Friday 25 April 2014

Bread and Circuses

I was very interested to read this piece about the popularity and efficacy of university teaching staff.  As so often, I enjoyed it because it spoke to my own prejudices.  I think that the whole issue of Student Satisfaction, whilst important, poses risks to the quality of Higher Education.

I see the same issues arise in my own professional life.  Frequently, corporate clients (and I include Universities here) re-book a programme because the feedback is so positive: 'Your programmes are always really popular' is a typical comment.

Whilst flattering, that assessment is normally based on a Happy Sheet either completed at the end of the workshop, or online shortly afterwards.  It seems to me that it is mainly based on whether people enjoyed the day or not.

I am much more interested in the longer term evaluation: what people learned and how (or whether) they applied that learning in ways that were helpful.  Organisations are often very poor at such longer term evaluation: when they do happen it is often at my instigation, and frequently unfunded by the client organisation.  I do them because I learn from them, and I hope that my clients may do so too.

One of the things that I have learned is that it is sometimes the parts of a programme that fare less well in the short term Happy Sheet evaluation (typically the instructional lecturing parts) that are found to have been of most use; whereas the popular parts (group discussions and activities) are mentioned much less frequently in the longer term follow up conversations.

Of course, both are important, and they do in fact serve different and complementary purposes as part of a learning process.  But my concern is that because organisations so often focus on the short term Happy Sheets, it is tempting (and relatively easy) to play to the crowd, and run a very enjoyable, but perhaps relatively undemanding, programme. That is easy, will win plaudits, but may not add value, and risks undermining serious development events in the future. I remember a friend and colleague taking on the management of a training department in a commercial environment where the trainers were, as he described it, dedicated to crowd-pleasing, and whilst programmes were popular and enjoyable, they were not delivering significant benefits to the business.  It took a lot of work to reorientate the trainers and the training

I think that risk is inherent in my profession; I think it is a risk in Higher Education. and more broadly still, I think, as Aristotle pointed out, there is an analagous risk in Democracies: “What is democratic behaviour: that which preserves a democracy, or that which the people like?”

In learning and development, clarity of vision and courage are the pre-requisites - allied to a commitment to reviewing learning outcomes against objectives, not just measuring student satisfaction in the short term.  What we can do about democracy is a rather larger problem...

Friday 11 April 2014

International and Cross Cultural Coaching

I have been asked to deliver a session at a Business School on International and Cross Cultural Coaching, as an invited expert had to withdraw.

I do not consider myself an expert in the field, though I have coached people from many countries and cultures in my time (indeed I once did a team coaching session in Holland with a team from a Dutch sausage factory, of whom only one spoke English -but that's a story for another day).

I am also not sure how big an issue it is to coach across cultures and national divisions.  Sure, there are things to pay attention to: language and understanding, body language cues, cultural assumptions and so on.  But I think these are things a good coach attends to in any relationship, and making assumptions about them based on perceived national or cultural norms is most unhelpful.  It may be true, for example, that many people from a particular culture have a particular attitude, but it is most unwise to expect any one individual to conform to the stereotype. 

I have asked some colleagues' views, and read some literature on the subject, and have come up with some interesting stuff.

However, it was only well into this process that the light came on.  I suddenly realised that if I was asked to coach somebody about this (or indeed about anything) my expertise isn't really the issue.  The expertise that is most valuable in the coaching relationship is the expertise of the person being coached.

And the group at the Business School is a group of International Students, studying coaching.  So my approach became clear: I will coach them to explore the issue, to draw on their experience of being students in a foreign land, working with students from many other countries and cultures.

I will also invite them to consider the degree to which difference is a help in the coaching process, rather than a hindrance.  

I will invite them to draw their own tentative conclusions; or at least to identify the issues which they are interested in exploring further.  And then to go out and pay attention, and learn from their experience in reality.

They are a large group, so this will be done in workshop format, with small group discussions feeding into a plenary conversation periodically.

It should be fun, and I am sure I will learn lots, and equally confident that they will.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Engaging with the Media

The other week, at Cardiff Futures,  Chris Chambers shared a story about how the media had mis-represented some of his research. Chris and his colleagues challenged that, and had a bit of a set-to with journalists, who thought academics should not try to censor what the media reports (which wasn't quite Chris' point).

With typical tenacity, Chris and his colleagues pursued this, including preparing a submission to the Leveson enquiry.

However, the story had a positive ending, as eventually Chris forged productive relationships with a number of good journalists; indeed he now has a blog, Head Quarters, on the Guardian site, and the media are supporting his current project: to get accurate research considered by politicians considering policy issues.

I was reminded of all this today when I heard another academic, Moran Cerf whose research was mis-represented. I am sure that, as in Chris' case, the mis-representation was largely unintentional. Journalists operate in a very different way to academics, and the need for good stories, combined with working against deadlines, can sometimes lead to genuine errors. 

This time, the story that went viral was about academics (and eventually the CIA and FBI) recording peoples' dreams.

You can listen to the Moran Cerf's account of it here.

So what's the moral of all this?  It's hard to say. Clearly the media are valuable in getting research understood and debated by a far wider audience than academic journals can hope to reach. But equally clearly, there are real risks that stories get misunderstood and mis-reported: and putting that genie back in the bottle is nigh-on impossible.  So perhaps the moral is that even from such trials and tribulations, a persistent and principled approach can create a good outcome over the longer term.