Relationship Management: Be transparent and sincere

Following on from my previous post (Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate),  based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill, this post will focus on culture change. We’ve already stated the importance of communication, which is the glue that binds the various stakeholders together.  In this post, we’ll be taking a look at the institution’s and management’s role in relationship management with regard to culture change.

“The project, as a change management initiative, has contributed to the University [of Southampton’s] understanding of its institutional context. Opening up our data silos is more political and cultural than technical, and these domains are starting to change. There is little concrete evidence of the fruits of the change yet, but the change process has begun… We have been able to make extensive preparation for change, and there is commitment within the University to continue with it.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Taking an institution-wide approach to relationship management presents opportunities to identify where existing cultural approaches and practices may be ineffective. Sometimes the introduction of a new software system can highlight areas where cultural change needs to occur. It can show where current procedures inhibit agility, or where collaboration and innovation initiatives are not working. Introducing new software often acts as a catalyst for change in policies, practice and culture, whilst improving access to data can encourage the organisational culture to be more innovative and transparent. Changing an organisation’s culture is not without its problems:

“For context we would note that the staff and student population of an average university is equivalent to that of a small town (and the largest universities to small cities). Planning for change on this scale is not easy.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Cultural change comes with a myriad of challenges and is probably one of the hardest aspects of relationship management to address. For example:

  • staff may view changes in processes and the introduction of new software systems as threatening to their working practices; eg at Loughborough University, some staff who considered their own processes to be fit for purpose were concerned about proposed changes
  • concerns around budget reductions
  • resulting staff turnover

Champions can help drive change. At the University of Nottingham, for example, senior management is encouraged to champion good practice for placements, with the placement co-ordinator acting as the central conduit for relationships and communication. Senior management buy-in or sponsorship can help to raise the importance of relationship management within the institution, but it must be sincere, otherwise an institution’s organisational structure will remain a barrier no matter what improvements are suggested:

“The process of change needs to be managed with care to ensure that all stakeholder are positively engaged, especially those who have the power to implement the change (primary stakeholders), and those who have influence over opinion within the organization. Hence it is essential to carry out a full stakeholder analysis. As with any change management, when it comes to implementing the change it is important to identify champions in each of the stakeholder groups, coupled with clear and regular communication.” (Davis, H., Howard, Y., and Prince, R. (2012). Ninjas and Dragons. University of Southampton)

Consultation with a wide range of departments and stakeholders can also help to identify new champions. For example, new enthusiasts at the University of Nottingham were instrumental in spreading the word about placements and sources of expertise. As a result, existing good practice (for example from the School of Veterinary Medicine) has now been incorporated into the placements process and at least five academic schools in the University have expressed interest in using ePortfolios to support placements or work-based activity.

The co-creation aspects of the service design approach can help to improve staff buy-in, because it empowers staff to take ownership of any process improvements with a good chance of long-term impact. Taking this approach and talking to people on their own terms may also win over ‘difficult’ institutional characters, thereby enabling ‘change by stealth’. Sometimes, it is necessary to establish new organisational structures to facilitate change and create new staff roles to reflect changing priorities. Communication is vital for promoting an understanding of what people are doing and why.

Change must be managed carefully to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged, especially those who have power or influence in the institution. For example, rather than imposing wholesale change across the whole institution, the University of Nottingham has taken a ‘hub and spoke’ approach in which new developments are conceived centrally and delivered locally. The primary focus is on the spokes, rather than the hub, which start to establish change across the institution. Similarly, encouraging staff to make bite-sized changes that do not take them away from day-to-day operations can reduce resentment to any new methods of working.

Changing the mindset of staff can have a huge impact, even if significant changes to processes are still to be made. For example, instead of just providing advice and guidance to students thinking of leaving, staff at the University of Derby now pro-actively reach out to students who wish to withdraw. This helps the student, who may not be able to articulate their reasons for withdrawal and who may just need additional support. It also provides the institution with useful feedback for making further improvements.

How to approach culture change

  • Establish champions to drive through changes
  • Senior management buy-in or sponsorship must be sincere
  • Talk to people on their own terms
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Use co-creation to encourage staff to take ownership of process improvements
  • Aim for small-scale rather than large-scale changes

Further information


Relationship Management: Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Compendium of Good Practice in Relationship Management in Higher and Further Education, written by myself and Lou McGill. The Compendium will be made available shortly, but I thought I’d post up a few samples to whet your appetite.

Increased and improving use of electronic communication tools across a wide spectrum give the greatest number of contact opportunities for the widest number of students, representing increased capability.” (Moore, I. and Paull, A. (2012). JISC Relationship Management Programme – Impact Analysis: Strands 2 and 3. (Not publicly available)

Communication is at the very heart of relationship management and is linked strongly with both staff and student well-being. Staff working in student support services, for example, recognise this, but do not always have the resources to provide effective support to everyone. It is not only communication between the institution and students that is important, but also communication between different departments and staff roles. Some processes, such as recording mitigating circumstances where emails are triggered at different stages, can be quite complex.

Students prefer a single communication channel to multiple emails and sources for accessing support services. When developing digital resources for student support, consider how students will interact with them and how communication with the support service will be handled; for example social media is ideal for presenting bite-sized pieces of information tailored to student requirements. Therefore:

  • resources should be designed to work on both computers and mobile devices, eg tablets and smartphones, so that students can access them any time, anywhere
  • self-check facilities, such as psychological assessment questionnaires, should be made available to help frame the context for support issues for both staff and students and personal online feedback should also be provided once any self-check questionnaires have been completed
  • social media services, such as Twitter, Facebook and even email can help engage and inform students about support services; for example, the University of Sheffield’s Well Connected Twitter stream is followed by over 200 students
  • SMS (Short Messaging Service) texts can be used to send key information to students about their course or institution, as well as personalised information relating to bursaries, for example
  • consider the terminology being used; for example, both staff and students may have differing interpretations of words such as ‘placement’, ‘work experience’, or ‘internships’.

Feedback has shown that students favour using digital media for accessing student support services and information. They value resources that have the backing and authority of the institution as it can be trusted to provide dependable advice. Offering support services online can provide the following benefits:

  • Cost saving: For example, the University of Nottingham uses Mahara to communicate with students on placement, because it’s more efficient than sending individual emails to students; it also enables visibility and tracking of what has been communicated to students
  • Informs potential students: online information, such as blogs, can inform potential students and can be reused by staff for guidance, marketing and recruitment
  • Provides a channel for communication for staff-student and student-student online conversations
  • Promotes sharing: staff and students can share information when it is all in one place.
  • using web based social and professional networking tools can reduce challenges around data ownership and institutional support requirements and takes advantage of systems that students and alumni may already use for career and personal development

When developing digital resources for students, internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive. One way to ensure this is to include representatives from a variety of backgrounds (such as faculty, IT, Student Services, Registry, Statistics Units, Students’ Union etc) and talk to stakeholders on their terms. This approach can strengthen collaboration across departments (and even across institutions). It will also encourage ownership, stimulate creativity and provide multiple perspectives and solutions.

Digital resources that provide student support can be marketed to students using a variety of formats from conventional posters and flyers to messages sent out through social media, such as via Student Union Facebook newsfeeds, which can reach thousands of students. Timing is important, so it is important to focus on times when students need this information most, for example at the beginning of the academic year and exam time. Institutional branding is important as students view any university branded support service, as comforting, supportive, reliable and trustworthy.

Institutions can work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment, particularly in the role of mentors, who can offer recent experience of the transition. This can alleviate some of the burden of student support provision from within the institution, but still requires appropriate management. Alumni can also act as important links in professional networks by introducing students to employers and other professionals.

Professional networking, particularly that with a strong discipline focus, can be supported by institutions to maintain connections with alumni and help to consolidate links with employers. Integrating this aspect into student modules also serves to connect students to important networks before they leave and helps them maintain links with the institution once they have graduated. For example, Aston University has integrated:

“…business engagement content into the new website. Stakeholders can now get direct access to relevant business contacts, case studies, and partnership opportunities.” (Pymm, S. (2012). A Report on the implementation of AstonConnect+. Aston University)

How to approach communication and networking

  • Internal communication for staff must be open and inclusive
  • Talk to stakeholders on their terms
  • Consider how students will interact digital resources for support and how communication with the support service will be handled
  • Tailor information and the communication method to student requirements
  • Consider the terminology being used
  • Design resources to work on computers and mobile devices
  • Use self-check facilities and provide personal online feedback once completed
  • Use social media services to engage and inform students
  • Focus effort on the time of year when students need particular types of information most
  • Institutional branding is important
  • Integrate professional networking into the curriculum
  • Work with alumni to support final year students as they prepare for employment

Further information

The MOOC just got better!

I’ve just finished Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MOOC (see my previous post MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student). Personally, I’ve found it a very enjoyable, but challenging experience (due to my lack of skills, but isn’t that the whole point of learning?).

The course tutor rounded off the course with a short video of his reflections. For those of you who like facts and figures:

  • 29,568 students watched at least some of the video lectures
  • 20,443 students did at least one of the automatically marked multiple choice quizzes
  • 3,203 students completed at least one of the assignments
  • 765 students completed all 5 assignments
  • students came from all around the world, with at least 130 countries being represented.

As students, we’ve had ample opportunity to provide feedback to the teaching team about the Coursera platform and the course as a whole. That feedback has been acted on quickly with tweaks being made to class materials or assignments, while students are still working on them. MOOCs therefore offer an agile solution that takes the student’s needs into account.

It hasn’t just been a one-way transaction. As a student, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both the teaching team and my peers. The teaching team has also learnt from the students, who have shared resources, reading lists, articles, etc and helped other students. Taking an online course doesn’t mean that the student is isolated. Many students have held their own meet-ups, either face-to-face or virtually. You could say, using the classic cybernetics term, that they were part of a self-organising system, building up communities to support and help each other long after the course has finished.

Just one year ago, there was no Coursera. So everything I’ve used on the course has been created over a very short period of time. But you wouldn’t know. Aside from a few bugs and minor niggles, the whole thing ran very smoothly. One thing to note is that Stanford doesn’t need to run this course. It already has a great reputation, but that hasn’t stopped the teaching team from working hard to pull together the content and make it freely available to everyone.

And now the MOOC has just got better. I’ve just had an email from Coursera to tell me that it now has a Career Service to help Coursera students find jobs. Should I wish to take part (and I may need to shortly), they will share my details with selected partner companies (likely to be US based). This could be good for me as a student, although it’s not without concerns. In the (probably very near) future, a company could cherry pick the best students from online courses, because they’ll be able to follow students with potential as they submit their coursework. They may even influence the course itself. Coursera will no doubt get its revenue from acting as a matchmaking service. However, this needs to be handled carefully. Issues could include companies bombarding students with advertising, a limited pool of companies being able to select students (but who wouldn’t be flattered to be offered a job by the likes of Google or Apple?), US only companies, companies that only support (financially?) Stanford (or other Coursera universities), etc. It’s not without its potential difficulties. However, from a student point of view, it seems like a great idea.

So did I finish the course? I certainly did and can now quite legitimately say that I have a Distinction from Stanford University!