Maybe 42 is no longer the answer

The seeds of many initiatives present in institutions today were sown in 1998 when Dearing published his report into higher education, which was to have wide ranging ramifications across the higher education sector for the following decade. It included reference to ‘systems for teaching and administration’, the ability to ‘teach across continents’ and we also saw the emergence of ideas that lead to the Open Educational Resources programme. Chapter 13 of the report deals solely with C&IT (Communication and Information Technology). In many ways, with regard to C&IT, Dearing showed great foresight and vision for the affordances that technology could bring to the sector.

Following his comments in the report and a discussion around the fundamental importance of technology in institutions Dearing made recommendation 42:

We recommend that all higher education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience.

However, at the time publishing the report C&IT was seen as complex and difficult to comprehend on an institutional scale by some, and as the preserve of the specialist by others. Dearing wanted C&IT to be high on the institutional agenda and recommended the central strategies which are now ubiquitous in the sector. The emergence of e-learning and e-research strategies followed a few years later.

At the time of publication the technology that Dearing  was mostly referring to included large complex networking systems, the emergent virtual learning environments (VLEs) and hardware that was bulky, expensive and required a lot of support. Now, the network is well supported and has arguably disappeared into the background; not unlike the road network, we don’t need to know how to build and maintain a road to be able to drive from A to B.  VLEs and other learning and teaching packages are maintainable at a distance, allowing academics to produce and edit their own content, whilst hardware is smaller, cheaper and (depending on your green credentials) can be swapped for new if it becomes faulty.
In addition to the growth in institutional technology (such as VLEs) and the changing hardware, the last five years have also seen the influences of ‘web 2.0’ applications. These applications have raised the game in terms of the usability of products, and had an impact on how and where we access resources. It is no longer the preserve of the few to instantly publish material to the web, communicate by voice and video across networks, or build systems for collaboration in teaching and research.  Now almost anyone in an institution can do this and using a variety of devices, not just a PC.

At a recent JISC conference showcasing new products emerging from technology projects, Gwen Van Der Veldon gave a keynote about what she expects as a senior manager in an institution. This included the following two quotes which demonstrate a widely held attitude:

“Don’t come to me with new cool technologies; come to me with solutions to institutional problems.”

“If whatever you’re building needs a manual then it’s of no use to me. I need solutions that can be picked up and used with as little learning as possible.”

Visiting institutions for the Building Capacity Programme discussions with members of senior management may not have demonstrated ‘deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology’; they have however demonstrated a profound understanding of institutional issues, the context of higher education in wider socio-economic realities and creativity in addressing these issues. Mostly senior managers have not talked about technology, they have talked about the advantages of technology and how they can meet needs. Reflecting on Dearing’s vision for the ‘Type 42 manager’ it is clear that in the context of the times Dearing was right in his recommendation, but somewhere between then and now we either lost the need for them, or we developed a different kind of senior manager who understands that technology in and of itself is essential not central in an institution.

This post-digital senior manager recognises that with technology we can enhance a wide range of practices across teaching, research and administration, and they understand that it is underpinning almost every process in an institution; but they also understand that the focus needs to be on solving problems and facilitating positive change rather than on finding uses for the latest tech to roll off the conveyor belt.

3 thoughts on “Maybe 42 is no longer the answer

  1. Laurie,Lawrie

    My view is that the ‘Type 42’ manager was relevant then and and is still relevant now, but the type of need has changed. Technology has a significant role to play in addressing institutional issues whether it be cost reduction level, improving the student experience or through research and innovation. However, this cannot be achieved unless we look to raise the digital literacy of all staff in Univerity’s to contribute to, and help address the institutional issues.
    Technology in itself is not a panacea and it is not the sole responsibility of the ICT departments to implement solutions to the challenges that all institutions will/are facing. This is a two-way street and all Universities have a key role to play, whether it be through their CSR agenda or not, in helping to improve the digital literacy of the country. There are more students entering HE than ever before with sophisocated resources and equipment, and I believe we are missing a trick if staff are not engaging with students through these resources to help improve the overall student experience.

    ICT departments have an important role in articulating the benefits of technology at a senior level to improve levels of service, but equally senior managers have to be receptive to the opportunities that exist through ICT. I believe there are still too many managers who still believe that technology is the sole domain of the ICT department, and I’m no longer convinced that this mindset is helpful or relevant in the changing environment, to provide institutions with a competitive advantage in the future.


  2. I agree with Bill that the Type 42 manager is still relevant. There are several reasons for this:

    1. Whilst I agree that things like networks and VLEs are more mainstream, it doesn’t follow that managers don’t need to know about them. I’m not talking deep technical knowledge, but a good enough understanding of what they do, how they work, and what the maintenance issues are to use them properly. To draw an analogy with the roads network, I need to know about A roads and motorways and their pluses and minuses in order to use them properly. This doesn’t mean I need to know what type of tarmac they use.

    In fact because things like networks and VLEs are so mainstream I think it’s even more important we know about them.

    2. You have to have the foundations in order to look at innovation. An example is all the Web 2.0 stuff you mention, and especially social networking. How can we use this effectively and how will it fit in with what we’ve got? Does it make sense to publish timetables on Facebook? Is it right to use Twitter for event planning (think: flash mobs)? When you make these kinds of leaps you need to understand impact on your core systems, e.g. a tutor might think it’s great to send timetable updates via Facebook, but what if this isn’t reflected in the corporate timetable system?

    3. IT-awareness is like business awareness. As a manager I don’t have to be an accountant, but I should know how to manage a budget; nor do I need to be an HR expert, but I should know how to do workforce planning. IT is as much “core” to the business as finance and HR, so managers should have skills commensurate with that. Where I work it’s mandatory to attend “training” when certain new HR or finance policies are created, but there is no such mandate for IT – why not? If you roll out a new e-mail system why should this not attract mandatory training?

    By they way, I don’t know who Gwen Van Der Veldon is, but her statement that “If whatever you’re building needs a manual then it’s of no use to me. I need solutions that can be picked up and used with as little learning as possible” is both naive and stupid. If she’s saying (as I think she is) that systems should be designed to be as intuitive as possible, then I agree; but many systems are very complex and even if they are intuitive you still need training/the manual to use them properly. The only time her maxim does apply is for very simple apps that do just one thing – i.e. I think it does apply in the mobile apps marketplace at present. But even here things will trend towards greater complexity and we’ll start to see multi-purpose apps arise: which brings us right back to the need for training and manuals.

  3. Gwen Van Der Veldon in her statement: “If whatever you’re building needs a manual then it’s of no use to me. I need solutions that can be picked up and used with as little learning as possible” is NOT naive and stupid.

    The manager who is tinkering in the machinery and has his/her fingers in everybody’s business is not a good manager.

    A manager needs to be able to understand the new technology and its potential. An efficient manager has not the time to read manuals.

    Those under the manager, the ones the manager managers can read manuals and tinker in machinery.

    As I understand her statement, she is saying, “Give me something practical and usable and not something a geek thinks is cool.

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