalf of the project team through my manager, and directly through the online form we were given). What will be interesting to see is the feedback we get from the process – will he contact us directly to address our concerns? Or will it become another perceived ‘black hole’ where actions are taken but no feedback given?

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.

Understanding Data

This has a become a big thing for our project, how are changes managed to the core student data and how are those changes communicated to staff who use that data? I had a conversation with a member of lecturing staff who noted that TheSIS (The Student Information System) had gone through some recent changes, and were unsure as to why those changes had taken place, and that the  changes had caused some new issues with data that they put into the system. Usually these “issues” with data are sorted at a local level and may not reach faculty meetings. So how many people hit the same thing? How often do problems arise? What problems are they? In an informal discussion it is easy to pull out some issues, including handling APEL decisions after exam boards have met (in this example TheSIS gives the learner an “R” grade – meaning re-sit!). We have been talking about a flexible and responsive curriculum but now we also need to think about flexible and responsive data sources.