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


Modelling – How Do You Know When to Stop?

I attended JISC CETIS’ Introduction to Modelling workshop in Birmingham last week to try and gain an understanding of issues and what one needs to consider, when attempting it for the first time.

So why bother with modelling? What value does it bring? Models are a way of communicating and sharing experiences. They are very visual and may have some narrative, but with some slight clarification of terminology used, they should be understandable by most stakeholders. This is key. Otherwise, how else can the whole system be shown to stakeholders who may only know a small part?

Whilst the workshop looked at both hard and soft models, it was the softer side that caught my attention. Hard models, such as UML (Unified Modelling Language) or BPM (Business Process Modelling) are ideal for defining technical specifications and describing business intelligence. Soft models, as one would expect, tend to be quite woolly and may include portfolios of evidence (documents, observational notes, video diaries, etc), scenarios and personas, and use SSM (Soft Sytems Methodologies).

There were two practical exercises that we all attempted. One of which was to produce a soft systems diagram showing how to respond to a JISC call for funding. I’d never done any modelling before, but something that had seemed so simple in the introduction, was unbelivably difficult when we sat down to try it for ourselves! We didn’t need any whizz bang technology – just a handful of coloured markers, multi-coloured post-its and a large sheet of paper. Here’s a model that one of the groups came up with.

Attempt at a Soft Systems Model

Attempt at a Soft Systems Model

Using diagrams like this can help tell a story by setting the scene (scenario) and describing the personas (not usually a real person but a ficticious description of a particular role that person might do) and the ways they interact. The main focus of a soft systems model is on the people or actors in the system.

People often have difficulties knowing how far they should go when modelling and when they should stop. However, the presenters were all unanimous in answering this question: the actual purpose for doing the modelling should set the boundaries for how far/deep one goes with it. But, as a newbie, the real key for me was that one should model just enough to achieve one’s aims (otherwise one could end up modelling for years!).

If you’d like to find out a little more about the event, there are notes and presentations from the workshop now available online. You might also be interested in the JISC Innovation Base (a repository of models for the Higher Education domain, which includes both formal and informal models) and the Agile Modeling Website (Agile Modeling is a practice-based methodology for effective modeling and documentation of software-based systems).

Happy modelling!