There is an ever-present tension in the provision of technology in Education; who should we aim to please? The innovators and early adopters, who are the vocal minority? Or should we be seeking out the late majority and laggards, the silent majority?
Who is the silent majority?
By silent majority, I refer to those staff who you never hear from. There might be lots of reasons for that. They might be fine, they might be happy doing what they’re doing. They could be people who are not at all interested. They could be people who don’t see the point in engaging with you. Whatever their motives for silence, they are the people we desperately want to hear from. They are still the majority.
Who is the deafening minority?
The deafening minority, are those innovators and early adopters who have explored what is on offer and are looking for ways to enhance and extend beyond it. They are usually the same faces who come to user groups or provide feedback. They are the people who shout the loudest (sometimes because they are the only people you ever hear from). They are the groups that want to leap ahead whilst the silent majority are still far behind.
Update: My former learned colleague Marcus Elliott has rightly pointed out that:
Sometimes the 'laggards' are the deafening minority too…
— Marcus Elliott (@marcuselliott) December 1, 2017
The old senior management switcheroo
It is a sad fact of life in professional services that “he who shouts loudest gets what they want”. Also true is, “department that brings in the most money gets to do what it wants”. These situations usually follow a familiar pattern: make request, don’t receive the desired answer, stress importance of request, name drop important company partnerships or senior management, get other people to ask, department head contacts department head, escalate up management chain until senior enough manager is found to force the fulfillment of the request. I have seen this pattern too many times in my career. This is not a collegial or supportive approach. It does not engender a feeling of reciprocal respect or understanding. No’s are not bandied around lightly. There are a myriad of things taken into consideration
NEWSFLASH: University Professional Service Department has already got work to do BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE EXIST.
Despite the rumours, we are not sat in our offices with our thumbs up our butts. You are one department of many and you all want something and it’s never the same thing!
Maintenance is a thing
I’ve seen this best articulated by Anne-Marie Scott from the University of Edinburgh in her blog post Some more thoughts on the NGDLE, for what it’s worth. NGDLE being the next generation learning environment. As she so eloquently puts it:
Managing the information flow, the release schedule, the updates to training and documentation when change happens – this stuff isn’t sexy innovation, but it’s over 50% of what any team will need to do just to keep the lights on, and it’s the work that is constantly being squeezed to free up more resource for “innovation”. July 2017 Anne-Marie Scott
I would love to do more “sexy innovation”. I’d love to turn on, develop and buy all the cool things people want. (I googled sexy innovation (IKR? Blowing raspberries at the user acceptance agreement) and found this Slideshare How to: A sexy innovation team by Nick Demey). The sad fact is most of my time is concerned with updates, documentation, change management and just generally trying to get our ‘house in order’.
Updates are a necessary evil. Some are more time consuming than others but no update can be done without a lot of initial work. Finding a suitable time (never easy), submitting changes, working out what will change, testing, reviewing advice and guidance, doing it, fixing anything that broke, snagging, testing again and then finally you’re done. Oh and then you better start planning for the next one.
Then there’s just the things you have to do to keep everything ticking over. These are silent tasks people often don’t hear about.
Oh and every new thing means we have another thing to maintain. There’s a finite number of people and a finite number of hours in the day. We have to balance adding new things with being able to actually support them.
Here’s something I just made up for how we assess each request.
widespreadBenefit = PerceivedBenefit/StudentNumbers
impact = WidespreadBenefit
resource = Time + People + Cost + MaintenanceRequired + SupportNeeded
checkWorkloads = People/whatTheyAreAlreadyWorkingOn
if impact ≥ resource
if checkWorkloads < resource
then doTheThing and maintainTheThing
I could get into the long list of things doTheThing actually involves but let’s not. Essentially we have to look at the impact versus what it will take to actually do and maintain the thing. If the impact isn’t going to be great enough then we can’t always prioritise it over the day to day firefighting.
Trust me, I’d love to have 20 people who can jump on all these things but we don’t. We have to be sustainable. A service is better than no service at all.
Stuff breaks and we have to fix it
Fixing stuff is a thing. If we’re fixing something, we probably not able to do anything else. Oh and if we don’t want it to break again then we have to do some work on that too.
Support is a thing
Answering helpdesk incidents, enquiries and fulfilling service requests are a thing. Creating documentation is a thing. Developing and delivering training is a thing. Talking to you is a thing. Consultation is a thing. Emailing you back is a thing. These are all things we have to do and they take up time that can’t be dedicated to new stuff.
Boring is essential
I’d love to say working in learning technologies is all fighting off killer AI robots but the reality is it’s often just supporting people to do the basics. These basics, the boring stuff, is absolutely necessary. It’s what the silent majority needs. This stuff is valuable.
It might not be what the deafening majority see the value but it has to be done.
How do we appease the deafening majority whilst getting to the silent minority?
This is a question I constantly ask myself. I really want to get to the silent majority. I think that’s an important part of what we exist to achieve. However, I don’t like upsetting the deafening minority. They were willing to take risks, they’re all in and I don’t want them to be disenfranchised.
But I don’t see any way to avoid it. There’s too much to do to please everyone.