Making change

So why are most universities monolithic, conservative, bureaucratic and resistant to change? F. M. Cornford’s splendid little monograph Microcosmographia Academica (1908) examines the “enemy of inertia” and finds that “there is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing”. While change is theoretically deemed to be a “good thing” by “change managers” – commonly known as vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – those managers often encounter resistance from ordinary academics.

Steve Olivier, ‘How to manage rapid change

Ordinary academics: resisting the pace of change since 1908.

Colleagues, if you’re writing something in this vein—a strategic planning document, maybe—and academics are your probable readership, please think about what we do for a living. We’re an evidence-based profession, you can throw facts at us. As researchers, we’re continuously called to account on the rigour and robustness of our projects. Our teaching is subordinated to many, many levels of quality assurance to check that we’re not just making stuff up. We’re performance managed, and surveyed, and our grant applications and publications and methods and results and even our grammar are pushed through the mincer of blind, competitive and often pretty harsh peer review.

So if you really want to engage us in changing the way that we work because the bottom line just fell through the floor (and as we pay our bills and manage our savings in the same economy that you do, we do actually know how these things happen) we can help you better if you deal with the following in clear language, with real evidence. We can handle both spreadsheets and dashboards, whatever works best for you.

What specific and demonstrable problem does your change solution solve? What is the scale of the problem, and its likely trend direction—not in generalised terms but in our specific situation? What will have changed about the problem by the time your solution hits the ground?

Will your change solution make things better, or just different?

Does your change solution have potential unintended consequences, and what’s the likelihood that we’ll all be struck by them in about a year’s time? Will we have to do this twice?

Is your change solution one that you previously implemented—with success or not—in a completely different context than this one? What evidence for change comes from the situation that we are all in now? Why does your pre-loved change solution seem suited to the new environment in which you intend to roll it out?

What does your change solution reveal about your own values and goals in business, and about what matters to you as a thinker? Why do you hold these views? How carefully have you been able to evaluate the existing values, goals and practices in the situation that you’re proposing to change?

And when you tell the story of your change solution, and the way your intelligent and experienced colleagues respond to it, what sorts of anecdote do you choose for evidence (which, by the way, is not evidence)? Are you the hero of this narrative? Are you its victim?

I recently saw a lecturer informing students of the introduction of the grade point average system with the words: “Don’t shoot the messenger, blame senior management.”

Well, I recently saw a lecturer helping a student work through the complexity of a puzzling assignment, and I recently saw a lecturer eating at her keyboard, and I recently saw a full professor tweeting her tattoo to students, and I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t use these tiny snippets of everyday lecturer behaviour to prove a case for change. I’d just say that these are people doing what they do in their workplaces, building relationships, making change happen and tending to it afterwards, and as far as possible trying to keep safe all the people in their care—students, colleagues, even you—as we navigate the uncertainty of our market, and of the evidently fluctuating demand for the services we offer.

We use many of the same business tealeaves as you, sometimes at closer range and with more direct experience. We engage daily with the market and we reflect constantly on the feedback it gives us. We’re the frontline staff at the client interface, as you would put it: we’re talking with students, journals, conferences, scholarly networks, publishers, industry research partners and community clients, and this means we are also listening closely to them about what they think is important for us to do. We read budgets, plans, policies and we’re widely networked into global conversations about innovation, markets, economies, employment. We have useful thoughts on all of this.

And sometimes we are your market, as our own teenagers grow up and we wonder how to advise them about options after high school. The problem is that we have seen the often patchy ethics of higher education’s market sensing, sales techniques, and failure of responsible debt counselling from inside the whole recruitment process. We know our children are your sales targets, and there really is no loyalty contest here.

If we seem resistant to your ideas, maybe it’s because we’re thinking carefully about something that drew us here in the first place, a vision that now only persists in your marketing, sort of. We care about people, and we care that they’re not exploited as consumers or as workers. We’re all aware of the new cruelty in human performance management that is the spreading oilslick of your rapid change agenda; we understand that in the race for global prestige, ruthless churn in staffing is a positive for you. In a profession where meaningful job security and manageable working hours are the vanishing privilege of a minority, we’re learning that we need to take care of each other. Because you don’t seem to have a plan beyond the impressively contradictory strategy of mixing competitive reward schemes with mindfulness programs.

But as it happens, this isn’t just another predictable resistant-to-change #headdesk grumble about your lazy stereotyping, and your 1908 evidence base. Because you’re right: all of us who continue to work in higher education need to get stuck in to the question of the near future of our profession, the sustainability of values that we hold, and our obligations to the many who mind what we do, especially those whose taxes pay our bills (that’s also us, by the way). We have the capacity to help, and certainly the incentive.

Next week, I’ll be joining the #dlrn15 conference at Stanford University on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change. Fellow conference organisers and plenary panel conveners Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier have written some prior thoughts about the immense challenges of imagining, conserving and extending equity in higher education, and the practicalities of using strategic planning to advocate for change at human scale. I’ll be convening the plenary discussion on innovation and work in higher education, with Lee Skallerup Bessette, Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Jeffrey Keefer. Travelling Australians will be there, including keynote Professor Marcia Devlin.

If you’re in the area, there are a few spots left but late registration closes on Monday evening. If you can’t be there, the Virtually Connecting team will be on the ground making it possible for those excluded by conference travel and costs to meet with participants (and each other) and have their voices heard too. You can follow along on Twitter with #dlrn15, and we have a Slack channel.

If you have specific questions or comments about digital networks, innovation and the impact on work in higher education, you can also put them here, and they’ll be heard.

for KA and LM

Update: Anna Notaro was also provoked by the stereotypes in Steve Olivier’s article, and her excellent reply is here. Mike Hamlyn made the very fair point that it’s important to remember that managers in the roles Steve Olivier describes were once academics too. I completely agree with this, and especially that it isn’t helpful to combat stereotypes with stereotypes. The issue isn’t managing, or being managed, but being managed on the basis of bad (or no) evidence, really outdated stereotypes, and a limited focus on the purpose of change, relative to its pace.

3 thoughts on “Making change

  1. Where I used to work the people who don’t change tend to see themselves as faulty representatives of the past. In their world “the way it used to be” is something they seek to emulate, yet this state of perfection is beyond their reach.

  2. Actually, senior managers are often still academics too, with PhD students, research projects on the go (albeit slowly) and sometimes even a teaching load. Our VC, for example, is a tutor in a large first-year Sociology paper. It’s not always either/or.

Conversation welcome here