This is my fourth role in a central department and every single one has been an experience. I don’t consider myself an expert and I’m still trying to ‘do it right’. So I thought I’d write down some tips for developing a successful working relationship.
A bit of context
I am the manager of the Extended Classroom Support team which is in the Academic Technology department which is a dept. in IT Services. My team supports the use of teaching and learning (T&L) technologies in our Extended Classroom suite, Moodle, Mahara etc. for all staff and students within the University. We do 1st and 2nd line support, training, guidance and consultancy. We work closely with our colleagues in the technical team who are responsible for the technical support, maintenance and updates for our technologies and others. I am as central as you can get.
Within departments we have Academic Technologists who are employed by the dept. to support their use of T&L technologies and are completely independent to us. We call them Super Users as they have heightened responsibilities and access to the technologies we provide. Although we group them as Super Users they are all very different in the level of responsibility they have, their goals and objectives, knowledge and experience. Some call this organisation ‘hub and spoke’ and to some extent I suppose it is. We try to strike a tricky balance of not stepping on their toes but being there when they want us.
For me, this is the largest ‘hub and spoke’ set up that I have been a part of. At my previous institution there was only one other dept. who had their own Academic Technologist equivalents. We also used a different VLE in which developments are limited/non-existent. At Warwick we use Moodle, which gives the impression of flexibility and easy customisation. What it doesn’t say in the marketing materials is there are huge sacrifices to be made if you want flexibility and customisation. This results in a lot of requests that we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t fulfill. At my previous institution, the VLE was what it was and you worked with it. The VLE is still relatively new here too, only 6 years old, so every dept. is at different levels of use/depth. This means we have a broad spectrum of users to support.
Participate in the community
The Warwick campus is spread out and it’s not the kind of place where you just bump in to one another. Since I began this role I’ve wanted to develop our community of Super Users so that they have a space to share knowledge and experience with one another. We organise events and have an online community space in Moodle with forums for discussions and knowledge sharing. A community only works if people participate in it.
Work in partnership
Many see central depts. existing solely to serve. That is a very reductive mindset. Yes, we provide a set of services but we can do much more than that. If you can see us as more than the people you go to when you have a job you can’t or don’t want to do, then we can start to actually work together. If you see our relationship solely as transactions then we’re not working together we’re working for you. Little of value will be achieved through this.
We need to understand one another. We do a lot to try to understand depts. so underestimating how we work, our constraints and our challenges will help to build a relationship.
One complaint I hear is “we don’t know what’s going on”. Rest assured, if we had something to tell you, we’d tell you. However, I have been endeavoring to make our thought processes, procedures and plans more transparent. If we share something with you, please read it. If you know something is coming, tell us.
Everyone has priorities, they may not match yours
This is the most difficult challenge of a central department, balancing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder I work with thinks theirs is the most important. When you’re looking after 30+ depts. you have at least 30+ priorities to balance, add to that your own priorities and the priorities of the institution, and you end up with more priorities than you can ever take in to account. A clearly considered rationale behind requests will help us prioritise effectively. However, that doesn’t mean yours will always be top of the queue!
We can’t do everything we’re asked. There are only so many hours in the day. We’re trying to do the work we know we need to do, the work you want us to do and the work we didn’t know was coming. You may be frustrated with our pace but we’re doing the best we can.
Shouting the loudest
Linked to the above and partnership, if you’re not happy with the pace, shouting louder won’t help. There are reasons, whether you think them legitimate or not, behind everything. Shouting louder, rallying and calling us out in public won’t make anything happen any quicker and it doesn’t engender collegiality.
Work WITH us
If we can’t meet your needs then help us advocate for more provision, time or resource. Support is more effective than complaints. We need voices to back up our arguments. Help us do something about it.
I’ve seen this a lot. Person A isn’t getting what they want so finds person B who is higher up in the dept. Person A asks person B to email person C, who’s higher up the dept. they’ve been dealing with, to add pressure/hope for a better answer. Often, this escalates until high enough people, who often have no idea what they’re asking for, apply enough pressure. It’s not helpful and actually ends up being incredibly disruptive. It’s a ploy used to shame and pressure people in to doing things. It’s not collegiate, it doesn’t encourage trust and it certainly doesn’t make you popular.
Like you, we work and rely on other teams to do what we do. They suffer the same pressures as we do. I can’t tell them what to do and when. All I can do is present an argument. They have their own priorities and work to do. We work in partnership and have (I hope) developed a balance between give and take.
Feedback is welcome
Let me caveat that, constructive feedback is welcome. If you don’t tell us, we can’t improve.
Have a little faith
Honestly, we are doing our best. We’re not twiddling our thumbs. We’re working to improve things, we just can’t do it all at once.