I attended a forum last year here in Australia where there was much discussion about change in universities. I've been pondering it ever since, as it left me wondering about the state of strategic thinking in the higher education sector. Then I attended the Educause conference earlier this year, and listened to people who were leading that change, and heard about their experiences of trying to adapt to the changing environment in which their institutions operated. My biggest problem with the Australian forum was that the discussion focused very much on what Richard Slaughter calls the pop futures level, and what Sohail Inayatuallah would call the litany. There were a lot of unchallenged assumptions in the room about what was 'right' and possible, and so the discussion was focused, with a couple of exceptions, on the symptoms of change being felt in universities and addressing those symptoms to make them hurt less, rather than identifying how they could respond more effectively and proactively to the drivers of that change.
There were many comments about how hard life is for staff now. Overwhelming workload, pressures, deadlines, stress, lack of direction, busyness were all typical words used in discussions about individuals at work. Moving to discussions about the sector generated a focus on trends such as student demand, internationalisation and quality, not about possible responses to challenges to fundamental shape and form of the higher education sector. Several presentations used newspaper headlines to demonstrate their points, which was an indicator for me of how shallow the thinking appeared to be.
There was little discussion about how we might need to change the way we see the world and what is 'right' or possible. Or, that we might need to try and understand the potential impact of change in the external environment and prepare for it, rather than reacting when change happen to us (like declining international student numbers). Or making new assumptions about doing what universities do to suit the new environment that is being shaped around us.
The Educause conference had a different focus to the Australian event, and explored, among other things, using educational technology to change the way learning is delivered. I heard more about what was possible rather than what was 'right'. Gary Hamel, one of the keynote speakers, reminded us to treat all our assumptions as hypotheses, and that the longevity of universities is no longer a guarantee of future survival. His comment that resistance to change, or explaining it away, is due in a large part, to the emotional investment of our leaders in the status quo - so getting those leaders to 'let go' to see what's possible becomes a critical challenge for the sector.
The other sessions I went to talked about how new technologies were helping students access content on mobile devices, how wordpress blogs were changing the dynamics and interactions among students and teachers, and allowing students to co-create their learning experience, how students are developing social based learning to build their own personal network of experts, and becoming free agent learners, untethered to institutions. I heard about the potential for busting some paradigms by etextbooks and mobile devices in learning and was then wowed by Neil Gershenfeld from MIT talking about FabLabs and how the merging of physical and computer science is real, here today. These people are changing the way they work to respond to changes in the external environment in ways that enhanced their work, and student learning.
Rather than resist the technology, such as keeping laptops out of classrooms or turning off mobile phones, they were embracing it, testing it, and using it to respond to challenges 'out there' - they were changing the way they worked. They were open to letting go of their emotional investment in the status quo to build something different, and emergent. They were in the middle of rapid change too, but rather than complain about it and seeking to maintain what is, they were using it to explore what was possible. I don't think their lives are any less busy, or that they feel any less overwhelmed than people in the room in Australia, yet there was a sense of energy and possibility at Educause that I didn't feel here.
I know that people working in universities are doing it tough - I used to be one of them and I was often heard to utter "it shouldn't be this hard". The busyness syndrome is a product of short term thinking, where you focus more on the urgent than the important. And if you succumb to the busyness syndrome, you will feel like a mouse on a treadmill, and getting off it will seem impossible.
To get off the wheel, you must allow yourselves to spend time thinking long term to set the context for your short term work - this is what strategic thinking is about.
Instead of talking about and describing what is happening today, you must spend more time working to understand what is driving the changes you are dealing with today, how those drivers might evolve over time, and how you need to respond to what's coming, as well as what is with you today. Instead of waiting to react to government education policy, for example, it is possible to better understand the drivers and assumptions behind that policy, and develop a range of strategies to respond quickly when the most likely policy is introduced. The drivers underpinning government policy assumptions aren't secret, and scanning the environment to identify and interpret those drivers isn't rocket science.
But it does take a commitment to spending time on building a futures-focused strategic thinking capacity, and a willingness on the part of leaders to change the way you think about what is possible.