Technology, digital capabilities and the language of change

This talk by David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Sussex, was the first in our series of Learning and Research Support (LRS) Seminars.

The premise of David’s talk was that the language we use to describe, implement and travel through change does not reflect the (difficult) reality of how it feels (and is) to go through change. Therefore, language becomes a barrier to successful change.

Embrace the unruly

(Donna Lanclos)

Alongside this is a long-held belief that (new) systems will make everything better, when actually what we really need is to have difficult, “messy”, conversations and deal with what is already going on.

People are taught to want transformational change, but actually, in the Higher Education (HE) sector, change tends to be developmental rather than transformational [n.b. I don’t think transformational is a word, I think the word should be transformative. WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word either, though].  I.e. a shiny new library management system is not going to make everything better in one fell swoop. Well, we think we know this, but the idea that a new LMS is the answer to everything is still a prevalent myth within the library world  – perpetuated by the producers of such systems, of course.

The next big thing

(Dylan Williams)

Or rather the seductive temptation of the next big thing: we look for this amazing new thing that’s going to fix all our problems but actually we should just be getting on and doing things to improve the situation.

The nature of terms associated with change can breed uncertainty and resistance, says David. Let’s take a look at some of those terms (as we did in the seminar):


Hands up who gets turned off by those words? *puts up hand*

Resistance is [not] futile

(David Walker)

It’s really not. I’ve been there (and I am there, currently going through a departmental restructure, and I can tell you that resistance to change is always going to be there, whether those in charge believe or know it or not. I sometimes think that the people who are responsible for implementing change (I know everyone is responsible for implementing change to some degree, but you know what I mean) don’t really believe that people are going to be resistant to it. There is still this idea that people will just to what they’re told and when this doesn’t happen the people in charge don’t know what to do. This is probably partly because, as David said, change is a complex process – it is not just about the actual change (which is enough) but also the ‘ripple effect’ of emotions and consequences for people’s lives and the service in the long term; things which will feed in to the resistance. As David also said, there is quite often a  failure to explain the rationale for change [in a way which is helpful to those most affected by it].

Resistance is a primary cause of failure of change. In my experience, it’s not a failure in terms of the change literally not happening, but rather to make the change a positive experience (if that is possible) or to run smoothly. If nothing else, resistance makes the change process longer, which is usually the last thing people need.

Higher education is dominated by

de-humanising language

This was a bit of a shocker (surely HE should be the epitome of liberal, humanistic thought?), but when I heard David say it, I already knew it was true, I just hadn’t thought about it properly before. I’ve thought a lot about how HE is now a market, using the language of the market and business and commerce (e.g. students are now customers), but I hadn’t made that leap to actually seeing it as being de-humanising. But, arguably, by seeing HE as a market is almost automatically envisages those whose lives are involved with HE less than human – currency, transactions – and the philosophy of HE seems to be no longer about education and thought but about the market: Universities don’t seek after truth or knowledge but rather the top ranking on the leader board, to be market-leading, world-beating, transformative, innovative, leading, leading, leading. In what? It’s not really about people, except as numbers or survey results, FTEs, cohorts. I feel tired just thinking about it.

At this point, one of my colleagues made a good point: people are so used to hearing these words [see word cloud above] that we don’t even hear them anymore – we are word blind (deaf?).

Another one of my colleagues also said, (I paraphrase) this is all bit toxic isn’t it?

“Transformative” makes people feel bad


Was what we were doing so bad that we have to do something entirely new and never be able to go back to what we did before?

What can we do?

  • Talk about improvement rather than change
  • Promote dialogue – legitimise everyone’s voices
  • Recognise that change impacts on culture and is an emotional process
  • Acknowledge concerns and give feedback
  • Change/improvement should be a sustained process – it takes time and is not a one off event
  • Use partnerships as an approach to engagement, including external partnerships across the HE sector – work with others, share expertise and experience instead of duplicating work and working against one another
  • Share a common language – learn to understand different professional languages (e.g. technical terms). This does not mean everyone has to do “management speak”
  • Gain an HE teaching qualification to improve knowledge of teaching practices and educational theories
  • Gain some other qualifications (e.g. PRINCE2 (project management), IT qualifications) to support meaningful discussion with colleagues in other departments

Myth busting makes me feel good

The idea of ‘digital natives’ is a myth. Just because most young people can operate a mobile phone or send an email or watch dodgy YouTube videos this does not mean they have digital capabilities that are “fit for living, learning and working in a digital society”. The skills they have are not transferable to (e.g.) an educational context – we  can make all the search boxes on our library management systems look like Google but this isn’t going to help people find the resources they really need or learn how to assess them or write a good essay or save their work safely or create a webpage or program something or print something out or turn the computer on (or off).

As David said, we need academic staff who are skilled in using technologies so they can pass these skills on to their students, or at least model them.

An avalanche is coming…

(Barber et al)

…and people generally don’t have the skills to deal with it. David argued that we need to increase focus on “maker pedagogies” – students (and us) as creators and researchers – students as producers. Although I think I understand what he’s trying to say (we need creative people for jobs in creative industries, the idea of students as producers seems again to be part of the language of commerce. Of course it’s good if students (and academics) produce work and research outputs but is it not OK to study for the action/work of studying  and learning and the improvement of knowledge as an end in itself? I think once we lose the idea of ‘study for pleasure’ it’s only a matter of time before reading for pleasure and visiting galleries for pleasure and listening to music for pleasure go out of the window as well. But I may be overreacting.

We do need people to be creative, but I’m not sure that HE is a very creative place anymore. Producing does not necessarily mean being creative in the wider sense of the word.

“Up-skilling” is killing me

Not literally. It just saps my soul every time I hear it. It is meaningless. Just say ‘learning new skills’. It’s a bit like my other pet-hate phrase, “going forward”. What happened to “in the future”?

Moving on…

Support staff are the best

Not surprisingly, support staff are needed to enable technology enhanced learning (TEL), in other words to help people use technology effectively when they’re studying, learning and/or teaching. A good thing which came out of the session with David was that we all recognised the need for us in the library to work together with people in IT and LTEU (Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit) to provide effective support to people. At the moment it’s a bit confusing for people – who should they go to for help? It would be good to sit down with colleagues in other department and have a nice chat about what we all do  and how we can help each other (and students and staff) out. I wonder if that’s possible?

Creating a customer focused environment in the academic sector

I went on a CILIP training course last week, the title of which is above. The main objectives of the course were as follows:

  • To understand what outstanding customer service is and why it is important
  • To understand and predict customer needs
  • To create a plan to involve customers
  • To learn how to communicate effectively with different types of customers (including more challenging ones)
  • To learn how to measure customer satisfaction using different methods
  • To learn the methodology of writing and conducting questionnaires
  • To have an action plan to take away and implement

We began by thinking about what a customer focused environment is, and why it is important. I found the reasons why it’s important quite interesting: of course it is a “defensive necessity” – to keep customers and win new ones, but it is also a motivator for staff. As the course notes quote “If you know you are adding value you feel valued yourself”. I think this is an important point, and one that is quite relevant to what is going on in the library I work in at the moment. Library staff are trying their best to provide good customer service but aren’t able to do so due to circumstances outside of their control. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but this is making me feel useless, bad at my job and undervalued.

We thought about and discussed good and bad experiences of customer services. On our table, Argos was held up as an appalling example of customer service and Amazon are very good, apparently.

We went on to assess how customer focused we feel our organisations are at the moment, using the six basic customer needs as our criteria. These are:

  • Friendliness
  • Understanding and empathy
  • Fairness
  • Control (as in whether the customer feels they have some degree of control over what happens to them)
  • Options and alternatives
  • Information

I think the library is good at some of these but quite bad at others! Again, part of the reason we’re (front line/Reader Services) bad at providing some of these things is due to reasons outside of our control. We had to give ourselves marks out of ten for each criteria. I had the thought that the scores would differ if you looked at what people (especially library managers) think we’re good at and then looked at the reality of what happens on a day to day basis.

Coffee time, then we thought about one particular group of customers, or a particular customer, that we might come into contact with and tried to put ourselves in their shoes to think about what they might want or need from the library. I decided to try and think about what it might be like to be a Sports Science student. It was quite difficult! In the end, I thought that the main thing would be that the student would need to realise that the library is relevant to him (sorry, I was being stereotypical) and so the library would need to find ways of making itself relevant, accessible and unpatronising.

We then thought as a group about a different group of potential customers and what we thought they would most need their “service providers to be and give”. Our table thought about academics and decided that the top six things that academics might want were for us to be accurate, flexible, knowledgeable, professional timely and well-stocked (in no particular order). I know this latter is rather ironic in light of the stock management policy, but perhaps we’d better not go there. We then thought about how well these customer needs are currently being fulfilled and what services we could provide to fulfill these needs. We didn’t really get very far with our thoughts, although it occurred to me that it’s important not to pander to the ‘needs’ of one group of customers if that could result in a detrimental effect on another group.

Then it was lunch time, after which we looked at different models of communication style and how we could use these to improve our communication with different types of customers. Apparently, I have an analytical communication style – I am less assertive and less responsive. Responsiveness “relates to how much or how little you show your own emotions or demonstrate awareness of the feelings of others”. The other styles are:

  • Driver (more assertive, less responsive)
  • Amiable (less assertive, more responsive)
  • Expressive (more assertive, more responsive)

The purpose of this was to think about ways in which we could adapt our communication style when dealing with customers we might find difficult to deal with. I thought of some things I could do, but these things are always easier said than done.

More coffee, and then we moved on to looking at ways of measuring customer satisfaction. We briefly examined different types of surveying (random customer survey, staff attitude survey, target customer or customer type survey, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, mystery shopping) and then learned about how to create an effective survey. The most important thing to remember when creating a survey is that you need to define your research objectives. This is more complicated than it might first appear, when you start thinking about it.

The last thing we did was to create an “action plan” to take back to our workplaces. I found this quite difficult, mainly because I don’t think I have the power to change very much in the library. If I did, I would want to try and look at how we can give more equity of service to students and staff, a lot of whom are not based on campus. Also relating to equity of service, one question that arose at the beginning of the day and never really got answered was ‘how do you deal with individual needs and still follow library policies and procedures?’ Needless to say, I didn’t create much of an action plan. That’s the problem with all courses, I find. They’re very interesting and potentially useful, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever implemented anything I’ve learnt on a course into my day-to-day work, unless I’ve done it subconsciously. I shouldn’t have said that, should I?

P.S. I’m sorry if anyone doesn’t like using the word “customers” when referring to library users. I don’t really like it either, but it was the word that was (unsurprisingly) used in the training. I came back to work and used to word “customers” about three times in one email. Aggh!