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Individual as Institution

Changing natures

Access to a ready means of publishing, social media is being used by a cohort of academics and academic related staff that can be identified and recognised through the  online promotion and increased visibility of their work; and importantly interaction and collaboration with others. This kind of activity has lead to success, with individuals receiving funding, gaining book contracts and, through being recognised as an expert, being cited in breaking news articles, which leads to greater exposure and impact of their work.

Practice in educational institutions has long been influenced by many external factors, policy and political change, technology and economics.  Recently the in-vogue phrase, ‘digital’ as been used to differentiate the impact of computers (including mobile phones and tablets etc) and the connectedness afforded by wide-scale wifi and internet access from non-technology based practice.  However, many individuals have already gone beyond that tech-focused distinction. To them digital is already invisible, new media are conceived of not in terms of the ‘digital’, but in terms of affordance. They see these tools as an artist would see the brush and canvas, they are there to be used to create and articulate an image held by the user.

Individual as Institution

This post-digital paradigm recognises that ‘digital’ sits beneath practice, and for all intents and purposes is transparent, it is the affordances of digital in this environment rise to the surface and is exploited by individuals. Social media is littered with academic shrapnel, blogs and tweets from individuals that show how they are thinking and developing their research, this gets distilled down into other pieces, linked across platforms creating new networks and sometimes new knowledge. As the individual’s portfolio grows, so does their network of collaborators and their audience. In the past, the individual may have had strong associations with an organisation, institution or even research group. Now, as a direct result of the opportunities brought about through the web and social media, the post-digital nature of these relationships may change, becoming more fluid, agile and allowing for ad hoc relationships to develop and fade as required for the task at hand.

What this means for Institutions?

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As more academic and academic related staff adopt the ‘individual as institution’ approach, institutions must reflect on their response.  Readers familiar with Twitter may be familiar with the phrase “The views expressed here are mine and do not reflect the views of my employer”.  This is an often cited phrase designed as a response to risk averse “social media policies”, which have the effect of further distancing the individual and individual thought from host institutions.

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Post-digital institutions may be characterised by their recognition that technology can be a vehicle to express motivation and practice. Understanding that individuals are chaotic, responding to small changes that may drive them in different directions and lead to new knowledge, learning and outcomes. Rather than setting strategic directions and objectives for technology practice (in either research or teaching) it is important to recognise that the practice is linked to behaviour, and that practices become the foci for investment of resource and energy.

Where academic practice is now played out on an increasingly digital canvas, organisations need to recognise when individuals are becoming institutions and work to support them, providing an environment that allows them to thrive. Strategic plans, objectives and directions will only succeed if they are flexible enough to accommodate the emerging technology and practices that are being exploited by these individuals.


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