Some notes about “bullshit”

I follow a Youtube channel that covers the military-industrial complex and military investment around the world. What I like about this channel is that it talks about military capability and quality in terms of strategy, intelligence and logistics, and not in terms of the number of tanks and aircraft. A recent video on this channel talked about the ongoing Russian failures in Ukraine and focused on what they describe as one of the Four Horsemen of military underperformance. “Vranyo” is a Russian word that the video described as a culture of lying.

According to Wiktionary, Vranyo is defined as “White lies or half-lies in Russian culture, told without the intention of (maliciously) deceiving, but as a fantasy, suppressing unpleasant parts of the truth“. Perhaps more simply put, Vranyo is about covering one’s own arse and pretending that everything is ok. In Australia, we use an all-encompassing term to describe this phenomenon, no matter the magnitude – “Bullshit”. Now call me cynical, but I would suggest that anyone who has been involved with reporting in any large organisation would be familiar with this phenomenon. The regular reports that narrow in scope as they vertically traverse our organisational hierarchies will tend to be predisposed to good news over bad. I guess it’s human nature; nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news when it could impact their job or their standing.

“As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

The aforementioned video talks about the cascade of bullshit (Vranyo) in the Russian military-industrial complex and political system. I would argue that we observe similar phenomena, albeit with far less consequence, on a daily basis in higher education. The decision-makers at the top of the hierarchy are at the end of an upwardly cascading chain of “Chinese Whispers” that can be dominated by positive imagery, or when bad news can’t be avoided, it is accompanied by a positively framed path to resolution. There are shades of Plato’s Cave here in that the mental models of the people in the upper echelons of the organisation are the product of their ability to sense what is happening in the environment. Throw into this mix the use of external consultants who lack intimate knowledge of the context and are masterful at telling people what they want to hear, not what they necessarily need to hear.

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”

(Frankfurt, 2009)

In my experience, the problem gets worse when we are talking about education technology inside a university. Education technology conversations in universities tend to be highly political and provide “powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others” (Selwyn, 2016). Discussions about technology often use language that conveys certainty, confidence and revolutionary potential, when history shows that “education has been largely un-transformed and un-disrupted by successive waves of technological innovation” (Selwyn, 2016). The indifference, ignorance or misinterpretation of objective reality has, based on my observations, become a very real problem for universities that are supposed to be at the vanguard of critical thinking.

References

Frankfurt, H. G. (2009). On bullshit. In On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit… and what might be done about it. In: Taylor & Francis.

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Education – Profit or liability?

The Queensland Audit Office recently released its audit report on education institutions for 2021. Overall, the financial health of the seven Queensland universities was better than anticipated. Of the seven, four had budgeted for a loss during 2021 and it turned out that only one posted an actual loss. There were a number of things I found interesting in this report beginning with the following sentence:

Most have realised the benefits from financial sustainability measures they implemented in their response to the pandemic in 2020, particularly from lower employee costs

The report then goes on to detail the financial performance of these Queensland universities including a statement that will no doubt cause some angst in the corridors of power in our universities:

This year, the Australian Government changed the funding arrangements. Universities’ funding increased by $110.1 million under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and by $170.3 million from Australian Government research packages. While this eased the financial pressures caused by COVID-19, this funding is not guaranteed in future.

A similar report was recently published by the Victorian Government that also focused on the financial performance of their universities and the results were somewhat similar with most universities earning more than they are spending. I’m sure all of the other Australian states have similar reports available from their own audit departments that tell a similar story – yes COVID hurt the bottom line but we are still making more than we spend and things are improving.

It might just be me, but I have a number of concerns about these reports and their focus. Sure the drain on the public purse is important. Universities and university management need to be held to account for the funding they receive, and the money they spend – I get it. However, if the dominant lens by which we are going to assess the worth of our universities is going to be exclusively financial, then we are missing the point. A great article in the Campus Morning Mail this week said:

…different discourses about costs and value are embedded in the neoliberal policies that currently inform VCs and senior managerial decision-making in Australia’s public universities. These discourses are underpinned by accounting methodologies better suited to commercial, for-profit corporations.

The article said that the Victorian Audit office relies on 11 financial and only one non-financial indicator to make a judgement about each university’s sustainability. I wonder if this relates to the idea of metric fixation – “what gets measured, gets done”. As an aside, my preferred aphorism when it comes to metric fixation and how most organisations report on their performance is “they use stats like a drunkard uses a lamp-post; for support, not illumination”.

It has been said so many times previously that education is a social process and a long-term investment in a society’s future – something that I personally agree with. But then we hear things like the aforementioned from the Queensland Audit Office that links university sustainability with “lower employment costs” and almost exclusively uses financial metrics to evaluate the sustainability of universities. We also regularly hear Vice-Chancellors and other university managers complain that the single largest expense to the university is salaries. Well yes…If education is a social process and a public value activity that serves a public interest, and not a factory that produces widgets, then what’s your point? This is usually when I get an eye-roll and a “but the reality is…” to which I argue that we have created this reality when we have the ability to change this reality. I just haven’t figured out how yet.

Education – Profit or liability?

Ramblings from the complexity and change conference

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the 1st International Change and Complexity in Learning conference at the University of South Australia. The conference was about education institutions and how they respond to rapidly increasing complexities associated with new technologies and globalisation. What made this conference especially enjoyable for me, besides the topics of conversation, was that I got to meet in-person some people whose work I’ve followed for many years – most notably Professor Mary Uhl-Bien-Bien, Professor Dave Snowden and Professor George Siemens. The conference included a number of great keynotes and panel discussions which will feed my PhD thesis for some time. As a PhD student, I found the conference included quite a lot of philosophical presentations and conversations that I thoroughly enjoyed. While the following ramblings likely include my cognitive biases, it distils some half-thoughts provoked by the conference that I garnered from both the presentations and the conversations with other participants.

We have a higher education sector (and system) in Australia that is, at the moment and based on my personal opinion, incapable of delivering what the country needs now, much less into the future. Our society in its totality is a function of our education institutions (see Michael Crow https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJ5TPUFcYzw) and I believe that Higher Education in Australia is failing on any number of levels around things like scale, speed, flexibility, equity, accessibility and ultimately, fitness for purpose. I’m one of those naive idealists who think of education as a public good and something very different from a business. This doesn’t preclude for-profit education, but rather acknowledges the social complexity and potential long-term benefit afforded by a functioning education system. While it is easy to point the finger of blame at the Government for broken funding models, or COVID for the overnight departure of so much international student income, or even institutional management for unsustainable business models and ill-informed spending, I think we are now struggling to deal with the system of systems that we have created…we have created!. We designed these systems so it follows that we should be able to change them right? But how does one change the direction of an ultra-large crude oil tanker seemingly determined to beach itself?

According to Michael Crow (who was quoted by a couple of presenters), our organisations have become intense bureaucracies that are incapable of changing. The purpose of bureaucracies is self-preservation and the inherent organisational silos that develop within these bureaucracies have become “cottage industries” that actively preserve the status quo and reinforce existing structure. It is the natural state of bureaucratic organisations to submit to order and prioritise stability, where the very thought of change can be perceived as threatening and disturbing. Dave Snowden in his talk referred to these systems as a solid in a solid-liquid-gas analogy about flexibility and rigidity. The trouble is that education is a social process (Professor Shane Dawson), a craft that combines theory and practice (Dave Snowden). It is not a product with outcomes but a complex social process (Dave Snowden). But we seem to be suicidally determined to manage our educational institutions as if they are a production-line factory that produces widgets. In other words, there is fundamental dissonance between our education system’s purpose, how we achieve the purpose, and the true nature of the social systems involved. I am also likely falling into the trap that Dave Snowden calls out:

The single most important need at the moment is for people to stop describing how things should be (it’s a disease) and start with describing how things are” (https://twitter.com/snowded/status/1549198296312614918)


If you are like me, you are a little fish swimming in the big pond that is your educational institution and this limits the influence you can have to effect change, but more importantly, I would also argue that the hierarchical arrangement of our organisations and the obsessive focus on plans and planning impact on our perceptions, our agency and our ability to truly evaluate “how things are” (I did get in trouble once for adding a small Soviet flag to my feedback on a five-year plan document). There is also the “Prophet” problem that seems quite pronounced in Universities for some reason. So a challenge for me moving forward is to give some thought as to how I can help facilitate more abductive reasoning around decision-making in my little neck of the woods.

There were a number of things talked about at the conference that I found helpful for someone who would like to see their institution become more adaptable and welcoming of new ways of doing things. Mary Uhl-Bien-Bien talked about the idea of adaptive spaces whereby the adaptive space is the conditions that enable an adaptive process to occur (Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Winston Churchill suggested that you should “never let a good crisis go to waste” whereby a crisis tends to loosen up the system and make the system more amenable to change. The adaptive space is what allows the development of new ways of thinking and operating (Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Universities have any number of pressures such as financial challenges, academic misconduct, technology flux, workloads and flexible options for students to name but a few. These pressures, when they become a crisis, open up adaptive spaces that enable change and adaptation to occur; changes that then become part of the system as it phase-shifts from crisis back to homeostasis. In other words, the paradigm shifts and a new order is created. This raised a number of questions for me to explore:
• Change is learning so how do we carve out spaces in our ordered bureaucracies to enable safe-fail approaches to these pressures?
• How do we actually create adaptive space in our highly constrained operating environments?
• How do we pragmatically leverage the pressures to develop adaptive spaces?

Lots to think about in the coming months and a big shoutout to the conference organisers. I hope this becomes a regular event.

Uhl‐Bien, M. (2021). Complexity and COVID‐19: Leadership and Followership in a Complex World. Journal of Management studies, 10.1111/joms.12696. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12696

Leadership and learning analytics

The following post is about learning analytics…eventually. I think there are some interesting parallels between the challenges around learning analytics practice, and the broader challenges being faced by Australian universities – from an organisational/leadership perspective.

Universities, at least in Australia, are managed as corporate bureaucracies around key principles like efficiency, productivity and accountability (Connell, 2019; Kenny & Fluck, 2022; Murphy, 2013). Power and control in corporate bureaucracies sit almost exclusively with management (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2018; Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Universities, like many organisations, still largely operate with and within outdated governance and political systems that are mired in bureaucracy and cronyism (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2018). These organisations are structured hierarchically and consist of any number of silos that often consider the other silos as the ‘enemy’ (Cilliers & Greyvenstein, 2012). The hierarchical structures give rise to plan-based approaches and models of leadership that value productivity, efficiency and accountability at the expense of innovation and change (Kenny & Fluck, 2022; Uhl‐Bien, 2021). In a closed and stable system like a factory, these models of leadership make perfect sense. We can assume that tomorrow will be a clone of today so we can plan for tomorrow and we know who needs to do what, when and how. However, our universities operate in a web of open, complex systems that our current models of leadership are incapable of dealing with (Uhl‐Bien, 2021).

With our current leadership models, when faced with a problem, leaders will tend to react with an ordered response (NHS, 2020). That is, there will be a denial of the complexity and a fundamental assumption that the system will revert to the homeostasis that existed prior to the problem, and it is assumed that the problem can be managed using existing systems and structures (NHS, 2020). All of this is fine if the problem is linear – where there is clear cause and effect and the problem can be assigned to someone to resolve. The trouble is that many of the challenges that universities are grappling with have many interdependent, interconnected and autonomous parts. Hence the problems tend to be non-linear problems. These problems cannot be solved using traditional problem-solving methods (Beer & Lawson, 2016). Solving these types of problems requires adaptive leadership – leadership that enables exploration, innovation and different ways of doing things (Uhl‐Bien, 2021). Leadership in these complex environments is a “multi-faceted concept that uses a systems-level approach to design adaptive organisational structures, enabling networked interactions, nurturing innovation and providing leadership development that fosters collaboration (social capital) along with individual performance (human and intellectual capital)” (Uhl-Bien & Arena, 2018, p.89).

The example I like to use is the challenge of student attrition in the Australian Higher Education sector. This is basically where students leave university before finishing their qualifications – something the Government dislikes. The reasons that students leave before obtaining qualifications are dependent on individual circumstances and there is often very little that a university can do about it (Beer & Lawson, 2016). Attrition is a wicked problem that will not be solved by linear methods and within existing systems and structures (Beer & Lawson, 2016). Yet every year or two I get invited to participate in a newly formed committee or project group that has been tasked with “addressing our student attrition problem”. Invariably, this results in some variation of a be-seen-to-be-done exercise that makes little to no long-term impact on our operations or student attrition. My observations of a number of these cycles remind me of a phenomenon described in a book called “The Stupidity Paradox” – Managers think in the short term because they are evaluated by their superiors and colleagues on their short-term results. Making an impact on student attrition is the antithesis of a quick fix. It requires a different way of thinking about the problem and approaches to solving the problem outside of our current problem-solving norms. I think there is something similar happening with learning analytics.

We know that learning analytics is a bricolage field that requires collaboration between a network of stakeholders (Joksimović, Kovanović, & Dawson, 2019). We know that learning analytics is about providing representations of data about humans, to other humans, using technologies and representations that are never neutral (Munguia, Brennan, Taylor, & Lee, 2020). In other words, a typical learning analytics implementation involves dynamics that are too complex and interconnected to be managed or designed (Maric, Bass, Milosevic, & Uhl-Bien) – at least in a single pass. Learning analytics implementation involves cycles of applied research, experimentation, learning and design (Beer, Jones, & Lawson, 2019). I maintain that meso-level practitioners are a crucial component required for a successful learning analytics implementation. However, for the organisation to capitalise on the unique perspective afforded by meso-level practitioners, our leadership models need to evolve beyond our current industrial era bureaucratic models to adaptive models that recognise, enable and capitalise on our intellectual and social capital. This is why the concept of complexity leadership has captured my interest.

References

Beer, C., & Lawson, C. (2016). The problem of student attrition in higher education: An alternative perspective. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 41(6), 773-784. doi:10.1080/0309877x.2016.1177171

Beer, C., Jones, D., & Lawson, C. (2019). The challenge of leanring analytics implementation: Lessons learned. Paper presented at the Personalised Learning. Diverse Goals. One Heart, Singapore.

Cilliers, F., & Greyvenstein, H. (2012). The impact of silo mentality on team identity: An organisational case study. 2012, 38(2). doi:10.4102/sajip.v38i2.993

Connell, R. (2019). The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Joksimović, S., Kovanović, V., & Dawson, S. (2019). The journey of learning analytics. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 6, 27-63.

Kenny, J., & Fluck, A. E. (2022). Emerging principles for the allocation of academic work in universities. Higher Education, 83(6), 1371-1388. doi:10.1007/s10734-021-00747-y

Maric, S., Bass, E., Milosevic, I., & Uhl-Bien, M. FUTURE OF LEADERSHIP IN HEALTHCARE: ENABLING COMPLEXITY DYNAMICS ACROSS LEVELS Organizer. Management, 615, 343-8094.

Munguia, P., Brennan, A., Taylor, S., & Lee, D. (2020). A learning analytics journey: Bridging the gap between technology services and the academic need. The internet and higher education, 46, 100744.

Murphy, P. (2013). The rise and fall of our bureaucratic universities. Quadrant, 57(5), 48-52.

NHS, H. (Producer). (2020). Mary Uhl-Bien in Conversation: COVID-19, complexity leadership and spread of innovation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGn0WgfyvEw

Uhl-Bien, M., & Arena, M. (2018). Leadership for organizational adaptability: A theoretical synthesis and integrative framework. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(1), 89-104. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.12.009

Uhl‐Bien, M. (2021). Complexity and COVID‐19: Leadership and Followership in a Complex World. Journal of Management studies, 10.1111/joms.12696. doi:10.1111/joms.12696