Moving Mountains in Education, with a pebble in your shoe.

At AAB Consulting, our goal is to help organisations succeed in an increasingly disruptive world. To achieve this, we have to perform a number of different roles - part investigator, part influencer, part coach.

Often the most important, and underpinning role is that of learner – whether we are learning about our client’s business and challenges; understanding and developing new service design or collaborative techniques or scouring the globe for inspiration and trends.

It therefore goes without saying that we are huge believers in the personal, social and economic benefits of lifelong learning and our learning institutions. Education is, in our opinion, a ‘super service’. There is a great quote by Oprah Winfrey that says

“Education is the way to move mountains, to build bridges, to change the world. Education is the path to the future. I believe that education is indeed freedom.”

If education can move mountains, it’s vital that our educational institutions are equipped to deal with this exceptional expectation. But what if the educational institution itself is the mountain that needs to move?

It is an interesting dichotomy: higher education institutions are in the business of transformation – transforming lives with the learning experience and the opportunities that are generated by that experience. However, many struggle with their own organisational transformations. And of course, the context within which they operate is acutely disruptive: the exponential economic demand for contemporary skillsets; the potential impact of Brexit on research grants, the competition for foreign students in a marketplace where new institutions and digital learning models are springing up all the time. How can the stalwarts of our higher education systems - large, complex, heritage-linked organisations - possibly keep up? Their environment is at the same time dynamic, saturated and stagnant

Add to all of this the growing demands from those ‘pesky students’. With education, like all services, the balance of power now indisputably lies in the hands of the consumer, and with rising fees and living expenses, students across the higher education spectrum want quality learning opportunities, yes – but in this quasi-contractual relationship, they are also very openly asking for ‘value for money’. The Higher Education Policy Institute has found that the proportion of students believing their course offered poor or very poor value for money has more than doubled in the last five years. And if for very good reasons, the institutions simply cannot deliver the desired service quality, are they delivering on their obligations of this contract?

From moldering to bouldering

With years of working at the heart of large public sector change programmes, we know that service transformation can be bloody hard work. The silos, engrained culture and layers of governance provide plenty of obstacles even for the most resilient change agent, but disruption of all these areas is vital for change to take place. Change also implies a relinquishing of control and ultimately fundamental shifts in how academic, research and support service staff need to function. This provokes very human reaction and resistance – after all, the brain is not wired for change. Mobilisation and motivation can be the hardest part of moving the monolith along. There must be significant appetite or desire for change to be successful.

All this can be pretty overwhelming. As the great Muhammad Ali once observed,

“It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe.'

Ascend without the avalanche

The most successful transformation initiatives we’ve observed are not about trying to build the Death Star whilst moving at warp speed. Or, to carry on the mountain theme, it is not about attempting to climb Everest in flip flops. The key is carefully balancing the choice of the ‘right things to change’ (choosing a well-placed fire cracker over a tonne of explosives) with using an appropriate approach to get the mountain to want to move! So, where to start – as it goes beyond just the learning experience. What about areas such student registration, infrastructure projects, health and wellbeing or assessment services?

In AAB Consulting, we use a 3-Dimensional approach to service design: Illuminate; Articulate and Formulate.

Firstly – and as you might expect in education – we fervently believe in doing our homework. Our illuminate stage surfaces all the elements involved in the challenge of change, analysing their respective contributions or roles in the future service. It considers the user needs, the commercials, the organisational structures and the market imperatives. Shining a light on the service area, it quite literally illuminates the way ahead and brings the issues out from the shadows.

This data is dynamite – so requires careful handling. We must provide assurance that we have thought through the things that will make the move successful. And that includes what will help people buy into the change.

Inspiring and motivating are key factors in stage two of our approach. We collaborate to develop and articulate a strong ‘case for change’ to persuade people of the benefits, and also that the risks are worth taking.

Our formulate stage allows us to conceptualise our new service in a way that we can prototype and try it out to build confidence, capability and to evidence that a shift is possible. This stage extends to developing service blueprints that not only demonstrates how the service model operates at its heart, but also addresses aspects such as governance, technology architecture, incoming legislation or employee engagement, that can often lead to unanticipated service failure. We insist that the blueprint is both end-to-end, and front-to-back.

Undertaking the expedition

So many service design approaches end here, and frustratingly become beautifully thought through ideas that sit on a shelf or a hard-drive. In understanding the complexities of just ‘getting stuff done’ in large organisations, we support the mobilisation of change with our Initiate proposition. Here, we capitalise on the momentum of the preceding work by supporting the creation of a detailed roadmap, breaking the service blueprint down into manageable, achievable features.

We also help ‘build muscle’ into the organisation, creating in-house capability. Transformation can be disorientating and tricky, but inevitable, and this increased fitness becomes a valuable legacy as the organisation learns to operate with agility so that inevitable change becomes the lever to thrive, not just survive.

The Change Peak Challenge

The 21st Century has brought a lifelong learning imperative. To live economically and sustainably, symbiotically with technology and to ensure health and wellbeing in extended years. Higher education institutions are key enablers in the realisation of human potential, and must support, anticipate and deliver quality enabling education services, at the same time as climbing the sequential summits of unrelenting transformation.

Institutions can change – if they want to. But as Mark Udall, former United States Senator from Colorado and an avid mountaineer once observed:

“You don't climb mountains without a team, you don't climb mountains without being fit, you don't climb mountains without being prepared and you don't climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain by accident - it has to be intentional.

For more information please contact Julie Arbuthnott or your usual AAB Consulting contact.

Julie  Arbuthnott profile photo

Julie Arbuthnott

Principal Consultant and Service Design Specialist

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