Slowing change and persuading academics

Linda Larsen has posted a summary of a presentation – “Aligning IT Innovation with Institutional Strategic Priorities” by Freeman Hrabowski (his bio is somewhat impressive), the President of the University of Maryland.

A major point he tries to make is summarised in these two quotes

  • “our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change”
  • “Again, working with faculty in the persuasion mode is the most appropriate and successful way. Don’t force all incoming instructors to use IT. If forced, they’ll find ways to get around it. Have conversations –…PERSUADE! ”

This is an idea I agree with, so obviously it’s a good idea. I wrote about this in an earlier post

An interesting mis-reading

What I’m really interested here is unpacking a mistake. When I first skimmed through the summary I read the first quote

our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change

as something completely different

our real challenge in the academic is to slow change

CQU, my place of work, currently has underway a project to upgrade its ERP – Peoplesoft. The project has been going for a few months. The somewhat funny observation is that a new version of Peoplesoft was released in December, 2007. The CQU project is upgrading to the version before this.

Anyone who knows anything about ERPs and upgrade projects knows that this project is not cheap. Millions of dollars. More importantly, there will be significant change associated with staff having to adapt to the new technology and new processes.

So what was the rationale behind the upgrade? Was it because the upgrade, and the expenditure of the large amount of money, was connected to the institutions strategic goals. Is the rationale to grow the business?

No, the rationale was that the version of the software CQU was using was about to become unsupported.

The institution is being forced to change. There is additional change happening to the organisation that wasn’t necessary.

This is what I mean when I say/think that universities need to slow change.

The source of change

In our paper, The Teleological Brake on ICTs in Open and Distance Learning, some colleagues and I draw on Introna’s (1996) distinction between teleological and ateleological design.

The vast majority of what passes for design or development in universities fits under (or at least claims to fit under) teleological design. Purpose driven, some rational person/group decides what to do and then all work from then on is aimed at achieving that purpose. Usually by breaking down the work into small bits done by specialists.

Introna (1996) suggests that the intermediate goal of teleological design is effectiveness and efficiency. The scope of design is usually set at part of the problem. So the IT folk only see their problem of dealing with Peoplesoft. The evaluate what should be done on that limited scope. In that scope it is most effective/efficient if they are running a system that is supported by Peoplesoft.

They don’t, and no-one else really is empowered, to look at the broader picture. To ask the question about whether or not it’s in the best interests of the entire organisation to upgrade.

Because of this problem, the entire organisation is required to undergo change and invest a lot of resources.

The ateleological alternative has as its intermediate goal equilibrium and homeostasis. In this model, change does happen but it is small-scale change that contributes to and enhances the current understanding of the organisation rather than radical change that may interrupt and cause disconnections.

Change is minimised, change is slowed.

So, what’s the solution

The question I’ve then been asked is, “How do you solve the problem of Peoplesoft not supporting our old version?”.

According to Introna (1996) the design process for ateleological design is local adaptation, reflection and learning. Design management is decentralised but always keeps as the design scope the entire organisation and the intermediate goals of equilibrium/homeostasis and the ultimate purpose of wholeness/harmony.

So the IT department should be focusing on minimising the change experience by the rest of the organisation. They might take time to reflect, and possibly learn, about whether or not the organisation can afford to spend X million dollars every few years to upgrade to the next version of Peoplesoft. They might ponder if there are approaches by which that amount of money could be minimised.

All the best practice literature around ERP implementation says that ERPs are hard to customise and that it is cheaper to change the organisation and its processes to fit the ERP.

An alternative approach is to put an intermediary information system (almost certainly multiple information systems) between the organisation and the ERP. This is assuming that the organisation isn’t ready to admit the folly of ERPs and write off its investment.

The aim is that the intermediary information system is implement using an ateleological approach that slows change. While the ERP can continue along its teleological path.


Introna, L. (1996). Notes on ateleological information systems development. Information Technology & People, 9(4), 20-39.

Should the learner always be the focus?

A discussion of ITForum provided a pointer to an interview with Badrul Khan (who provided the link). In it he suggests that instructional design deals with just 2 dimensions (pedagogy and evaluation) of 8 dimensions required to create learner-focussed learning material.

It includes the observation that the learner must always be the focus of instructional design. I agree, but with a reservation that is linked to my new job in instructional design.

My reservation is based on the following observations

  • The idea that the learner must always be the focus of instructional design is an innovation for most university faculty.
  • The diffusion theory literature, along with a lot of other literature, indicates that you will not get adoption of an innovation by simply coming along and saying, “This is better than what you are doing, you should really do it.”.
  • The person making the adoption decision in instructional design is each individual faculty member. Regardless of whether or not they are being “required” to do it, they still make a decision.

Hence, I tend to think that the focus of instructional design (defined as what we do to help academics design instruction) is on encouraging the faculty member to adopt the innovation that “the learner should be the focus”.

Diffusion theory has been criticised for having a pro-innovation bias that, amongst other effects, can separate members of a social system into the superior innovators group and the inferior recalcitrants group (McMaster and Wastell, 2005). i.e. you are a bad boy if you don’t accept the innovation.

This is not what should be aimed for, instead something like the following

Here we would argue that the innovation succeeded due to internal development, through a participative process involving strong local leadership, engaged staff and the fortuitous occurrence of a series of local crises that aligned all stakeholders around the need for change.


McMaster, T., & Wastell, D. (2005). Diffusion – or delusion? Challenging an IS research tradition. Information Technology & People, 18(4), 383-404.

New job, new start, new challenges

A couple of days ago (Feb 1st, 2007) I started a new job at CQU. A job that will give me lot more cause to “edublog”, but at the same time restrict exactly what I can blog.

I am the new Head of E-Learning and Materials Development at CQU. What this essentially means is that I am in charge of both the curriculum design group (the e-learning in the title) and the group currently responsible for much of the print production (the materials development).

The situation at CQU, as I see it, is summarised as follows

  • Instructional/curriculum design has been let slide, just a bit.
  • The organisation, which originally was a large print-based distance education provider, hasn’t handled the advent of e-learning well.
  • Print and e-learning/online are treated very separately.
  • The complexity of the institution’s operations have increased considerably over the last 10 years.
    For example, 12,000 students in 1996 to 30,000 in 2007. In 1996 98% students were studying at the main campus or via distance education. By 2006, that was down to 49.5%. In 2006, at least 50% of the students where from a non-english speaking background (NESB).
  • The Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) audit of CQU had a few things to say about curriculum design.

A challenging situation, but one that promises lots of interesting discussion and thought. I’m hoping to use the blog as a place to air some initial ideas that will develop into something that might get tried in action at CQU.