Bubble bubble toil and trouble: Unravelling bottom-up/top-down approaches to institutional change (#change11)


We are 7 weeks into change.mooc.ca and every week I try to make sense of how open, distance and e-learning institutions in the developing world can and should respond to the different challenges and opportunities of a networked, connected, increasingly un-flat and fast changing world.

Many open distance and e-learning institutions in the developing world not only have to address the legacies of the past but also take into account the imperative to prepare graduates for an increasingly networked, un-flat and fast changing world in which global and local clash, compete and converge. ODL institutions in the developing world also have to deal with the claims by different stakeholders such as national and international accreditation and quality assurance organisations, regimes and professional bodies prescribing and often dictating so-called ‘best practices’ often borrowed from contexts outside of the developing world.  Add to this witches’ brew advances in technologies making the epistemologies and ontologies of the past era obsolete – and we are heading for some kind of hangover.

As if the above ingredients are not enough, the leadership in these institutions try to add their own distinctive ingredients into steering teaching and learning into the 21st century. And they often opt for grandiose and spectacular redesigns based on what works in other (mostly North-Atlantic) contexts. Somehow we (still) believe that because a particular strategy, pedagogy or use of technology works elsewhere we can import it unchanged and on a grand scale. And this often leaves me scared…

Hamish McRae (2010: xxii)) in his book “What works. Success in stressful times” writes that good (and powerful) ideas will “increasingly come from anywhere and everywhere” and that we can (and should) learn from one another. Having said that, McRae (2010: xxii) also emphasises that we cannot transplant what works in one context to another context and expect it to flourish. And yet, as leadership in ODL institutions in the developing world try to make sense of the complexities; we grasp at so-called ‘best practices’ and import them unchanged often in spectacular and grandiose ways.

How do we engage with ideas from other contexts? How do we embrace their potential while being critically aware of the uniqueness of our contexts? Or should we question the notion the uniqueness of our contexts  in this networked and digital age?

Tim Hartford has written a delightful book “Adapt. Why success always starts with failure” (2011) in which he questions our preoccupation with grandiose and immediate successful projects and our deep discomfort with failure and adaptation. Very sobering is the fact that “we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world” (Hartford’s 2011:6). He continues to claim that the complexity and fluidity of the challenges we face in the 21st century are of such a nature that no single leader or even super-heroes can fix (2011:6).

It is not that Hartford (2011:7) does not acknowledge that expertise plays a role – but he makes it very clear that expertise and leadership are limited. “The problem is not the experts; it is the world they inhabit – the world we all inhabit – which is simply too complicated for anyone to analyse with much success” (2011:7-8). Hartford (2011:13-17) discusses how in the grander scope of things, evolution consists of trial and error as the baseline for the survival of the fittest.  Hartford claims that “we are blinder than we think” (2011:17). “In a complex, changeable world, the process of trial and error is essential” (Hartford 2011:21; emphasis added). Hartford (2011:20) goes so far as to state that “trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not”.

[Indeed a sobering thought in corporate cultures dedicated to the cult of the super leader]

Hartford (2011:21-35) relates the story of Peter Palchinsky, a 26-year old engineer in the Soviet Union in the early 20th century. Palchinsky’s “sin” was that he continuously experimented and proposed small-scale changes as opposed to spectacular prestigious projects. Hartford (2011:23) states that the failure of the Soviet government’s ability to plan and implement a turn-around strategy was their “pathological inability to experiment”. Hartford (2011:23) writes: “The building blocks of an evolutionary process… are repeated variation and selection … The whole system was unable to adapt”. One example was the planning and building of the large Lenin Dam. Palchinsky “pointed out that smaller dams would likely be more effective… But Stalin was not interested: he simply wanted the world’s largest hydroelectric project and gave the order to proceed…” (Hartford 2011:24). The project was a huge disaster.

“What Palchinsky realised [in contrast to the Soviet regime] was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think. They have a human dimension, a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change” (Hartford 2011:25). According to Hartford (2011:25) Palchinsky’s principles can be summarised as follows: “first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along” (emphasis added). In stark contrast to the more humble and tentative approaches proposed by Palchinsky, the central planners of the Soviet regime “decided what would be built, lulled into a sense of omniscience by having a map or a table of statistics in front of them” (Hartford 2011:26).

Palchinsky was murdered by the regime. He and others like him were denounced as “wreckers” (Hartford 2011:26) because of their criticism against the grandiose and spectacular plans of the regime.  Hartford (2011:27-28) states that variation and adaptation in organisations are difficult because of politicians and corporate bosses’ affinity of “large projects – anything from the reorganisation of a country’s entire healthcare system to a gigantic merger – because they win attention and show that the leader is a person who get things done”.  According to Hartford (2011:29), politicians and corporate bosses are notoriously against pilot projects and taking things step by step.

This is partly because politicians are in a hurry; they expect to hold on to a role for two to four years, not long enough for most experiments to deliver meaningful results. Even more politically inconvenient is the fact that half of pilot schemes will fail – many things do in a complex world – so the pilot will simply produce stark evidence of that failure. This is our fault as much as our politicians. We should tolerate, even celebrate, any politicians who test their ideas robustly enough to prove that some of them don’t work. But, of course, we do not (Hartford 2011:29).

Making sense of mooc.change.ca  I am reminded of Palchinsky’s first and second principles of “when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along”. These principles stand in stark contrast to our preoccupation to go for spectacular and grandiose changes where failure is often not survivable.

In conclusion: How do ODL institutions in the developing world respond to the increased emphasis on and opportunities created by the OER movement? How fast can we embrace the full affordances of technology? How do we not only increase access to technology but also make it affordable, secure and sustainable? Should we go slowly and allow for small-scale developments; or are we so scared that we and our graduates will be left behind that we opt for the grandiose and spectacular?

How do we resolve the tension between the need to leapfrog into the digital age and, at the same time, allow ourselves time to make sense and weave meaning?

Do we have time? Are we courageous enough to leapfrog? Or should we be courageous enough to go small-scale?

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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5 Responses to Bubble bubble toil and trouble: Unravelling bottom-up/top-down approaches to institutional change (#change11)

  1. Laura Kapp says:

    Thanks again Paul, more food for thought. I would like to make a point about leadership though. While it is probably true that we overemphasise the power of a good leader, I think it is also true that the havoc a bad leader can wreak cannot be overestimated. The impact that a leader can have on those who innovate, plan, experiment – this is an important factor.

    • Thanks Laura – after posting my blog the notion of leadership, especially visionary leadership, haunted me (most probably because of the witches’ brew…:-)

      What is the difference between visionary leadership and leadership that propose grandiose and spectacular plans and initiatives? I suspect the answer is not easy. I think visionary leadership often proposes major overhauls and new directions – or to use the language of the blog – propose that we leapfrog into the future. To leapfrog necessarily means that you do things in entirely different ways. In many ODL institutions where teaching and learning were print-based up to now; the digital age requires them to make some critical (and mostly uncomfortable) decisions and discard ‘old’ ways of doing things. These changes can most probably be described as grand and spectacular. But in a different way.

      I think what Harford (2011) warns against is when schemes are imported from other contexts or with a disregard for the possible results of failure. I don’t know if you know the article by Snowden (2007) – see if you can find a copy – Snowden, D.J. Boone, M. 2007. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”. Harvard Business Review, November 2007, pp. 69–76.

  2. markuos says:

    Very interesting article. Many thanks for sharing.

  3. Pingback: #change11 Playing catchup part 2 | Squire Morley

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