Thursday 12 August 2021

Digitalization In the Wires of the Institution

The defenders of the need for digitalization in Universities will point to the fact that the world does indeed seem to be "going digital". AI, big data and coding skills do appear to be needed in industry, and Universities are currently not ensuring that enough of their graduates are equipped with these skills. However, this is not to say that "going digital" is always an advisable move. Systems consultant John Seddon made the point a while back that "going digital" can be the last thing an organisation needs to do when what is really needed is a careful and strategic analysis of demand. One of the problems with digitalization is that it can generate its own demand (what Seddon calls "failure demand"), and this can exacerbate any underlying problems that a business had in meeting the already existing demand. Going digital is an easy management action - but a great deal of thought and care needs to be taken. Recent experiences with failed Covid apps are a good case in point. 

But if you examine those companies which are "digital", or who have gone digital successfully, being digital means more than simply using AI or data analysis. Not everyone in a digital company does data analysis, but successful companies will wire themselves in such a way that those who have deep technical knowledge can communicate with those who are more concerned with customer relations, personnel, or finance. These interconnections are vital to effective organisational adaptation: as technology advances and demand shifts, so arguments must be made as to what to purchase, develop, update, who to train, delivery targets, and so on. One might conceive of the digital business as a kind of "network", but it is more than that. It is a network which knows how to rewire itself. One has only to look at Microsoft, Amazon or IBM to see the power of the ability to rewire a business. 

The process of "rewiring" is not simply a process of assuming that certain connections will automatically be made with the "right tools". Human beings, like many biological organisms, are built for rewiring themselves, but this takes time and energy in which we need to learn about ourselves and our own wiring. Every new connection requires the conditions within which trusted communications can evolve. In biology, the creation of these conditions is the critical moment in the establishment of connection: it is the creation of a niche for communication. In industry, niche construction is a precursor to organisational shifts which ultimately result in changes to the ways in which transactions are conducted with customers. Of course, customers only see the transactions - they don't see the processes which underlie the organisational changes to how the business operates. This is a problem when businesses see education as a customer.  

Education is all about rewiring - it's basically another word for learning. It is much more about rewiring than it is about transactions. Because technologies have been adopted by education from industry, there has been a steady shift away from seeing education as about rewiring, to seeing education as being about transactions. Worse still is the fact that, when positioned as customers of industries (like Microsoft or Instructure, for example), education doesn't even see that the businesses that sell to them are actually much better at rewiring themselves than the educational institutions whose fundamental purpose is rewiring. The transactional processes they become absorbed in mask the importance of the niche-construction that is necessary for the rewiring to take place. 

If digitalization in education is to mean anything at all, it must mean that more flexible institutions which know how to rewire themselves are developed. Only with this kind of flexibility will educational institutions be able to adapt to a changing world and equip learners with their own capacity to rewire themselves. Unfortunately, digitalization is seen in terms of either "knowledge" (for example, digital literacy) or skill (programming, proficiency), both of which miss the point. The point is adaptability, and wiring the institution to instil adaptability lies at the heart of successful digitalization in industry. 

What needs to happen to instil adaptive tendencies? It is probably the capacity to create niches for innovative communications, experimentation and the development of new forms of organisation. That means, in turn, being prepared to embrace uncertainty, throw away trusted models, look at the world differently: uncertainty is the key driver where new communications are born.

We only have to look at industry to see how this is done. One of Satya Nadella's first acts at Microsoft was to introduce a new range of concepts including cloud computing and service oriented architecture, and to deprioritise the key products which the "old guard" believed were the cornerstone of corporate stability (notably, Windows). What that did was create a good deal of uncertainty, which in turn created the conditions for new networks and activities. What would this kind of shift of priorities look like in a University? Dispose of the curriculum? Commit to free and open education?  Disband the Computer Services department? Cap the salaries of managers so that management becomes a service to academics? This is niche creation.

In the niche, we learn new things about each other. This is the most important thing about rewiring. It's not just the technical architecture that needs to be rewired. It is the people - teachers, learners and managers. That can only happen if teachers, learners and managers understand how each other is wired. Technology follows: it is the thing which facilitates the rewiring, but in many ways it is the last stage. 

The real problem we have with the digital in education is not skills or tools; it is that the prevailing structures of the institution prevent rewiring. When everything is turned into a transaction, there is no space to create a new niche. When everything is turned into a transaction, universities have become the mere customers of corporations who, it turns out, are much better at transforming themselves than the universities are. 

This situation can be fixed, but it requires a combination of technical imagination and humane leadership. More importantly, it requires that the technical imagination can get under the skin of the institution and into its wiring. If it can do that, then new niches are possible, and new forms of organisation can be created. That, in the end, is what the digital can do for us - but it is for us to demand it. 

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