Capturing the story of cultural change

Adapted from an original post on the JISC Curriculum Design and Delivery Blog

Over the last three and a half years I've been working with a group of Higher Education projects who are implementing large scale changes to curriculum design. This JISC funded programme is in its final stages, so the focus is on finalising evaluation activity, but also how best to share what has been learned by project teams. This led to a webinar that was primarily about Telling projects' stories. The ever insightful Helen Beetham led the first half of the webinar and started by asking everyone to suggest films that their project’s reminded them of. Suggestions ranged widely, from Steptoe and Son, which I guess might be a tale of partnership, careful reuse, some deception along the way, and the value of insurance (or JISC funding?) To Monsoon Wedding, which picked up on the experience of “many interweaving stories and different (design) languages being spoken that (hopefully) all come together at the end“. While the programme was seen as something of an epic, it is perhaps not surprising that many people also talked about personal transformations, the influence of changing contexts, and cultural change within organisations.

Capturing the story of cultural or organisational change was, however, seen as no easy task. A number of approaches were discussed. For example, some projects are interviewing stakeholders to capture individual’s perceptions of change. This was seen as useful as it provided a space for individuals to stop and reflect, something that often isn’t possible when everyone is busy working on the project. During the webinar, I made some suggestions as to the kinds of questions it would be interesting to discuss with stakeholders.

This included background questions on the individual’s role, how he or she became involved, and the amount of effort put in to the project. Stakeholders could also be encouraged to reflect on local contextual factors that were important to the project, including those factors that acted as drivers, and any barriers they had encountered. Questions about how life within the institution had changed since the start of the project could pick up on a number of themes including changes to cultural norms, access to information, or the language used regarding curriculum design. Stakeholders’ perceptions of projects’ main achievements, and the impact they think projects will have in the longer-term would also be part of the story of the change. Thinking about the future, Paul Bartholomew from the T-SPARC project suggested it would also be valuable to consider what “opportunities have been missed, or remain unexploited“.

If a number of projects take this kind of approach, it will be interesting to see whether there are any commonalities from these individual stories, within projects and across the programme.

A number of attendees saw changes in language as a particularly interesting facet of cultural change. Rebecca Galley from the OU Learning Design Initiative felt “shifts in language and focus in strategy and curriculum design documentation … and stories of individual’s transformation” should both be captured.

Other options for capturing organisational change included looking at working practices, awareness of curriculum design processes and procedures, the level of discussion of curriculum design at all levels, evidence of joined up working, and whether issues or barriers identified at the baseline stage had shifted.

There was a recognition that sometimes changes to the system can make people feel a bit uncomfortable possibly because, as intended, the system is delivering a greater level of scrutiny. These kinds of negative positive outcomes can be more difficult to sell. Highlighting that ’satisfaction’ measures can sometimes mask the real outcome.

Making these cultural shifts visible and telling the story of change in an appealing manner is a challenge. Projects within the curriculum design programme have already made good use of video to bring in different voices, and no doubt there will be more voices shared in this way. The institutional narratives that form part of projects’ final reports will also be valuable in enabling projects to reflect on their role within the development of their institutions over the last three and a half years.

Just to show that some things don’t change, Steptoe and Son, or at least the Rag and bone man, is still alive and well in Croydon. Photo by Peter G Trimming, May 2011.
Rag & Bone Man

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