Keen to change perceptions and raise the profile of his team across the organisation, Stuart Brown, director of digital technology services at the University of Reading, shares his experiences of using technology to make cultural changes.
Breaking a big task into bite-sized improvements
I learnt quite a long time ago that trying to change culture is a massive monolithic exercise.
You have to get the entire organisation on board and have a clear vision for everyone to buy into – it’s a long, slow and difficult process to get off the ground.
I’d been in post for about a year when I decided I wanted to lead by example and make changes to our working culture in the IT team here at University of Reading. I was keen to raise the profile of IT within the organisation to show how we could help to meet business needs, but also change the perception of us being a utility service, hidden away in the depths of a building somewhere on campus.
I engaged with Gartner about how to approach this, and they suggested the idea of using what they called ‘culture hacks’. I mis-interpreted this initially, as being about making big changes within a small team - that isn’t the case. It’s about making small, bite-size improvements, that in some cases have a big impact, but ultimately contribute towards achieving a shared vision.
Finding quick wins
As part of this work, we had to think about a vision for the IT department.
We’d just been through a restructure, so staff generally were wary of yet more changes, but to give our customers what they were asking for, it needed to happen.
To align with the university strategy, we came up with a list of five to ten hacks to be implemented within the IT senior management team (SMT), that would enable us to work in a more agile and flexible way.
They were quick wins, which included mandating open calendars to allow us to be more efficient and book appointments more easily. Recording vlogs and running live sessions as a way of engaging with the whole department - trying to find a big enough room on campus during term time was a challenge so this was a way of reaching out to all staff to provide important updates. Staff were already using Microsoft Teams, with some SMT members more comfortable than others in using video as a medium to communicate.
How COVID-19 changed our plans
When COVID-19 landed we had to put some changes on hold or find new ways of working.
We’d already introduced regular stand-up meetings and were thinking about having a whiteboard installed on the wall outside our office detailing work plans. The idea was that every member of staff could see what was being worked on and would have the opportunity to comment. We’re still holding our stand-up meetings and sharing some of the content with the wider team, but we haven’t yet found a virtual solution that works for us.
We’ve also had the opportunity to accelerate elements of our new operating model for IT, which included plans to introduce more flexible and home working. During this period, staff have embraced remote working; they’re using Teams to communicate and have replicated the physical spaces we had online to find fun and engaging ways to keep in touch.
As a university we’ve gone from being a supertanker agility to a speedboat and done things which I never thought would be possible in the timeframes. We set up recording rooms on campus for academic staff who didn’t have access to technology at home, to support them with their synchronous learning and the recording of asynchronous lecture content.
But not all our courses have moved online. For our more practical courses and those that are computer resource intensive, we haven’t always been able to replicate the experience virtually though.
Like many other universities, in early summer we were faced with the challenge of running our exams online. We came up with an approach that allowed students twenty-three hours to do their exams but as a result we can’t rule out whether there’s been any impact on grade inflation. It’s looking likely that we’ll be in that situation again for the spring term next year, so we need to come up with a solution more aligned to what they’re used to.
We’ve rolled out Microsoft Teams for students and given them access to more applications and software remotely, which culturally hasn’t been done before. They’ve been setting up channels, collaborating, recording and sharing videos. The challenge now is how we enable a culture where staff and students have more freedom with the technology but in a safe and secure way - it’s a balancing act.
Communication with the university executive has also improved and they too have carried out some culture hacks.
Prior to COVID-19 our leadership group of 50-60 heads used to meet with the vice-chancellor face-to-face, once a quarter. During lockdown we were meeting online three times a week and now have a weekly stand-up meeting. Using technology in this way has brought us much closer in terms of how we communicate across the group but also upwards to the executive – there’s more openness and transparency.
It’s great to see this transition and how our leadership team are leading by example with their engagement with virtual open days, live events and show cases. We’re also raising the profile of digital technology across the organisation. Trying to remain a valued critical business partner and not dip down in the utility weeds again, is a top priority for me.
Technology is a gamechanger – it has radically changed how we work and will allow us to use our vast estate in new and improved ways. The COVID-19 situation has made it possible, but I think with time, we would have got there.
The university executive is happy with the approach we’re taking and keen that we develop it further but culturally there’s more work to be done. Traditionally we’re used to delivering projects that are fit for purpose and will work from the outset. The approach we’ve been taking recently is outside our usual project management methodology where we’d be planning, analysing and taking colleagues along on the journey.
I can see how working at this fast pace is affecting the wellbeing of staff not only in my department but elsewhere in the university. We can still work in an agile way, but it has to be controlled. We need to make sure we protect staff and manage resources as we would have done pre-COVID-19.