Sunday, November 15, 2009

Leadership, Learning, and Change

The following is a reposting of a blog entry I had written in 2007.

I was asked the other day about what kind of support I thought we need at a community college for "distance learning." I had just been browsing some journals and business magazines, as well as reading over the previous few weeks about "emerging technologies," and my initial response to the question was a "let's think outside the LMS-box" suggestion. In our general college system, "Distance Learning" tends to be framed in the box of "Vista" and its various connections to Banner, Luminous, Respondus and so forth. And while these are important tools, those of us who need to be aware of and responsive to the change that is so much a part of learning-technologies (and technologies in general) today need to pay attention to what is outside the LMS-box.

First let me back up and offer an insight from sociology about "institutionalization" of innovations. As the long-time understanding goes (I believe it can be found best in the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality), society itself tends to be conservative in that it tends to "reproduce itself" from one generation to another. We are, as infants, social-ized into the worldviews, understandings, values, beliefs etc. of our given social group. For much of humanity this has been a process that has corresponded with stages of an individual's life, so that in the course of a lifetime a person grew within a value system, worldview etc., then passed it on to the next generation. Change, in the process, has been slow, as society tends to frame things in terms of what already exists--the meaning systems, beliefs, words, ideas, and habits we already have in place.

Change is often, if not generally, felt as disruptive; when it is accepted--however much it might be resisted at first, it then becomes a part of the landscape almost as if it had always been there. It becomes "institutionalized," and then it is passed on to the next generation as "reality." But today through so many factors, we no longer pass through life carrying just one set of values, beliefs, ideals, goals etc. "Change of careers" might be one of the easiest of such things to point to as a commonly recognized area of regular upheaval in our lives--few of us today will have the comfort or security experienced in just the past generation, of going through life with one career to take us through our lifecourse.
And then there is technology! The rapid change of technology is now a given in our landscape, and as such it is a force that has such profound effects throughout the rest of our social experience. Few of us in fact might be able to state clearly what such effects entail, but we know at least anecdotally that our jobs, our careers, our learning processes, our political power, our very consciousness, are all affected in many ways.

One problem in this is that we are, as humans, "creatures of habit." We want stability and predictability. We can be easily disoriented and upset by things that represent change in our daily lives. In the social groups to which we belong, we still tend to act "conservatively." That is, we still tend to protect and promote what is; change still takes place slowly. We have layers of laws, principles, bylaws, organizational institutions, buildings, schedules, calendars, cycles of seasons, clubs, walls, boundaries, languages and so much more that tend to keep things safely as they are. In general, there is what sociology refers to as a "cultural lag" in the process, between the time that technological changes occur and the time they are accepted into the frameworks of mainstream society--before they are "institutionalized."
The perpetual challenge is that even as changes become institutionalized parts of mainstream society, technologies continue to change, and become further challenges to the "status quo." Just when society has begun to settle in to what once was "cutting edge," the edge has moved still further.

Don Tapscott in his work on what he calls the "N- Generation," puts this in terms of a comparison of generational approaches to new technologies. Members of this "generation" approach technology as part of their landscape and regularly learn to "assimilate" it into their social and personal worlds; adults tend to "accommodate" to it. The N-geners among us absorb the technology, play with it, piece it together with other technologies, share it, use it up; "adults" tend to use it in reference to what they already know. For the former, change is part of the "game" (literally and figuratively); for the latter, change is absorbed gingerly as we try to understand the new and unfamiliar in terms of the established and the already-institutionalized.

The implications of this contrast, and the change with which we are dealing, are profound. These are implications for those in our adult worlds who hold formal, institutional roles of "leadership." This is something that people in business have been acknowledging for a number of recent years now, since it is at the heart of their very survival. Change in the world around us is happening too quickly today for us to be able to rely on the standard processes of conserving and passing on our existing institutions as they currently exist. Even more recently institutionalized changes run the very same risk of handicapping us in our very abilities to continue to face the changing needs of our communities. The "innovations" we start to settle into become the comfort zones against which we then ward off the ravages of further change.

One "blogger" has referenced this recently in a series of quotes from Tapscott, Peter Senge, and others:
  • · "Success in the old paradigm becomes inertia in the new one" - a great quote when considering why current leadership practices may not be preparing us for the future!
  • · "Vested interests fight against change" - quotes the example of the music industry facing the issue of music downloads through social networks. Tapscott challenges them to think of music as a service rather than a product.
  • · Quote from Peter Senge - The person at the top can't learn for the organisation anymore" - a characteristic of Wikinomics will be the "Learning Organisation" proposed by Senge some years ago now
  • · "Leaders of old paradigms have great difficulty coping with the new" - noting that the old fashioned "iconic" models that typify the "broadcast" approach to leadership are being replaced by those who are truly networked and participatory.
(from: Derek's Blog)

The implications in all of this for "leadership" in our colleges, to support and encourage us in what we do, are profound. While we support and invest in key tools (like WebCT Vista) we need vision and leadership that goes well beyond this if we are to continue to prepare ourselves and our students to face the changing social world of work and politics of the current era. We can't afford to be "leaders" who lead in the lag. It is a pace that may have served even just the past few decades, but even then it was beginning to show itself (in the business world, if not elsewhere) as a pace of leadership that was holding back institutions that needed to be "flexible" and responsive to those they serve.

What a pace this calls for! Even as we work through the processes and channels of our current institutions-- the infrastructures of our physical communications networks, the legislative and institutional processes of budgeting and appropriations, the approval processes of programs and offerings, the building and implementation of training and support for professional development, and more, we need to be able to embrace change in a timely ("just in time") way, to be effective in leading, in whatever roles we play in our institutions.

It calls for leadership that has new characteristics. The nagging suggestion is that it is leadership that itself may look different, and may call for skills that are quite different from what we have seen before. One implication is that we can't fully measure the leadership we now need from the standards of leadership that have "worked" in the past. An unnerving suggestion?

I would suggest instead that it is an exciting place to be. In his work on "change," the National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones, frames this in terms of "learning to see possibilities." We can face change with anxiety, fear or frustration, or we can see it in terms of emerging new possibilities. When we cultivate the habits of "Celebrating What is Right With the World," and looking at emerging possibilities, we certainly risk having to move from our comfort zones, but imagine where it will take us! (We NEED to imagine where it will take us... and step in that direction...)

"Support for distance learning at our colleges?" It is so much more than support for a single "learning management system"... or one familiar network... or one familiar_____________. Imagine the possibilities!


Further Interesting References:

No comments: