Why collaboration is necessary and learning to work across boundaries should be compulsory

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) makes the case for working across boundaries:

Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas brings together a number of shared themes and ideas. One of them – working across the different professional or discipline boundaries that can inhibit good practice, is reflected in a number of talks and workshops.

On the face of it, the invitation to work collaboratively can appear like talking common sense. Who can possibly be opposed to it?

In her new book, Gillian Tett talks about the ‘silo effect’ and the ways in which organisations can become ineffective and slow to innovate because of the ways in which boundaries between different bits of organisations or universities restrict developments or change. The question or questions are therefore about how to balance the skills and understanding that separate disciplines bring with the need to think about how their potential to limit change needs to be kept under scrutiny.

This raises important questions too about how we organise or structure organisations: do we reflect the needs of professional disciplines (in a university that would be departments), or do we also try to reflect the needs of users (students and external partners or potential collaborators)? If we privilege the needs of professional disciplines (the producers) does that reduce or restrict our potential to change or innovate? How do we organise and structure what we do so that it has that room for manoeuvre? And are all structures ultimately means of holding back innovation? Why does this matter?

Learning from and with both service users and producers, and being open to change, are new relationships based upon innovation more likely to sustain lasting change? And they suggest (but don’t ensure) that we are creating a cultural bias in favour of innovation which is a necessary but not sufficient condition of our times.

The importance of school governance and accountability

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) points to the glaring policy and practice contradictions in this recent announcement:

The news that a national academy chain is to drop its school based governing bodies and opt for a combination of centralised decision making, whilst having local school ‘ambassadors’, raises a number of really important questions.

On the one hand the whole underpinning rationale for academies was to break up the role of local education authorities and to make explicit the direct connection between school leaders and their local stakeholders (parents). The LEA was seen as inhibiting innovation and change. At the same time schools (whether as part of local chains or national ones) needed support and guidance across a range of areas (from recruitment and staffing to payroll and planning). But the question remained (and remains) can these practical management and admin functions be separate from being accountable to the different communities of interest which are reflected in schools (from parents to children and young people to local employers to local communities)?

Schools sit within their geographic localities and occupy an important role in community bonding and development. How are they and should they be accountable for this role? And if they are what are the formal mechanisms and processes for ensuring this happens (governance arrangements)? Who should be involved and with what roles and powers?

These are not abstract questions. Recently the Government have started to move away from academy chains which cut across England. The expectation is that chains should be accessible by being able to drive from one school to another during the lunch break. Even with the best will in the world that’s not going to happen in the big urban conurbations of London, Greater Manchester or the West Midlands. And as a policy aspiration seems at odds with city regions and devolution.

There are other questions too – in an increasingly technological and interdependent world we can host innovative teaching materials online in Latin America but have them accessed in Bolton. Global education developments require us to rethink the models of governance and accountability we develop and promote. But we shouldn’t drop or ignore the most profound questions of how to develop good relationships between school communities (in all its richest sense) and school leaders and teachers and the communities they are situated in.

Why all universities should consider a Festival of Ideas

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) makes the case for expanding Festivals of Ideas in Universities:

This week sees the start of the Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas – Imagining Better. It is like many such initiatives – it draws on an eclectic range of events from public lectures, to films, to drama to art and photographic exhibitions, to workshops and book signings. It’s diverse, it’s stimulating and it reflects an important objective which is to create a space in which ideas, discussion and conversation can flow and in turn stimulate reflection and thought.

They are part (almost) of the furniture across higher education institutions. And whilst they are important (really important) they are, I think, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for all the possibilities outlined above to take place.

An important aspect of the concept (and this is central for me about the Edge Hill Festival) is both that it encourages, supports and makes explicit the idea of multi-disciplinary thinking and work. Whilst there are different bits of the University hosting particular aspects we could delete the organisational home and there would be recurring and overlapping themes. And central to that is the idea of how our learning and thinking is much more flexible and curious than any one subject or department or discipline. I think that’s a huge strength of what we are offering and I hope it becomes part of the taken for granted nature of what makes a good and exciting event.

Secondly, I think these events highlight the centrality of universities acting as civil society institutions in the public space where we need to encourage dialogue and the exchange of ideas.

And finally, the weaknesses in this approach: we need to develop much more examples of learning from and listening to those outside the academy. And perhaps a good sign of that will not be that next year we have a fringe which is even more interesting than the main event but when the fringe is the academy and the main event is a much more creative and different set of voices and experiences from which we deliberately seek to learn with and from.

In the meantime enjoy this year’s programme.

Edge Hill’s Festival of Ideas 2016 is a diverse range of events exploring culture, health and society. The main theme is Imagining Better – envisioning ways for communities, arts and healthcare to develop and flourish, even in times of austerity and inequality.

Click here for a full list of events.

The importance of executive education programmes for public sector managers, and why ‘silo’ thinking should be challenged

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P), reflects on the need for executive education programmes:

A key point I want to make from the outset is a declaration of interest – I am the co-editor of an international journal which is committed to publishing essays and research papers from academics and practitioners engaged in the education of public leaders and managers.

Teaching Public Administration, published by Sage, carries papers overwhelmingly from outside the UK. They highlight the shared and overlapping interests of leaders and managers in the UK, and they confirm (I think) why we need to raise the question of how we support those involved in managing complex organisations across the public sector.

That statement of interest over, I think there are three key points to make: firstly, that there are very evident shared experiences and agendas – managing change in a context of declining resources but rising expectations from users and politicians. It is not a cliché or a sound bite to say ‘you / we need to do more with less’.

Secondly, there are a group of overlapping issues which cut across public / private and not for profit – questions of governance and accountability. It seems to me that whilst we think we understand the accountability question, and I am not sure we do, there is a real issue over governance. Seeking to ensure that leaders and senior executives engage with the governance question is vital if we are to begin to address the questions raised in my first observation. I think that senior leaders need support, from external mentors or critical friends, it doesn’t matter what we call them, but what is needed are individuals who can support them in their critical self-reflection and personal learning so that they are better able (more confident as well as more reflective) in their practice to think and act strategically as well as understand the local or the domestic too.

Finally, good quality executive education is also about learning to make transitions work too. And I think that understanding that is also about connecting the internal world with the external environment and focussing on what the longer term ideas are. And that requires setting those thinking and learning activities in a set of values and principles which can be shared and recognised. I have a particular interest in how we encourage individuals and organisations to work across their institutional boundaries and silos. These are themes I will return to.