Recently a department responsible for the digital design and build of distance learning modules asked me to assess the feasibility of introducing new technology and agile. A quick-look identified that an expanded study was necessary.
Excavating the system
It can take some time for a module to progress from initial idea, through the process of design, content creation and digital production into presentation with students. The only way I could do this quickly was to choose one module that had recently gone through this journey and track-back to the very start. By following its route through the various stages, it was possible to understand the contribution of each part and the features of the broader system. Each movement and activity acted to excavate the system.
Building a detailed picture of the ‘what’ and ‘why’
By conducting discussions, interviews and carrying out action-research, with all of the academics, leaders and teams involved I began to sketch-in the core features of the system. I avoided carrying out workshops as these give you a false picture. I did however have the opportunity to explore the different perspectives on the purpose of the systems. If information was collected and recorded it was possible to explore where it came from, why it was collected and what decisions were made based upon it. If governance boards were convened what was their purpose, what did they do?. And how did they do it and why? How did resource scheduling work? How and why was work broken-down and split-up? What was the performance of the module when in presentation? By collecting the views and thinking that underpinned these features it was possible to understand the underlying theory that conditioned the behaviour of the system (the systems conditions)..
Making it visible – telling a story
After six weeks of study, I had managed to build an accurate picture of what was actually happening. And I had also built an evidence-based hypotheses of why the work worked the way it did. Maintaining regular conversations with leaders and staff, and sharing their stories of production helped them to see and understand the system differently. The result was a unique story of module production as a system.* Needless to say there was a lot of learning.
*nb. I obviously can’t talk about the details of what was learned or the implications as these are commercially sensitive.
Approaching the initial brief in this way allowed me to achieve what was requested in an adaptive way. And it did require considerable adaptation. Previous studies using different theory and method had missed the point. Taking a systems turn was much more productive than viewing this from a process perspective. By viewing production as a system, considerable new knowledge and learning was contributed for leaders and the organisation. It also enabled the potential to radically re-imagine different futures and trajectories. From a professional perspective, many of the intervention design choices taken were necessary to fit with the culture requirements of the organisation. Coming from a Vanguard Method background, this was not my ideal approach and I could see the predictable issues with this adaptated design. As an internal consultant however, in these situations you have to be pragmatic and try and create the right conditions where and when you can. And you have to keep on trying to do the right thing. The primary consideration here is to add value.
A systems model of distance-learning module creation
In the course of this work I managed to outline a model of distance learning module production as a system. It was a privilege to work with some very clever and supportive leaders and staff. This work is testimony to their curiosity.