The Research

The research frame

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I've spent the past few weeks connecting all the dots in terms of research design. Words like paradigm, ontology, epistemology that I've read about for years took on a new meaning when I had to identify exactly what my stance was. First, of course, was quantitative or qualitative. One thing I have always known since I started my undergraduate degree was that a quantitative, realist stance wasn't for me. I don't get numbers, statistics or all those formulas. While I understand the value and necessity of data I also know it's only part of the equation when it comes to problem-solving and sense-making. And, while working in universities, I saw too many flawed forecasts because of an implicit faith in the truth of the data in the misguided search for certainty.

Through my foresight work though, I have seen the power of people coming together to discuss, challenge worldviews, and reframe difficult and challenging issues. I have seen what happens when beliefs about the future that were grounded in the past are shattered by the reality of what 'the future' means once it's opened up beyond today's cognitive constraints. It's people who create the future, not data. It's not either/or but for me, I know that people matter more. And that means a qualitative approach in my research.

Now I have put a name to all this. Interpretive inquiry, poststructuralism as paradigm, foresight ontology, social constructionist epistemology. Relativism and meaning in context, no absolutes, and valuing diversity. What it's also thrown up for me is the need to understand the power of worldviews as individuals, organisations and societies.  And you can't measure worldviews because they are personal or tacit, culturally constructed, so I'm in the right space.

Here is the research frame as it stands now.

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As with all things qualitative, this will undoubtedly shift as the research continues to take shape.

So what is a university exactly?

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I was asked recently to talk about what I thought I university is - as opposed to what it does. This distinction is at the core of my PhD work in its current form. I'm focusing on the ideas of the university that define its role and purpose, the invisible and often taken for granted assumptions about what a university is and should be. I'm looking at the university as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

I see a lot in the literature about the university as an organisation but when I read it, the work is usually about 'higher education', or specific university functions, which is what a university does. This is the current version of how I'm explaining the distinction:

"In the thesis too, there is a deliberate differentiation between what a university is and should be, and what it does and how it does it. This is done to focus attention not only on the visible outcomes of the university’s activity such as teaching, research and management and governance structures and systems – that is, what a university does and how it does it. This visible space is shaped by the invisible side of the university, those beliefs held by people as individuals and the collective cultural system that frame thinking about what a university is and should bethat is, its purpose and social role. As the thesis will demonstrate, both sides of the university are integral to thinking about the university’s future as a social institution."

When I was asked what I thought, I responded along the lines of 'a university is a space where people gather to collaborate on how to make society better'. Not terribly elegant but the essence of what I believe. The power of a university as an organisation, as social institution, comes from the people in it working together to achieve social impact.

Yet today, we have contested ideas, values, beliefs and cultures that shape thinking about what a university is and that keep people in universities apart, not collaborating. The multiplicity of ideas keep them trapped a wider system that preferences data, measurement and evidence and reduces people to assets and capital. It is a system that demands control and hierarchies, not trust and networks. It is a system where one idea of the university is dominant at the expense of all others. And in the attempts of various groups to hang on to their cultural construct of the idea of the university is, what a university does is disconnecting from the societies where it is seeking to achieve impact.

Now, of course, my PhD challenge is to demonstrate how and why I think this is happening! One thing that is amusing as I do the research is that many of the issues we think have emerged today or in the last couple of decades are actually old issues - I've found references to business incursions into the universities in the early 1900s and other challenges referenced in the mid-1800s for example. All of them are concerned with protecting cherished ideas about what a university is - their idea of a university that they hold dear and believe to be true. And in a foresight sense, at those earlier times, these writings were weak signals, seeds of the future in that present.

It is pretty clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what a university is and probably always has been. It didn't matter too much in the past when universities could self-define what they were and what they did, but that capacity has pretty much disappeared today as society pushes back and no longer accepts the self-definition. What a university is remains a concept heavily debated, disputed and contested today but the power of the idea underpinning these different views is often not articulated - and that is a problem.

Instead, the idea manifests itself in competing positions, often expressed with great passion and/or vitriol, about who has the right to tell people in universities what to do and how to do it. It's a complex, challenging and painful context that people in universities find themselves in today as they try to hang on to their ideas of the university in the face of the new, the different and beliefs not necessarily steeped in the myriad of interpretations about academic culture, values and traditions.

My PhD research is focusing on the future of the university as a social institution and I'm grappling with these sorts of issues. Will the university as we know it today exist in 20 years? Maybe, maybe not. The power of the idea of the university is a strong cultural construct however, and finding ways to accept the diversity of ideas rather than defending my right idea might just be one way to preserve the university as a place where everyone's ideas are welcome and social impact continues to emerge.

The real work starts now

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I had my mid-candidature review session in October and I've had a break from all things PhD for a few weeks now. The review session went well, some very excellent feedback and comments from the panel which have reinforced my desire to get this PhD done. Many thanks must go to my supervisor Joseph Voros for his continuing support before and during the review session as I work through this process to its endpoint.

Here's a link to the Contested Ideas of the University presentation to the confirmation panel.

So what next? The real work begins, and the end goal is emerging.

First, I need to do some more work to finalise the literature review and finish the analysis using the combined Three Horizons/Integral framework I've developed. This provides some evidence that we do indeed have contested ideas of the university at play today - we know this intuitively and it's not a particular aha moment - but it makes it clear to me that we can't ignore this side of how people in universities face the future anymore.

The other issue is that we rarely sit down and talk about what having contested ideas mean for our actions and decisions today. Much of the literature is based on an assumption that 'my' idea is the one that matters, that holds the true heart and soul of the university in it, and everyone else is wrong. These ideas are neither right nor wrong and all have elements that make sense, but they can be more or less useful at different points in time.

Arrow Chamber Funnel ChartThen, I need to get my Causal Layered Analysis underway. This exercise will allow me to identify the nature of the contested ideas more deeply and the worldviews and stories that underpin each idea.

This step is about finding, surfacing and understanding the worldviews we have today about the future of the university as a social institution. How much agency we think we have to use the future today also depends on those mindsets.

Next is the step where I put it together by designing some scenario archetypes to reflect the types of universities that might evolve from each of the contested ideas. This is about thinking in multiples, understanding that no single future for the university exists - there are alternatives that must be explored first before making decisions and taking action today.

The final step is looking at the archetypes as a whole and looking for patterns across them that suggest implications for today's policymakers and university leaders. This is the stage where I'm looking to identify pathways to the future.

The literature review has identified some elements of universities as organisations that I'll use across these steps such as leadership, work roles, relationships, structures and culture. This will allow me to link the thinking as I work through each step.

This all is, of course, the starting point of this next phase of my PhD. I'll change what I'm doing, adapt it, refine it and maybe even discard some of it as I do these tasks and write them up. The excitement is still there which is a good sign. I'll check back in here as I go to update you on both excitement levels and progress.

Next Milestone Approaches

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My next PhD milestone is my Mid-Candidature Review. I have obviously known this was happening for just a little while now and the last six months have been focused on getting the review report into good shape. I have changed the topic since I reported about it last to Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling or Constraining University Futures. I will not change it again!


Here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

The university is a social institution within which people work to create, maintain and transmit knowledge across the society in which it operates. The university as an organisation provides a structure and operating framework to manage this work and deliver that knowledge to students and other stakeholders. Without a continuing social need or demand for this work however, the university, like all social institutions, risks becoming obsolete.

From the 11th to the mid-20th centuries, the university was adept at maintaining social relevance by adapting what it did and how it did it (Perkin 2007, pp.159–160). Until the last half of the 20th century when the era of what is now called massification emerged (Kenny 2009; Sayers et al. 2010), this resilience in the face of change was derived from the university’s ability to maintain “many of its traditional traits in the face of all manner of social upheaval” (Sanderson & Watters 2006, p. 316). These traditional traits are at the core of the idea of the university, a cultural construct based around a set of organising elements that has remained powerful in its longevity.


And other that captures what is probably the basis of the research:

The ideas constructed by people, how those ideas become real through daily interactions and work and whose idea is dominant at any given time, will shape how the university responds to change and how it approaches its futures. Each interpretation of the idea will generate different views, different images of the future university.


And finally, one that says what I'm going to do:

What sort of future the university has will depend on whose narrative about the university’s role and purpose is being privileged at any point in time, and whether that narrative is derived from past, present or future social needs. Using a foresight framework, this research will problematise the idea of the university and its underpinning assumptions in order to allow its possible futures in 2045 to be explored. This research seeks to explore how the idea and its supporting assumptions as understood today can both enable and constrain possible university futures.


Those of you who have been here before that this is just the beginning of the long haul to completion but I can't tell you how happy I am to be at this stage given my previous false starts.  Onwards!

A social PhD

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I'm waiting for approval of my change of topic and conversion from a practice based PhD to a conceptual one. In the meantime, I am thinking about how to get some impact from the process, some findings that matter for people in work in universities. I am sure I can write a good theoretical PhD but that's no longer enough. I know few people read PhDs and from the beginning I have wanted to avoid excessive 'academic research speak' even though I know that's part of the PhD game. I know I can write and publish papers that will be ready by more people. What I want to leave behind from my PhD experience though is impact in the organisation that is the university.

When this thought emerges to the surface of my thinking my response is variously: silly, ambitious, just get the PhD and get on with your life, altruism isn't part of the PhD equation. Then I think about why I'm doing this PhD and why I've struggled since 1998 across four universities to finish it. What has kept me going?

My belief in the university and it social role.

The most important word here is social. The university has always had a social role although the visibility of that role has varied over the centuries. My view now is that this social role has assumed primary importance as a criticial uncertainty for the future university. The primacy of the idea of the university that has underpinning our understanding of universities - and been challenged and reframed over the years - needs to provide more than a fit with its external operating environment and shape the culture that underpins how a university works. It needs to start with people, it needs to shape a culture that means something to everyone. The idea of the university needs to move beyond an academic concept to become a social concept, one that engages everyone who works in a university.

Anyway. More about that in later posts.

Having moved beyond a practice based PhD, I no longer need to gather data from practitioners. That streamlines the PhD process which is a good thing when I have only finite time to do it. It also leaves a gap in the process for me that I can't ignore anymore. I can't ensure an impact at the end of the PhD on my own. I need to create that impact with people who work in universities. I have to find a way to bring people back into my PhD. I need to make it a social PhD.

Here's my plan:

  • regular updating of this blog on what I'm doing at least monthly,
  • using social media to share my emerging ideas and seek responses/views/critiques - I'll try and do this weekly,
  • publishing papers in open journals as far as I can, and
  • sharing my self-reflections.

This is a a validity process (member checks) for me and a way to address a limitation of the research. Foresight projects are people based. Foresight is a congitive capacity and good projects involve working with people and their views of the future. Those processes allow individual views of the future to be surfaced and shared. My research is a solo process and to my mind, one mind is not enough.

I bring my view of the future university to this research. I know there are any others and I acknowledge that. I must ensure I take them into account in my thinking. I will get diversity  of views from the literature and I want to also get that diversity from people in the field.

I'm using Cho and Trent (2006) as my guide here. One of their key points follows:

Cho and Trent (2006) identified two types of validity in qualitative research in education that are applicable in this research – transactional validity which is “grounded in active interaction between the inquiry and the research participants” (which incorporates the typical social constructionist validity measures (Crotty 1998) of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability), and transformational validity that judges the research to be valid “only if it signals that validity achieves an eventual ideal” (Cho and Trent 2006, p. 320). They propose a holistic view of validity as a process in qualitative research, integrating the research purpose with validity criteria. For practice based research, that purpose is praxis/social with validity determined via inquiry with participants and validity criteria of member checks, critical reflexivity of self and redefinition of the status quo (Cho and Trent 2008, p. 236).

Please let me know what you think. Comment and share your views about what I should be looking at when considering the future of the university. Help me build that impact.