I am currently participating in a debate at Digifest 2018 in Birmingham. This post is details my thoughts on what makes a good digital leader. I don’t know what questions we are going to be asked or what conversation will naturally arise from the panel, so these are my initial thoughts. These are the traits of the best digital leaders I know.
The blurb for the debate is as follows:
The Jisc digital leadership programme helps delegates to look closely at their own practices. This will be a debate around what makes a good “digital” leader, discussing some of those practices. It will draw on the content of the Jisc digital leaders programme and the panel speakers will be alumni from the course.
I’m not sure what the ‘digital’ bit means.
I really don’t. I can’t work out if it’s a buzzword thing or if there is a genuine difference between a leader of any other kind and a digital leader. So I’ll do my best to talk about ‘digital’ leadership but to some extent, I’m just talking about leadership in general.
A good digital leader…
…knows that technology is not a solution
Technology solves some problems but not all. A good digital leader knows that there’s more to fixing problems than plugging stuff in.
It’s tempting after a long time in this profession to think one knows it all. I certainly don’t and I don’t think HE and technology are things that can ever be fully understood. Good (digital) leaders know that there is always something to learn are not so self-absorbed as to think they have all the answers.
…knows that barriers are often cultural, not technological
Technology is a thing we use to do a thing. The barriers to technology use are actually very easy to break down. Skills can be trained. Processes can be refined. Technologies can be integrated, developed and improved. Culture, however, is not easy to change and, in my experience, is the biggest barrier to the use of technology. Culture being the ideas, attitudes, feelings and behaviours that a group of people might display. Changing something so deeply entrenched as the culture of an institution is a long, hard game.
…is able to play the game
In HE there is always a game to be played to get something done. An angle to pursue, money to be scrounged or getting the people with the right influence on board. A good (leader) knows how to play those games to their and the institution’s advantage. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game’ and all that, but thangz gotz to get done y’all.
…is quick to get to know the right people
Influence, influence and influence. A good leader is able to gain the confidence of those in positions of influence. It’s so important to know who your decision makers are and to get to know them.
If people think you’re a tool, they’ll treat you like a tool. Credibility is so key when instigating change at an institutional level. If they have no faith in you, how can they have faith in what you’re trying to do? How can they have confidence in you?
…sees where the organisation is, and should, be going
Keeping an eye on the future, as well as the here and now, is a skill. Knowing how to get there is a talent.
…accepts that change doesn’t happen overnight
A good leader is patient. Real change is hard work. It takes time and commitment. The ‘bull in a china shop’ approach does not go down well with your immediate team or the rest of the institution.
…will say they don’t know
It’s hard to trust anyone who acts as though they have all the answers and never asks for help. These people are usually exposed for the charlatans they are. Asking people who know something, or will be affected, by your work is not only polite, it’s sensible. Arrogance does not instil confidence.
…is able to say they’re wrong
Reflecting on your mistakes and where thing’s didn’t go quite as planned should be a must.
…knows that changing everything is not a sign of success
Changing all the technology you don’t like is a cop out mate. It’s not really change, it’s just a change. It’s the lowest common denominator and if it’s your first port of call, then you’re more worried about looking like you’re doing something than actually doing something meaningful. Doing stuff ≠ success.
…puts people first
This should be at the forefront of their mind. They shoul be thinking about everyone in the institution, their team, the students etc. They do what they do for them. They are their champion.
Digital stuff in HE isn’t all VR and raining money. Often, all you can do is make the most of what you have, therein lies true skill.
I am passionate about staff and students being supported to develop their digital capabilities. So I thought I’d write a follow-up to the presentation Marcus Elliott and I gave at ALT Conference 2016 ‘Creativity takes courage and digital capability‘. I’ll provide some extra detail that we couldn’t include and answer some of the questions that arose.
Why did we start the digital capabilities project?
So what made us start this journey? I’ve always been interested in supporting staff to use technology properly. Having spent my entire career trying to encourage staff to use it, training them to use it and seeing first hand the mixture of ability levels, I realised we really need to do more. What we could do and how was not so clear.
So is it the responsibility of the institution? Or, should staff be making sure they are fit to work? These are questions that have been raised a couple of times. I wrote a blog along these lines a while ago Should we employ staff who don’t have digital skills? To me there is an equal responsibility, staff should take responsibility but the institution should ensure the opportunity to develop is available. We strive to ensure our students leave here with more skills and aptitudes than they arrived with, shouldn’t the same apply to our staff? An institution dedicated to developing their staff is one that will attract and keep the best staff. As the featured image for this post says
Passion led us here
What did we do?
The project began very informally. Marcus and I had many conversations about digital capabilities and I had always been shocked at how little support there was at the University. So I decided to take the bull by the horns and spoke to my manager. I told her we needed to do something, I told her about the experiences Marcus and I have had dealing with staff and the huge leap using technology is for some staff. Luckily she was very open to the idea and agreed to use her influence to gather a group.
We brought together representatives from Educational Development, ICT, HR, Library, Student Services, a representative from all colleges and other interested parties. I presented the Jisc project and emphasised the impact of digital identity and well-being. I have always felt that senior management know that support surrounding technologies are important but often other considerations drop this issue to the bottom of the pile. When we leverage digital capability to the impact on well-being and identity we create a better more persuasive argument. If you can link it to real world examples, for example we had a student who did something naughty on social media, it becomes even more pertinent. Everyone agreed that we needed to do ‘something’ and a group was formed.
We formed the Digital Capabilities Group and began to consider what we could do to make a quick impact.
We decided to pilot Lynda.com. A number of schools were paying for a licence and it seemed wasteful to spend almost as much per school as it would be to have a site licence given the difference was nominal. The added value for staff and students seemed huge so we asked 100 staff and students from across the University to consider how Lynda.com could be used to support their personal development, their students and in their teaching. We had very positive responses and we hope to secure the funds to roll it out for September 2017.
We had been considering how we might gather a baseline of capabilities across the University and were toying with the idea of creating a needs analysis survey. We looked at a few drafts but found they tended to be full of questions about specific software and features. Lots of questions like “are you confident using x”. It was too constraining. Technology changes all the time, list one application in a survey and the next day there’s a replacement. We didn’t want to know whether they could use Microsoft Word, what we were looking for was whether they were capable of handling the changes. Did they have the broad capabilities to handle a variety of technologies. So when we heard at the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme that Jisc had developed a beta discovery tool we were very excited! James Clay, project manager for the building digital capability R&D project, visited us and talked us through the plans for the tool. It was in beta when we joined the pilot and there were a number of improvements that would be made to it in the future. We were sold!
James created an instance of the tool for us. We crafted a carefully worded email and sent it out to all staff. We asked a senior member of staff to send it out in the hope it would have more gravitas and we titled it “How digital are you?”. The title was really hard to decide on. I’m still not sure it worked but we didn’t want some tedious title that people would scroll past. We left the tool open for 2 weeks and sent out a follow-up email to encourage the last few people to complete the tool (although that email was sent about an hour before it closed on the last day, thanks Marketing). We had 422 respondents which equated to a 25% response rate at the time. All participants completed the tool which shows it wasn’t too onerous to complete. We were really happy with the response given we did no promotion whatsoever! We received some helpful feedback which we passed on to Jisc and they have improved the tool based on the feedback from all the pilots.
We interpreted our results, with the help of James, and have a list of areas we know we need to work on. For example there is work to do around the benefits of social media, copyright and open content etc. Overall we were really pleased with how capable our staff are the results showed we had staff who were willing to try to resolve technical issues themselves, who saw the benefit of collaborative working tools and are interested in new technologies. Obviously I understand that 25% is hardly representative of the entire university but it has given us some areas for development and an insight in to our staff.
How does the Jisc Tool work?
The tool is completely anonymous the only identifying information is in the designation of the type of role and area of work the user selects before they begin. They can select whether they are in an academic or profession role in FE or HE etc. There are currently 48 questions in the tool grouped in to the areas of capability from the 6 elements framework. There are four options per question each assigned a weighting from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Once submitted the results create a graph which shows the level of capability in each of the areas. The results also provide some recommendations which help to give staff ideas on how they might improve that area of capability. In the future we will be able to link to our own resources, 3rd party resources and even lynda.com tutorials. Participants can then send the results to themselves. We received the results from the whole survey in an Excel spreadsheet but Jisc are developing a results dashboard which should help to make the interpretation and access to the data.
Jisc Discovery Tool or build your own?
So should you use Jisc’s Discovery Tool or make your own?
That entirely depends on what you want to know. If you want a list of they can or can’t do this then make your own. The Jisc tool does not give you the answers it’s very much about interpretation of the data and understanding what the questions mean. We were lucky that James was able to help us interpret our results, otherwise I am not sure we would have got as much from it as we did. The tool has improved vastly since we used it and I’m excited to try it next year. For example we would like to be able to better narrow down the areas in the university the respondents are from and that feature has been added without losing the anonymity. It’s also nice to compare yourself against other institutions.
Personally I think the Jisc tool offers something that would be hard to replicate in-house. Firstly it’s hosted and maintained by Jisc so you don’t have to worry about development costs and maintenance etc. Also they have avoided the pitfall of getting caught up in the ‘can you’ type questions. It’s also based on research within in the sector so you know you are getting something that has been rigorously tested and researched.
What is the future?
We need to get the hidden 75% how are we going to do that? I don’t really know. We’ve had a lot of changes her so the future is uncertain at the moment. The University is committed to improving digital capabilities and that is wonderful to see. I think our work will be formalised and a more coherent plan of what we will be doing will emerge. The group will be changed and membership widened to ensure that as many staff and students are represented as possible.
I think the Discovery Tool will continue to be improved and we will use it again next year.
Things to consider
Digital capabilities are not a quick fix. They are complex. They are time-consuming. There is no one size fits all solution. If you’re going to start something you have to be committed and doggedly determined. You’re going to have to push and keep pushing to make sure it doesn’t lose momentum. You’re gonna have to be prepared, and prepare others, for a long piece of work. This isn’t something you can fix in a year-long project. It’s a lot more complex than increasing your CPD offerings. The institution needs to be committed both in time and financially to making a difference. Focus on small initiatives that you can achieve quickly (senior management like to measure progress right?) whilst keeping the huge goal in mind. Get the right people involved who will support you, you can’t do it alone.
If I could leave you with one piece of advice it would be that you only need one person to join you in your fight. That one person needs to be the right person, someone with influence, but once you have them you’re set. Get one and the others will follow. Check out this lesson in leadership
There is sooo much I could link to so I’ve tried to gather a few of the thought-provoking ones I have read: