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.

SaaS meets Old Skool

I was in a meeting recently between Google and the OU implementation group involved in the rollout of Google Apps. Google has flown in Gabe Cohen, Google Apps Product Manager and Sam Peters, Business Development Manager (Europe) and the OU had representatives from all the big areas of the organisation. I’ve had meetings like this several times in the past but I was struck by the chasm between the Google view of Enterprise change process management  for implementing SaaS (software as a Service) technology versus the ‘old school’ view of implementing services and systems with paid for 3rd party service suppliers.

For example the OU would like to spend a period working with a senior technical person from Google about how the Google suite gets implemented against existing technologies. Sitting around a table and whiteboarding scenarios and coming up with a implementation plan. With Google it’s a case of switching it on. They say they can provide eight weeks of technical support around the launch window ‘but we’re unlikely to need that’.  I visited the University of Westminster when they had just ‘switched on’ the Google suite and I can testify that Google make the process painless. UoW’s head of ICT said that they spent ten days internally with Google mapping their authentication services and sorting our the passthrough of information to their Google Apps environment and that was it!

At the meeting on Friday I was struck by the different world views. The people from the OU (myself included although I may think of myself as a little more enlightened) were discussing about how you’d provide a stable environment for students and roll out tools. Google said they just add ‘feature sets’ and have a quarterly release cycle so it’s a case of benefitting from new things and providing them as you see fit. The OU has however a different demographic to other UK higher education institutions and we have a fair share of ‘silver surfers’ and some technophobes to consider.

I think it’s a very different mindset coming from a more traditional 80’s or 90’s style view of systems and services where you have total control, holding you full architecture stack within your business in a single place (or multiple places within your control) and having a total internal structure and staffing mechanism to keep things going to moving to allowing things to be controlled by others and to have services that are provided for you (and that you don’t even pay for) but that your organisation benefits from.

This lack of control is obvious and moving to the cloud is undoubtedly a very positive step but when it finally starts to become reality you can almost smell the fear. Knowing that Google provides services to governments, pharmaceuticals and other organisations that have serious data control concerns doesn’t make it any easier. Our students ARE our business and even a 1% drop in students would make a huge impact so we need to make sure we do this right. 

Yes lets just switch it on…but after we’ve planned and made sure that our students will be switched on to it.

Change is good?

Martin Weller has written an interesting post about the restructuring of our institute. I have to say that I was suprised by the outcomes which suggest we split the unit into two. I, like Martin, am going to avoid the big political hot potato that are my thoughts about the review process itself although I did like meeting the reviewers and in particular Don Williams from Microsoft. Don really changed my view of the type of people who work there since he seems to be genuinely enthusistic about our work and values it. What I will say is that when change happens then the process of change management is important, I’m no expert but I do wish that more organisations would hire dedicated people with change management expertise to guide organisations through restructuring processes.

Why is it important? well because a bit like software development it’s not necessarily what your requirements are (the review outcomes) but rather what system is delivered (the new structures). These can be very different. I welcomed the review and despite a few misgivings about the outcomes I feel that overall this represents a catalyst for change which has been long overdue in our unit. I run a team that struggles with the complexities of dealing with the myriad of calls on our time. We pick up the things that other people cannot and we have no way of filtering or ‘focusing’ on the strategically important. I hope that the new units give us a chance to do that.

I have seen restructuring going horribly wrong, staff get demotivated and the best ones leave. Recruitment is difficult or impossible and the unit struggles under the weight of work that must continue to be done despite all the reorganisation taking place.

I have seen restructuring done really well through a well managed transition period with a reasonable set of targets (very low expectations for the first two years then rising to achieve full success indicators by the third year). This was done with relatively informal processes for migrating staff and building capacity. People moved gradually into new posts or areas and were willing to take on extra stuff as time progressed. The unit was seen as a new entity and treated as such, people were given a sense of ownership and a sense of purpose within the new unit. It wasn’t perfect but it was good.

So I have been involved in restructuring twice before with mixed results, is this third time lucky for me?

I think I’ll conduct some user testing once this is done to check that the system is robust and meets the requirements specification. In the meantime it’s business as usual for me, different structure but the same issues to grapple with.