We consider these two headings together on the basis that culture has its day to day embodiment in ‘the way we do things around here’.
The process review activities undertaken by the projects found common problems to be:
- silo working
- duplication of data entry
- poor version control
- data definition/data validation/training issues leading to poor quality data
- lack of policy/controls and undocumented processes
- heavy reliance on a few experts
- inability to repurpose information
Most of the subsequent problems stem from the first of these bullet points ie the lack of any holistic overview of the end to end business processes. As the uses of course information have grown over time the supporting business processes have evolved; that is to say they have grown and been added to in order to meet changing operational needs in particular areas, without anyone ever being in a position to take a bird’s eye view. A case study by London Metropolitan University provides a good analysis of these issues.
The sections on course-related data and course-related processes begin to show the interconnectedness of this complex set of activities and hint at the extent to which changes in one area can have knock-on effects on many others. Professor Mark Stubbs, head of learning and research technologies at Manchester Metropolitan University, has made the point that ‘We reach uncomfortable agreement over sub-optimal processes’ and suggests that one of the main reasons for this is that the sheer number of interdependencies between processes makes it very hard to actually change anything.
He suggests that, whilst it is often relatively easy to identify problems with an existing process, it is less easy to think through a totally joined up alternative. In his analysis ‘Institutional processes survive by rolling over what we did last year and fiddling it a bit.’
Most of the organisations that took part in the curriculum design and course data programmes were surprised and shocked at the complexity and inefficiency of the processes once they were able to get such an overview. However even arriving at that overall picture was challenging:
"This project was particularly challenging because it was difficult to gain a complete and accurate picture of the current status of course information management. Without this it was difficult to convince stakeholders that there were problems. In a sense the XCRI project provided a solution to a problem that many staff were unaware existed."
"Understanding the 'previous state' was much more complicated than expected."
University of Strathclyde
"There was a massive amount of locally held information, and finding out what was out there was an issue. Teams were reticent in releasing what they perceive as their data, to a central source, even though they were still controlling it. This made us realise that as an organisation we weren’t as “open” as we thought we were. We considered ourselves to have an open data culture, but in practice this wasn’t always evident. This has been an important reality check…"
Wigan and Leigh College
"Let it be said this was not the easiest thing to achieve. It was very time consuming and difficult for a variety of reasons to encourage people to see why we needed to understand and document the current situation in order to be able to develop a full understanding of what was required for the future."
University of Hull
In almost all cases where review of course-related processes has been undertaken, developing an understanding of current practice has been more complicated and time-consuming than project teams expected but the exercise has been a valuable one and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the complexity of the processes involved, has revealed considerable duplication of effort and opportunities for efficiency gains.
In some cases project teams felt that, despite extensive work, they were still unable to develop a full understanding of the current situation in terms of the cycles, processes, data and stakeholders. Bradford College found itself in this position and noted that the fluidity in the macro environment (eg changes in the requirements of external agencies) did not help. The same was true however in some of the largest scale and longer term Jisc curriculum design projects.
The University of Strathclyde made significant enhancements to its curriculum-related business processes but, during a four-year project, it did so without ever achieving complete agreement on what constituted the baseline process. The university put this down to misconceptions on the part of many stakeholders about how the process is actually operated. The existence of such organisational ‘myths’ is not a new phenomenon and has been documented in process reviews in all types of organisation but the pervasiveness of such myths in relation to curriculum processes is striking.
Beware the power of organisational myths
The University of Greenwich UG flex project tackled a number of myths to the effect that process change was impossible because their information systems would not permit it and similar issues have arisen in other projects.
"This situation is further compounded by stakeholder specific perceptions of how the approval process operates, and myths about organisational procedures, as well as myths surrounding stakeholders’ role within certain procedures, some of which are themselves mythic."
University of Strathclyde
In a scholarly article on the phenomenon George Macgregor concludes:
"These myths have become pervasiveness and are subscribed to by many actors, thus subverting the process as it currently exists and undermining attempts to formalise or model the true process, let alone effect process change."
He goes on to note that the highest chance of successful organisational change is in the latter stages of the ‘myth lifecycle’, during which the validity of the myth will be questioned owing to its numerous anomalies and experiences at Strathclyde show that such change is possible:
"…numerous process improvements were introduced, some of which included jettisoning previous mythic sub-processes or collection of data that was intended for some mythic purpose."
University of Strathclyde
Another issue that may be less surprising to those familiar with the adage that managing academics is like ‘herding cats’ is the propensity of stakeholders involved in course management to subvert the official processes. In some cases there is a genuine need for ‘workarounds’ to compensate for data structures and information systems that do not adequately support the current academic offer but in many others it is a matter of individual or school/departmental preference (‘feral’ processes) or simply a lack of understanding about how the process is meant to operate.
"There is often a great difference between the idealised process (that codified in guidance and formal organisation of staff) and the real process interactions that take place; a difference between management sponsored process and what individual staff do."
The Open University