A social PhD


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.

University Futures

university-futures1.pngI started a web site in 2006 called University Futures and shifted it over to Google+ in the last couple of years. I also have a Facebook page for University Futures. It's a topic that obviously means something to me. I spent 28 years of my working life in universities and I liked working in them. And now it's the topic of my PhD. I obviously can't let it go! I have rewritten my PhD proposal to focus on multiple possible futures for the university as an organisation, as a social entity. Most of the future focused work I've looked at so far has the words "future of the university" in the title, but what they were really talking about was the future of learning, or the future of research, or the future of quality, or the future of a country's higher education sector.

There's not much that I can find so far that really looks at why we have such faith in the university as the most appropriate organisation to create, maintain and disseminate knowledge into the future, no matter what's going on in the external environment. And why when the title says 'future of the university' do we end up talking about what the university does and how it does it?

That thought took me to the idea of the university, that tacit, taken for granted narrative about what a university is and what it should be. It manifests itself in statements like this:

A modern society is unthinkable without a university (Pelikan, 1992, p. 13)

This does not mean that universities will become obsolete, after all they have shown considerable adaptability before (Coaldrake & Stedman, 2013, p. 13).

These statements remind me of the quotes I sometimes use in presentations which I call 'smart people saying really silly things because they didn't question their underpinning assumptions":

  • Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society (1895): heavier than air flying machines are impossible,
  • Thomas Watson, Chairman, IBM (1943): I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers,
  • Decca Records Executive (1962): We don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out. Four-piece groups with guitars, particularly, are finished,
  • Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO (2007): There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.

obsolenceAny organisation can become obsolete if it does not maintain societal relevance. It can disappear. It happens all the time. So how is it that we seem to think that the university is somehow immune from this possible outcome?

People trained in using foresight always look for the assumptions underpinning statements like this, and that's where I went. What, I thought, was the unsurfaced assumption here? It's that we think there will always be university in the future, irrespective of any disconnect between the university and its environment. That is what seems to be at the core of the idea of the university, and can explain why some writers get quite vitriolic in their defence of the university as social entity.

What's more interesting is that we think the university will always exist in more or less the same form as it exists today. Even the scenarios for the future of the university and higher education that have been developed today see how the university does what it does as changing but what it does - teaching and research -  will remain largely unchanged. Weber (1999, p. 152) captures this well:

To assume that the university has a future is not simply to assert that it will continue in some form in the years to come: it implies that the university, as we know it, will remain essentially unchanged in the future.

Why do we think this? That led me back to the idea of the university. That idea hasn't been stable during its existence - it has been challenged and reframed and we are reminded that there is probably more than one idea anyway. But ... this core belief about what the university is and should be has remained powerful in its longevity.

The unchallenged assumption that there will always be a university like today not only generates resistance to change and to adapting the fundamental nature of a university to ensure its continuing relevance to its societies. It also generates an image of the future university that is a linear extrapolation of today, albeit possibly doing what it does in different ways, but with the same fundamental idea underpinning what the university is understood to be.

The probability of today’s university remaining unchanged into the future is low. The university’s past resilience isn't likely to be enough to assure its future in an increasingly global and connected world where the internet has democratised and opened knowledge creation, maintenance and transmission to the masses (Price & Kennie, 2012), where alternative educational organisational forms are emerging and gaining societal acceptance (Kamenetz, 2010; Swanson, 2015; Walker, 2014), where public funding is declining (Kelo, 2006) and where technology is changing in fundamental ways how work is undertaken and how we connect with each other in our work and lives. The university's ability to keep up with societal change, to maintain societal relevance, to be unassailable, is under challenge from outside its boundaries.

The reality now is that the university as an organisation has multiple possible futures, including one where it no longer exists. So I'm problematising the idea of the university in my research - the idea that allows us to think there will always be a university, no matter what happens. I'm aiming to explore possible university futures through to 2035 and challenge that seemingly unchallengeable assumption that there will always be a university.

I go into the research with my own hopes and assumptions about possible university futures. I want there to be a university in 2035. I want it to be a place where those wonderful, uplifting, brain-hurting conversations occur. Where lightbulbs go on in people's minds, where people change how they see the world, expanding their thinking beyond the conventional. And where they learn what they need to learn to contribute in meaningful ways to the society in which they will live and work. We need these places in the world.

Will the university give us that type of place in 2035? I don't know yet.

PS: let me know if you want any of the references and I can share them with you on Mendeley.

Yet another shift - but the last one!

Wechsel von Zustnden, BesetzungenIt is true that when you start a PhD, you start with a topic in mind. A topic that you think is important, critical, urgent and one that will not change. When I started my PhD in 1998 or thereabouts, I was convinced the relationship between university managers and academics was the topic for me. I withdrew from that PhD for reasons that are best not discussed in a public blog while promising myself I would finish a PhD. I kept that promise when I returned to Swinburne in 2012. The intervening 14 years saw me with the same topic but a very different person. I had foresight wired into my brain for a start. I no longer worked in universities but in my own business. I was a foresight practitioner not a university manager. Yet my belief in that original topic remained strong and unwavering. And here I am in 2015 having moved through three iterations of that topic to arrive at what has to be my final one: The Future University: what it is and what it does.

What happened along the way? At the end of my first year, I had an epiphany that it wasn't the relationship that mattered, it was university management as a whole - the future of university management. That kept me going for two more years. I went through confirmation, ethics approval and starting data collection - no more changes I said. Then, to my confusion and disappointment, not enough people wanted to participate in my research. Well, to be honest, I'd probably made my data collection process too complicated, but this lack of response sent me back to the topic.

After a meeting with my supervisors, I shifted again from the topic of management to the university itself and would the future university need to be managed? All good. I tried recruiting participants again with a revised data collection process. Two more people signed up. Ah, I began to think - there is something wrong here. Maybe use social media to recruit? Maybe not. What to do? A tinge of desperation set in.

Thanks again to my supervisors and their faith in me - or perhaps the topic - we spent two meetings working this through. Importantly because they know me and my skills and ways of operating, we arrived at The Future University: what it is and what is does. My first reaction at going this broad in scope was immense sorrow that I'd left my deeply held belief in my original topic behind - cutting the apron strings finally was hard. It was in the new topic somewhere but it wasn't immediately visible and certainly not at the core of what I'd be looking at now. My second reaction was fear - such a BIG topic. And disappointment - it seemed like I didn't know what I was doing really changing my topic all the time. My third reaction was acceptance and a degree of excitement. This would work, and because it is now taking a more theoretical focus, no ethics approval needed which is a relief.

beauty pink waveUltimately, I get it that these shifts and curves are part of the flow of the PhD process, part of my development in deepening my thinking and gaining clarity around what it was that I wanted to contribute to this conversation about the future university. Where I've arrived suits me too, it suits how I use foresight in my work. A global perspective first and the detail second.

First - the university and whether it has a future, the university and whether it will fit in the possible future societies which are out there, the form of which are still uncertain and infinitely complex from today's vantage point. A focus on why it's not a good idea to take today's idea of the university and the perspectives that underpin it into the future without first challenging that idea for relevance and usefulness.

Second - if the university as a social entity has a future, what might it look like? What is its future purpose? Developing scenarios will help here to get an idea about possible futures for the university and then to think about what would it be that a future university might be doing. Will the university need to be managed? I had to get that in there somewhere didn't it? What will it do? How will it be led? What will university work look like? What culture will underpin how it does what it does?

The assumptions in the literature that I've read so far are that (i) there will be a future university, and (ii) that teaching, learning and research will be at the heart of what that university does. These are comforting assumptions but largely untested and unquestioned in any great depth. A huge number of questions start to emerge if you don't accept those assumptions, opening up the conversation to think the unthinkable: does the university we have today have a future?

This is the murky space into which I am now heading. Wish me luck!

2012 Research Topic


My first PhD topic was the relationship between academics and administrators - in the context of being neighbouring professions in universities.  I came to to this interest primarily because of my practice as a university manager where I could see that a whole lot of energy is wasted focusing on the relationship instead of on how to get work done more effectively, in ways that demonstrate understanding of how work gets done in academic environments. Universities have a management structure that won't serve them well for many years to come, but there is little effort being spent on how to re-design those structures for the future.

I've written a bit about the relationship and shifting how it is viewed has become a bit of an obsession over the years. In my PhD application, I wrote that:

"If I am being honest, I want part of my legacy to be that I contributed to a re-thinking of professional staff roles that sees them deeply integrated in the DNA of the university and how it is managed, instead of often being regarded as an 'alien species' here to do harm to a very special organisational form they don't understand."

Those words appeared on paper as I was writing my application, and they capture very clearly my intent. Whether they capture enough to drive a PhD research question remains to be seen!

Given that I now am committed to using foresight in what I do, my research question for this PhD had to include the future. So, the broad topic is The Future of University Management. After the work we did in Workshop 1, I've begun the process of honing it. This is where I am at:

I am interested in collaboratively designing future university management models that integrate academic and administrator beliefs about how work gets done in universities.

A ways to go yet but it highlights the key points for me:

  • collaborative design - I won't work in the future university, so the design of possible management structures has to emerge from the minds of the people who do work in universities,
  • future university management models - the current model is well past its use-by-date, and new options are needed to ensure that management reflects and supports the shape and needs of the emerging future university,
  • academics and administrators - well, they do the work in universities, so their views are at the nub of this research,
  • beliefs - I'm interested in what's in the minds and hearts of academics and administrators about how they believe work should be done in universities, not about how they do their work today, and
  • university - it was my professional home for 28 years, I care about it as an organisational type, and I want it to morph into future sustainable and agile forms that allow it to maintain its key knowledge role in society.

In an integral sense, this question looks like this so far:

Integral research question
Integral research question

And here's what the topic looks like it its first, raw iteration.

photo (3)
photo (3)

I'm pretty sure I'm nowhere near where I need to be yet, and I don't think I've articulated what the orange circle in the integral diagram is really all about, but it's starting to make some sense in my brain. I'm sure that will change!