Leadership and Sensegiving

09 January 2020


One of the great benefits of this time of the year is that there are more opportunities to read more widely and deeply. I have been influenced by Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows" in holding myself to account for better reading habits, but the tempo of the year doesn't always cooperate with my good intentions. Anyway, I digress (another lovely consequence of the less frenetic context - one has time to digress even recursively...).

A consequence of all this reading is that two different pieces intersected in my mind in an interesting way. One was the immensely important and substantial work of Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" which I am still working through carefully. I'm still reading it, so a review will be sometime in the (near?) future, in part it has been slow going as Professor Zuboff's work deserves care and attention to think through the implications.

The second piece is the recent blog post by Audrey Watters providing her perspective on "The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade." This has been interesting for a couple of reasons. The first has been simply the bredth and depth of the material provided which has been a useful reminder of various ed-tech initiatives. I have to say that I don't agree with all of them being debacles, but more on that below, certainly a blog is a dictatorship and I doubt she would agree with my choices for a similar list.

The second reason has been the reaction to the blog post online and the debates that some have engaged in on Twitter regarding the absence of a positive narrative. The post includes at the beginning the following statement:

"Oh yes, I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for "the future of education." Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)"

The thing is, I think this is my job, at least in part.

One of the change issues that universities seem to routinely experience is that negative framing of change. As I discussed in my book (page 84):

"The conflict arising in the shift in modes is evident in the negative way faculty involvement in organisational change has been framed in the literature over several decades (Bleak, 2006; Kotler & Murphy, 1981; Martin, 2011; Trowler, 1998; Yarmolinsky, 1975). Faculty are variously charged with being an impediment, overly attached to pre-existing organisational culture and values, resisting adaptation to new ideas and generally an obstacle to innovation and change. Negative stereotyping of faculty is also apparent in the language used by senior leaders. Faculty are often described as a barrier to effective management (Meek & Wood, 1997). Bates (2010, p. 22) quotes one Vice Chancellor as saying 'Universities are like graveyards. When you want to move them, you don’t get a lot of help from the people inside'."

As I go on to observe, a culture of mistrust means that it is very easy for both staff and managers to construct alternative narratives that ascribe negative motives and actions to the other. The resulting telling and re-telling of these 'myths' can rapidly generate a sense of moving through Wonderland for those who move between multiple contexts in the University. At the extreme, this can become pathological ( Marshall, 2018, page 391):

"Sadly, there is anecdotal evidence of what Marginson and Considine (2000, p. 129) call 'engineered consent', where stakeholders are manipulated rather than engaged with as peers during the process of change. Cain and Hewitt (2004) provide an account by the Australian politician responsible for significant changes in that system, reporting the Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University regarded external pressure as a useful scapegoat for organisational change, allowing him to make changes without having to be open about his motives:
by externalising the threat - by making me [Dawkins] the bogey man - [Melbourne VC Penington] was able to pick up the bits of it that he liked, and push that through, but blame me for it. And so he’d make these speeches where he’d be pretty unflattering about me, whereas in fact he was a secret supporter of what we were doing. (Cain & Hewitt, 2004, p. 48–49 quoting Labor Government Education Minister (1987–92) John Dawkins)

Both the Watter's blog post and Zuboff's book reflect a very negative characterisation of the 'other' which struck me as an example of the exceptionalism that seems to dominate analysis, particularly in popular media, in recent times. I understand the need to respond to the dominance of the innovation narrative and the compulsive and excessive techno-positivism that is purveyed by vendors, technologists and some analysts, but I think both risk having gone too far in their critical stance. The risk is that we're simply normalising the behaviour of politicians like Dawkins and manipulative VCs which legitimises it to some extent, rather than holding ourselves (and them) to the high standards of integrity which underpin the social capital of academia.

A sensible response to techno-positivism is a measured recognition that there is often value in trying new things, and that failure in organisational initiatives is like failure in learning - an opportunity to get feedback, to reflect and to try again. A common misconception of technology is that there is a single model of its application which is deterministically framed by the technology itself. In reality there are many ways in which technologies can be used by different people to different ends and the dominant uses are often emergent rather than defined, particularly by those that create them or the early adopters who first use them.

A poor response is a generic characterisation of those trying to enact new ideas and technologies as being driven by illegitimate and dishonest motives. Rousseau argued that the integrity of the human condition was compromised by civilisation, but for myself I really value the affordances of tools like Turnitin, Google Maps, my iPhone and other modern technological developments. For me, their flaws are aspects that can be recognised and worked with, not reasons to never engage in that space. There are very few technologies in the history of mankind that are absolutely good or bad in all ways and to all people.

The challenge, and the bit that aligns to my engagement with and, in Watter's terms, "hope for the future of education" is to engage with new and evolving technologies thoughtfully and to look for the different opportunities they provide. This process of sense-making (Weick, 1995) is fundamental to understanding complex change such as the numerous initiatives listed in the Watter's blog post. As I note:

"Making meaning of an event is subject to flux and change as new information is discovered and new experiences occur. This property emphasises the need to continuously re-engage with the context of an organisation, the importance of understanding the dynamic nature of the world, the fragility of static models of organisational existence."

Retrospective and ongoing critical analysis is a important tool to stimulate sense-making and lists of initiatives help us review and reflect on what people have tried to achieve. Labelling them as failures (malign or otherwise) misses the point that when conceived they had promise and possibility, and that at some point in the future they might once again. Watters notes that Clickers (#89 in her list) have been in place since the 1950s and rightfully notes that they are failures as assessment devices. This misses the really interesting contribution they make in a different context, that of active learning, where they have been shown to enable significant improvements in learning outcomes particularly in the sciences.

As academic leaders we have a responsibility to engage in Sense-giving to provide a range of narratives that move our organisations forward productively. Critical engagement is part of that, but a failure to recognise the good will and intentions behind new ideas is only an inducement to those who enjoy a culture of unrelenting opposition and dissent. The strength of the university is collegiality and failing to build and sustain trust only weakens that core to our identity as social institutions.