Non linear thinking

mission-shield-mutedI’ve been involved in supporting several workshops recently for the Open University around Leadership in Digital Innovation. This is one of the six strands of the new “Students First” strategy and the various workshops and events around this topic have already produced some great ideas. The most recent workshop was to a select group of OU leaders about the leadership challenges (in my opinion we are all leaders, and personal leadership is what we should be developing here!).

The event was led by Dave Coplin the Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft and included a video by Martha Lane Fox, Chancellor of the Open University and creator of dot.everyone, and I’ve just seen that she is now on the board of Twitter.

I was  leading the online discussion which took place during the event and I thought it might be worth sharing with you some of my key takeaways (now I’m getting hungry).

Martha gave a great talk about the dangers of complacency and how organisations are either digital organisations or they are not digital (digital DNA?). The thing that most resonated with me however and was echoed by others was how we must be “..always and relentlessly focused on users”. This may seem obvious to most but in many ways it is easy for organisations to inadvertently do things that lead to greater separation with users. For me I believe that we have been neglectful when it comes to user testing for example compared to the rigourous approaches we had previously, we also don’t represent the users at senior level in the way we once did and I’ve been calling for the Open University to consider a “chief customer officer” rather than, or complementary to, a chief operating officer, so that the emphasis is advocacy of the students. Some Universities are creating a PVC (Student Experience) role for similar reasons. The introduction of TEF and quality measured against student satisfaction sharpens the focus in this area and as we look at student co-creation, co-production, student evangelists, students champions and student evaluators we also need to consider student advocacy.

Dave CDave Coplin, CEO*oplin provided a inspiring and provocative talk on themes such as the end of the divide between work/life, with most people having access to better technology at home than at work yet we are forced to commute in order to use lower tech in offices. He talked about us as a Victorian workforce still largely pinned to our desks to use connected technologies.  He talked about email, how it relies on us as the filter to the conversation moving further in the organisation, how most emails are not confidential and how we should ditch email as not the right technology. He talked about leadership changing to become about empowerment rather than control. He talked about lack of information flows across the organisation, about the potential for connectivism in work, about AI and predicting the future and about non linear thinking. He mentioned Skype Translator and how we no longer need to learn languages (yeah we all get the babelfish idea, but here I got uncomfortable about technologies reducing our ability for human discovery and improvement, language learning changes our brains and perhaps we shouldn’t just be so quick to lose that opportunity Dave? – to be fair he did say that we still need to develop core skills) and he finished off by saying that we need to focus on outcomes not process and concluded with the elephant powder anecdote which made a very good point about people doing stuff which adds no particular value.

You can get a flavour of Dave’s talk from this piece on innovation (thanks to Catherine Chambers for reminding me of this resource)

After Dave’s provocations I led the online discussion and we had around six or seven people engaging in a stimulating chat where we discussed topics including:

  1. How we are a process driven organisation and this impacts on how we manage change, so we tend to have process led change which means we tackle little bits rather than the bigger goals and this approach seems to take away the creativity.
  2. How technology, when supporting our organisation, should be in the background and sometimes it appears to be in the foreground.
  3. The perceived tension between our regulatory and quality requirements and the need to take risk and innovate. We later concluded at our table that this was largely a demon of our own making (i.e. an internal perception rather than a reality) and that many universities find ways of working with the QAA and regulatory bodies to manage the balance.
  4. Trust being a critical factor for the empowerment of staff at all levels.

Finally there was a panel discussion with the Peter Horrocks (Vice Chancellor), Hazel Rymer (Acting Pro Vice Chancellor, Learning and Teaching Innovation) and Dave Coplin. Key quotes from that were “as Facebook say done is better than perfect“, “take the users with us on the journey”, “students as digital creators”, “everyone should have the opportunity to feed back”, “we need to challenge what we provide which is paid for versus what is given for free”, “we have gold standard bureaucracy”, “we must always and relentlessly focus on the user” and finally, a little controversially for a university “we should investigate what we can burn” (what are we doing that is of little value).

I’d like to hear your thoughts on these provocations, in the meantime I’m going to work with others across the OU to continue the discussion #OUDigitalInnovation