Wednesday, September 06, 2006

UNE Strategic Planning - Impact of New Technology 2

My post on Brian Barnes (New England Theatre Centre & Brian D Barnes - Happy 75th birthday, Brian) exhausted my writing enthusiasm. I wanted to write it, and am glad that I did, because I wanted to reinstate the Australian place occupied by Brian and the Centre. But it took an awful lot of time.

I have been inspired to start again by a perceptive comment from Bronwyn Clarke on my post UNE Strategic Planning - impact of new technology. In this post I suggested that the University and especially its staff had been slow to adopt and fully utilise the possibilities associated with the new on-line technology. I also suggested that staff training might help.

In her response, Bronwyn started by saying:

"Jim, I'm not sure it's so much a 'training' problem as a cultural and strategic one. UNE has such a strong and proud tradition in distance education that, IMO, we've been a little slow in adopting new strategies. Because we did things so well in a pre-internet era, much of our thinking about teaching and elearning is still in the mode of providing quality text-based resources in hard copy for individual study."

I think that Bronwyn is right here. UNE pioneered distance education in Australia and was the dominant provider for several decades. It was then slow to respond to the challenges posed by new providers, a slow response not limited just to distance education. In my previous posts I have discussed some of the reasons for this, looking back at the University as I have known it since a child, counterpointing between past and present to try to draw out lessons.

The term "culture" has become very popular in the management literature. However, my feeling is that in practice the term has often been used as a mantra for something quite different, the perceived need for change. We need to change the culture, we need a new culture, become the catch cry for new CEO's. The focus is on the need for change, not culture as such.

When I first met John Cassidy, then the University's new Chancellor, at an alumni function In Sydney, he seemed to fit into this mold, talking about the need for a new culture, for the University to adopt a business like approach and learn from business. I am not being critical here, simply making the observation that the Chancellor fitted into the new business leader model.

From experience with multiple clients over a long period, most attempts at cultural change fail to greater or lesser extent, sometimes disastrously. The reason for this is that culture - often described in business simply as the way we do things round here - provides often unseen iron bonds that essentially determine actions and outcomes. Cultural change is hard to begin with, impossible if you do not understand the existing culture, know what you want the new culture to be, have a process for bridging the two.

The current strategic planning exercise is in part an exercise in cultural change. However, most strategic planning exercises also fail. Indeed, in his book Good to Great, one of the best management books I have read, Jim Collins suggests that there is no significant correlation between the existence or otherwise of formal planning processes and business performance. Depressing news for those like me involved in strategic consulting.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that the current UNE planning exercise is a waste of time or must fail. Far from it. However, I do believe that it must meet certain criteria if it is to have a positive impact.

Many years ago, Peter Drucker suggested that the value of strategic planning lay in the futurity of current decisions, the way in which a view of the future informed and guided what was done in the present. Jim Collins makes the point that one feature of great organisations is that people have sufficient understanding of the organisation and its role so that they can focus on doing.

This understanding is not created by policies, procedures, manuals or decision processes, but by a cascading understanding throughout the organisation such that people can see how they and their areas fit into the whole. He also points to the role of enthusiasm and individual actions in driving success.

Bronwyn wrote: "I am hoping that the new Strategic Plan will provide clearer direction for Teaching and Learning at UNE than has been the case in the past." In similar vein, Paul Reader pleaded for a clear and positive direction for adult education at UNE. I can only sympathise with Paul, for over the years I have seen the University do marvelous things with adult education only to then lose direction.

So one core test for me of the outcomes of the planning process will be the extent to which it cascades in a meaningful fashion helping areas and individual staff members as well as other stakeholders move forward. A second key test will be the degree to which it generates enthusiasm. If the outcomes have to be imposed, it will have failed.

In saying all this I am not blind to either the internal or external difficulties. Indeed, I feel for all those trying to steer the planning process. Universities are very complex animals, far more complex than the normal business organisation. Further many UNE staff are already suffering from future shock, under enormous pressure. This pressure is not just hours worked, although that's an issue in some cases, but the exhaustion that comes from continuing change and adjustment.

This is not unique to UNE but can be found to greater or lesser extent in all universities. But my immediate concern is UNE. To illustrate by example.

In my post on UNE and new technology I talked about the possible role of blogs. Here I have been using the New England, Australia blog as a an example. In this context, Michael Sharkey and I have been exchanging emails on New England writers. In response to one of my comments Michael wrote on one recent Saturday:

"I agree with you about the usefulness of blogs. I wish I had time to get one up and maintain it - mostly, maintain it. I'm at UNE today, marking assignments since early hours -I started around dawn at home & then transferred 'up top' where a colleague and I are coordinating a seminar for postgraduate scholars - a task involving running around to make sure everyone's happy - publishers, editors, academics from interstate, etcetera... and then, quiet time in my cell block with undergraduates' assignments. Sigh. The old story"

Michael has made a major contribution, not just to the University but to writing and the broader community. I feel for him. I can lecture him on the need for him to do new things, but he has to fit them into existing priorities and pressures.

Linking all this back to arguments in earlier posts, one of the reasons that I have so hammered elements of UNE's past is that pride in the past as well as its lessons can enthuse and liberate people at a time when new directions are required. Cultural change is much easier when you draw from and represent positive elements in history and culture.

Finally, Bronwyn wrote:

"In the meantime, you may be pleased to hear that at the Teaching and Learning Centre we are addressing these issues and encouraging staff to explore other options for engaging, interactive and collaborative teaching and learning. In fact next week I'm running sessions on new tools for online learning, so hopefully that will encourage some more use of blogs, wikis and other social software tools."

I am indeed pleased to hear this.

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