Insight Story: Social Ways of Working in Higher Education

Currently I sit on a task and finish group discussing the use and future of social technologies in my university. As a result I’ve been reflecting on how we think about the emerging developments in social technologies and their impact on the ways we in academia. Like many organisations, social technologies are greatly influencing the ways we in . They are influencing not just our communication activities, but also the activities we do for education and , research and administration. In this, all that we do as educators, researchers, students and administrators within the higher education sector is organisational communications or more formally termed: . For example:

  • When we teach in a lecture hall, a member of the student community can (and does) record, edit and share it through social technologies such as a smart phone, editing software, YouTube, Facebook or personal email.
  • When we create and publish a research paper, it appears on a publishers and our universities website, sourced through RSS feeds, connected through hyperlinks and indexed by Google Scholar.
  • When we speak at a conference, a visual image of our presentation (a photograph or video) is captured on a smart phone (or recording device) from a delegate in the audience, saved to a server, uploaded to Twitpic and linked to our quoted words reproduced in a Tweet shared through Twitter.
  • When we debate a new policy in a staff meeting or respond to student questions in a staff-student panel, the minutes are captured and shared as PDF documents through our universities web space, the experience posted to a personal Facebook page by an attendee, and emails circulated in follow-up to agenda items to committee members.
  • When we send an email, share a Tweet or post an update to a personal Facebook page, it is stored in a server for later retrieval and can find it’s way into a colleagues inbox, included in the content of a blog, or published by a national newspaper.

In my opinion, this is a good thing. Social technologies enable an open way of working and living grounded on the emerging tenants of cocreation, collaboration and sharing throughout our social graph. With this comes individual and institutional responsibility in developing our understanding and raising awareness of both the opportunities and implications of social technologies in the way we work and the technical and social skills necessary to participate. But how are we developing digital literacies in our institutions? Not just in our students, but also in our staff – be it faculty, administrative, support or ancillary. How can we when our Universities are such large complex organizations?

One consideration. Change how we think about organisational communications.

The traditional approach to in most organisations, especially large ones such as universities, is grounded in a mindset of the private face of an organisation (i.e., internal communications and activities) controlled by the few (i.e., external and public relations) in the conduct and delivery of external facing activities (i.e., press releases, events, spoke people, corporate web communications). The aim: To build a corporate professional brand image of the organisation. This approach assumes we have an inside [internal] and an outside [external] face of an organization. However the fact of the matter is, we live and work in invisible social networks, not just the buildings used to house us and our belongings. I often wonder if the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ perspectives of organisational communications is more a factor of the space we reside in than the social networks we live in.

The lived experience of an organisation is experienced and shared by many. And today it is being experienced, recorded, mashed-up and shared on a public stage by anyone and potentially everyone throughout our digital social graph. Developments in social technologies are enabling our lived working and learning experiences to be co-created and shared by those who experience it, not just by those who use to control the media or technology channels (“the few”). Those who have experience of an organisation, be it the people, the activities that define the workplace or the artefacts these activities produce, these people are its member communities. The community who work and live associated with it or have some vested interest in it. The activity: To cocreate and share the lived experience of working within the organisation and the social networks through which we become connected.

This social way of working (and living) is often distanced and independent of the traditional personnel roles that traditionally have managed the organizations brand image and corporate message [external communications and public relations]. Today, what is increasingly important is not just the organisations brand image, but an organizations digital social capital. Digital social capital is the lived identities of its people, their practices, connections and their ways of working, captured and shared through and with social technologies. It is this digital social capital that shows not only the heart of the organisation (it’s people), but also it’s ways of working, be they open or closed, innovative or conservative, traditional or contemporary.

So how do we manage and control all this? How does one charged with the role of communications director, marketing manager or senior executive on the board, especially of a large organization, take charge and manage all of this digital social activity. The simple answer is, we don’t! We can’t! So why try?

A second consideration. Inform and inspire social ways of working across the organisation!

We need to support and grow it by being part of it not master of it. To inform the digital social activities in our organizations through learning and communication initiatives outlined by a social way of working strategy that is championed by individuals and groups in our departments, schools, and across our universities. Championed bottom-up by change agents or innovators who get it and top-down by budget holders and connectors who value it. We don’t all have to do it, but we do all have to value it.

To achieve this there are three core needs I believe for any organisation – small, medium or large to consider:

  1. A need to focus on people and practices: What many organizations lack is an understanding of the social ways we/they work. We focus instead on on the technology, and the output, but technologies come and go. With a technology focus we miss the bigger picture of the cultural and learning changes these technologies have and how people using them inspire how we work, learn and live differently. Social technologies (supported not constrained by our governance and technological infrastructure) can support productive and positive social ways of working and learning at both an individual and collective level.
  2. A need to learn through example and lead by discussion: It is imperative for especially large organizations to inspire a learning culture in departments, schools and groups that empower individual responsibility in the social ways we work. This is a preferred approach instead of focusing resources mainly on corporate IT governance, technologies and written communications policy and educating the few (i.e., a social media manager). Large organizations are unfortunately conditioned to ‘lead by policy’ not by ‘discussion’ nor to ‘learn through examples’. We attempt to build walled gardens in the form of policies, procedures and technological infrastructure, in fear of ‘what someone might do, say or share’ or ‘to protect our intellectual assets.’ Sometimes in some learning situations a walled garden is good, but not if it stops learning taking place. We learn more through example and discussion, and gain more through sharing what we learn, than we do by writing policy.
  3. A need to change our mindset about who is in control: Any organization IS an open organisation. For example, in Higher Education, the members of our communities (i.e., staff, students, funders, collaborators, partners) flow between and through differing identities (personal, private, professional, public) and differing social networks (digital and human) using many and varied social technologies by which to communicate, share and co-create their lived experience of the organization. In this, our community members build not only their personal/professional digital identities, but also the digital social capital that is the organization. Control rests with the individual (“when they press upload, send or enter”) and the organic collective these entries compile. The organisation is therefore a social construction of the digital artefacts the community co-create, over time, place and through differing experiences.

In summary, most organisations including those in Higher Education are inspiring, creative and intellectual communities to work and be part of. The problem lies not in the technologies we commission, the structures we build or the policies we write. The difficulty lies in how we consider, support and inspire learning around the social ways we work. Be it higher education, the arts or the car dealer down the road, social technologies have changed the way we work. Now we need to change the way we think and the way we learn.




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David Harrison (5 years ago)

Absolutely, spot-on, incisive and so relevant. Well written Kelly and good luck on your task and finish group! Will re-share.

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Anne Marie Cunningham (5 years ago)

Hello Kelly,

Co-incidentally I have written a post with a more practical bent about this in the last few days as well. My thinking is more muddled but I needed to get these thoughts down before I could move on and explore more.

I agree with everything you have said, of course!

Thanks for sharing this,

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Hugh Jones (5 years ago)

Hi Kelly. Good post! There’s a big question for me as to whether the ubiquity of social media is *really* changing how people behave, in significant societal ways, or whether it just another string to our bow, so to speak. I guess only experiment and time will tell.

Your admonisments about openness and willingness to let go of the notion of control are very well put.


uksuperiorpapers (5 years ago)

As always it is the parents and teachers who should make education relevant to students. Technology must become nothing more than a tool. Where all are able to have access to hardware and applications.On the one hand I bet using technology is not learning – just as using a remote control does not teach you about television. You are the slaves to the technology; not the technologist.

    Kelly Page (5 years ago)

    Interesting perspective. A remote control as you rightly put it is a device, a tool that enables one to command and control a rich visual experience of entertainment or infotainment, dependent on the content one chooses to experience. However, the social web is an immersive experience and in this for many members of the social web the experience is rich, networked and an immersive space within and through which they both converse, traverse and through this learn. As such, social ways of working in higher education (or any education or working context for that matter), goes far beyond technology being a tool (this is an 80′s view of determinist technological thinking), and ignores how digital and social technologies are emerging to be the space through and within which “we learners” … in this I refer to educators, students, administrators in educational contexts … learn. “We learners” are learning with and through many differing and varied face to face and digitally-mediated immersive contexts. They are all real, evolving and rich in human social experiences – be it mobile, social or visual … the experience for many learners today is far from technology-as-tool. :-)

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