adaptive capacity

The Open University needs to reinvent itself to survive. The new Vice Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, has been explaining what that means most recently in an interview for the Financial Times. I’m extremely impressed by Peter and his plans for reinventing the institution. For my part I’m now part of a new portfolio called learning innovation, however the remit for this portfolio will be a very broad one encompassing institutional innovation and the capacity for innovation as a means to dig ourselves out of an (organisational) hole.

We are all asked to consider how the portfolio can respond. Have we got the right leadership? – what are the barriers?

I have been doing some desktop research and found an excellent set of articles on the news industry about innovation moving from print to digital. The OU is grappling with many similar issues. If you read one article from this group read the one on creating the right culture and structure.

“Leaders cannot simply mandate a new culture,” wrote Brown and Groves in their paper. “Organizations must develop new routines that fit in the context of the existing culture and nudge members toward a culture that embraces innovation.”

There are parallels between the reinvention of the press from print to digital media and the OU. Although the OU embraces technology and has a very rich VLE the underlying model and culture still demonstrate influences of the print-based correspondence model of the 1960’s.

I’ve been asked for my thoughts on what we need to do. In doing this it is important to reflect critically on what we mean by innovation. In particular around radical or disruptive innovation. Compressor_and_jackhammer_for_drilling_rockThere’s a great post by Phil Hill called Cracks in the Theory of Disruptive Innovation summarizing current scholarly thinking around the pitfalls  of applying disruptive innovation theory within the context of higher education. The article includes a summary from MIT Sloan Management Review :

“In summary, stories about disruptive innovation can provide warnings of what may happen, but they are no substitute for critical thinking. High-level theories can give managers encouragement, but they are no replacement for careful analysis and difficult choices.”

When thinking about the problem of innovation within the context of the Open University we also need to consider the external environment, for the Open University it’s looking critically at the funding and support for part time learning and  life long learning as described in recent media articles demonstrating the issues of reduction of funding and support to the sector which are particularly important to the Open University.

I spoke to Alistair Jarvis Director of Communications and External Relations at Universities UK recently about this subject and he said that in order to survive universities would need to diversify their business model and to occupy a market niche. He said that the EU referendum will have impact regardless of the outcome but is potentially very damaging and that government funding will continue to decrease.

In my opinion for the Open University this means thinking critically about the business models. Looking at B2B and B2G services. Thinking about continuing the OU’s mission through the open and informal routes and through micro-accreditation and certification routes and apprenticeships. It certainly means an overhaul of the curriculum. A simplification of the infrastructure and support services. It also requires a re-evaluation of risk. In particular the risk of complacency. It requires senior sponsorship of ideas to move them through to practice. It relies on internal funding for transition and up-scaling of research into teaching practice but most importantly it requires everyone to look outside the Open University and to wake up to the external environment. To see the OU in the context of challenges within the wider sector. To work in partnership with others, to bring or adapt solutions in use effectively elsewhere.

It requires everyone to stop assuming that how it has been done here is how it will be done in the future.

In my next post I’ll explain more about what I see as the method for achieving organisational innovation.


About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

4 Responses to adaptive capacity

  1. Tony Hirst says:

    Hi Will

    Interesting post… I’m intrigued by the brief to support “institutional innovation and the capacity for innovation as a means to dig ourselves out of an (organisational) hole”…

    Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the vision the new VC appears to have for the institution, I’d agree that there does seem to be a few hang ups in the way the institution does – or doesn’t innovate.

    Whilst working on a FutureLearn course recently, I was struck by how the OU workflow seems incapable of doing anything other than follow the f**ked up process we currently have in place. FutureLearn pages are built around markdown flavoured content, so whilst we we were authoring using markdown in an editor that could produce markdown output files, variously constructed from an original source document, the workflow seems to have been: author in a markdown editor; copy styles content into word; edit it in Word; somehow then convert the Word stuff into the markdown required by FutureLearn.

    This could have been a good opportunity to explore a markdown workflow. Instead, whilst starting off and ending up with markdown, it used a traditional OU workflow in the middle that added overheads at both ends (and additional editing/correction steps, let getting tables into a word format, then having to correct messed up tables in final markdown, (tables that didn’t incidentally look much like the original tables, which would have been more pedagogically useful [OU context comment, therefore: must include the p-word]).

    Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to see what you have to say in your next post:-)

  2. Simon Rae says:

    Hi Will, as Tony said, Interesting post…
    I liked when you said “Thinking about continuing the OU’s mission through the open and informal routes and through micro-accreditation and certification routes and apprenticeships. It certainly means an overhaul of the curriculum. A simplification of the infrastructure and support services.” – when I was part of the OU’s Broadcast Strategy Review back in 2007 we interviewed several external people about how the broadcasting media and the OU would best mesh in the future. One interview, done at my suggestion, was Peter Cochrane, ex head of BT research etc., his view was that learning would be done much more on an “I need to know this now” basis and that people would do a lot more ‘surfing learning’, i.e. they would surf the net to find the lesson or video or podcast they needed and learn it when they needed. Peter thought that the OU should look to this sort of market and provide (as you say) open, informal, micro-accredited, short courses aimed at people-on-the-job.

    Peter’s views didn’t seem to take root in the thinking of the BSR at the time, I’m not sure they were even reported 😕 although there was a very fancy web-based report somewhere on the OU intranet. But I thought then and now that they did recognise a reality of workplace learning needs that the university was reluctant to. Maybe FutureLearn will move to fill the gap, what do you think?

  3. willwoods says:

    Hi Tony, yes I should add that this is *my interpretation* of the V-C’s stance. I’ve heard that said before by others (about the OU workflow in F/L being overly complex) – I know that others are looking at that but I agree with you – it’s an opportunity to break away and then reintroduce only the elements necessary to meet a specific requirement. MOOC production is an excellent example of a place where we don’t need to follow the ‘traditional’ production model so it should be used as an environment to more safely explore alternative models.

  4. Pingback: Innovation to Impact | Weblog of Will Woods

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