Thoughts on: Distributed Leadership: a collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education (Jones, Lefoe, Harvey & Ryland 2012)

The other day as I was reading and frustratedly scribbling notes all over this paper, I took a moment to tweet about it.

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I was about 2/3s of the way through and finding the honest and accurate but inherently contradictory takes on how things seem to work (culture) and how things can and should and sometimes do work well (best practice) in higher ed. utterly maddening.

Having taken a break for the day and come back to finish it – including the actual, tangible but perhaps far too brief case studies of success stories – I think I get it. I also think that much of my frustration with the paper comes from some of my own current experiences of attempting to navigate (and perhaps refine) organisational operations and structures. (In my own, quite small, domain)

In a nutshell, the authors describe a model of distributed leadership that offers an opportunity to make more effective use of the diverse sets of expertise in Higher Education, both from academic and professional staff. This approach could act as a remedy – or at least a symptom reliever – for some of the major changes to have occurred in the sector over the last twenty to thirty years. These include:

“an increase in managerial control (managerialism); an increase in competition (marketisation); increased scrutiny alongside greater devolved responsibility (audit); and a remodelling of structures and operations on corporate organisations (corporatisation) (Szekeres, 2004)” (p.67)

A lot of this paper is spent on discussing ideal and preferred models for collaboration and what I felt was just common workplace decency and respect – consultation, supporting collegiality, contextual awareness etc – which seemed to be presented as a radical new way forward in a space where conventionally people (generally academics) prefer to nest away from the world in their silos and microsilos.

The paper offers a comprehensive overview of leadership in higher education and current research into this area – it appears to have been an area with a recognised need for improvement for many years and a number of studies and research projects have been undertaken. The fact that the paper concludes that much more work remains to be done in terms of actually embedding the proposed practices is revealing and suggests that university culture is a tough nut to crack and perhaps also that the current approaches taken and mooted may need to be refined.

The greatest value in this paper for my current research is as a source of promising leads for other people that have been investigating the academic/professional staff divide, however as I progress towards looking more for over-arching strategies to supporting TELT practices in Higher Ed., the approaches to leadership may become more useful.

Some general ideas of interest in the paper:

Understanding and responding to the varied contextual needs of the organisation is vital

This paper argues that for universities to build sustainable leadership, a new, more participative and collaborative approach to leadership is needed that acknowledges the individual autonomy that underpins creative and innovative thinking  (p.68)

Differences between academic and professional (or ‘non-academic’ to use a not-at-all loaded term) staff are a key factor in collaborations

…much of this is deeply rooted in cultural, structural and power differences in the source of authority (for professional staff based on their work role, while for academics it is based on their discipline) as well as differences in perceptions about working in collaboration between the more individualistic academics and the more collaborative administrative staff (p.68)

The project report findings found that Distributed Leadership (in line with UK theoretical research)

consists of five dimensions – context; culture; change; relationships; and activity (p.71)

It achieved

Accommodation of the academic culture of autonomy was achieved by encouraging participants to self-select for the project based on their interest and expertise rather than their formal leadership positions (p.71)

Relationships between the parties in the collaboration are highlighted and supported by

the involvement of people on the basis of their expertise; the establishment of systematic processes; the provision of professional development to encourage shared or distributed leadership, the resourcing of collaborative activities and working conditions to support individual participation (p.72)

Most significantly for me, the four successful projects that were run at the heart of this research are all described in terms of their teaching and learning objectives

RMIT: to provide effective maintenance of existing teaching spaces and to advise on future teaching spaces

ACU: to build and operate an effective approach to online learning that was both technically capable and pedagogically anchored

Macquarie: focus on leading assessment

UoW: implement change to assessment practice (p.73)

This may seem like a minor thing but it is probably the source of my greatest personal frustration in the HE workplace at the moment and sits at the core of the thinking that I am trying to reframe in the way that we support TELT. Our language and activities centre heavily on maintaining and providing access to “enterprise education technologies” and it’s nice to see that looking at things from a teaching and learning perspective is demonstrated to be successful.