Thursday 23 May 2013

A Different Approach

Yesterday, we had the final day of this year's Unpacking Your Chair programme at Newcastle University.  I have blogged before about this award-winning programme (click on the tag UYC) and also on the Futures programme which has been so successful at Newcastle, Essex and Cardiff Universities (cf various 'Futures' tags).

At the end of yesterday's event, one of the participants was saying that the programme had raised more questions for him than it had provided answers - and he and I both thought that was a good thing.

Which set me thinking about how these programmes differ from some of the more corporate leadership programmes I see increasingly in Higher Education.

The corporate programmes seem to me more prescriptive.  Work has been done to identify Leadership Attributes and articulate the University's strategy, and what is needed now is to get people to act accordingly.  So programmes are put together with clear learning objectives and a somewhat didactive philosophy.  Sometimes, it seems to me, corporate programmes are put in place as a solution to relatively isolated instances of under-performance or misapplied effort: rather than leaders dealing directly with the few people who are not contributing appropriately.

The approach we have developed is rather different, and I think rests on different assumptions.  We do not shy away from the didactic, in terms of sessions that teach about the University's finances, for example, or the University's or Faculty's expectations of the professoriate (on Futures and UYC programmes, respectively).  However, we provide such teaching by way of context: the underlying assumption is that participants will use that context to make their own decisions about how best they may contribute.

Thus a large part of our process is discursive: discussions of different perspectives and perceptions, different aspirations and strengths, and the different ways in which people may valuably pursue their own interests and strengths in ways which are congruent with the context and contribute to the institutional purpose.

There are several implicit assumptions underlying this approach. One is that, by and large, people wish to make a positive contribution to the organisation. A second is that academics will, and indeed should, pursue their particular areas of interest and play to (and build on) their strengths.  A third is that commitment and motivation are generated more by people freely subscribing to the institutional agenda than feeling that they are being expected to submit to it.  A fourth is that the mutual understanding, and indeed friendships, generated by this approach encourage a broader engagement with the institution, as well as being stimulating in a number of other ways.

It is harder, of course, to predict what precisely people will learn, following this approach; but the longer term follow-up we have done at both Essex and Newcastle has highlighted both that it is valued by participants over the longer term, (and credited by them with supporting or stimulating many and various achievements) and also that senior managers recognise the longer term positive impact of these programmes in terms of the increased energy, agency, and contribution of most participants.

This is very much a 'thinking out loud' post: I would be interested to hear from anyone who sees it differently, or has more to add: particularly if they have been involved in any of the programmes I have mentioned.

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