Higher Education in 2020: Portrait of a sector on fire

We are a sector in crisis. Funding. Casualisation. Bushfires. Pandemic.

This is often framed as being victims of circumstance - things that keep happening to us. But what if it's actually about our ability to respond to things that happen? The organisational learning and organisational culture literatures have long portrayed universities as counter-examples - institutions with toxic cultures that fail to learn from themselves. What if they're right? What if this is actually a crisis of organisational learning and culture?

Who's going to fix it?

Organisational learning and culture in universities is an old problem, not a new one. But it's a problem we tend to try and solve by looking to someone else, someone with greater agency, someone who's not us. An adultier adult, if you will.

A some e-cards meme that reads: That horrifying moment when you are looking for an adult. And you realize you ARE an adult. So you look for an older adult. Someone successfully adulting. An adultier adult.

A Brief Tour of Adultier Adults

Some of the entities we have historically looked to to address organisational learning and culture, and why their impact has been limited.

Maybe it's us?

Instead of looking to others, what if we looked to ourselves? Learning design (and its related roles) has many affordances and capabilities that could be applied in new domains to create a new type of work: organisational learning design.

We are experts in pedagogy and the design of effective learning. We are experts in design processes. We are systems thinkers. Even though we might not know it, we have lived expertise in shaping organisational behaviour, because our work is change and we live it every day. We are stealth change agents. We are deeply embedded in the organisational context. And critically, we exist in the third space - we have agency and freedoms in how we shape our work that other ‘adultier adults’ do not.

What if we explored the Venn diagram of these capabilities to work into new domains? What if, instead of designing the learning of students, we began to design the learning of our organisations? What if we designed our culture?

A Venn diagram showing organisational learning design as the intersection between pedagogical expertise, organisational behaviour expertise and nativeness to organisational context

What would an Organisational Learning Designer do?

This is a key area for further exploration - today is the start of this conversation. Wandering through various literatures across individual learning, organisational learning, organisational culture and psychology give us some interesting ideas for places to start:

Designing organisational domains

Applying design thinking processes to the rituals, languages and artefacts of our institutions.

(You can get started on this one now - submit a redesigned ritual below)

Organisational learning practices

Integrating double and triple loop learning into our work practices

Psychological safety

Designing work environments that promote psychological safety.

Constructive alignment

Applying the principles of constructive alignment to our work practices and projects.

Embodying design

Embodying our practice as designers across our institutions, planting seeds of change in "cultural islands".


Designing and facilitating the practice of 'learnership' in our institutions

A Call to Arms

Join me.

Let’s work together as a profession, as a community of practice, to explore and co-create this new direction. After all the narratives we’ve heard of looking to other ‘adultier’, more ‘qualified’, people to save our universities, people who we think should be the ones with carriage of organisational learning and culture, maybe it’s time to embrace our agency and say - it’s not you, it’s us.

How to get started?

Design a new ritual

Read a little on Ritual Design. Then pick one of three suggested organisational rituals (meeting, presentation or coffee chat). Redesign it to be an effective learning experience and/or achieve some kind of change (large, small or tiny...!) in your organisation. What would you do differently?

Submit your design using the form and it will be published on this page after the conference.

Ritual Design Submissions

Submissions from the audience and people playing along out in the wider community - this will be progressively updated as submissions are received.

Name Ritual Design
Colin Simpson Meeting Stealing from the concept of silent meetings, where most of the time in a meeting is spent silently collectively working on a pre-prepared document. This gives everyone an opportunity to contribute meaningfully at once rather than passively listen
Peter Coffee chat Meet with senior people and show them my world and get their feedback on how to fix the problems I experience and how we can work together
Ashley Meeting What if we had a two-word feelings check-in at the start of every meeting? That way, we know how everyone is travelling when we proceed. It might help us to remember everyone's humanity as we proceed..
Michelle Meeting (This is just a very quick response!) Ask meeting attendees what their best hopes are for the meeting. What are they hoping to gain or achieve from it? What do they bring to the meeting? Review the intended agenda for fit. Refer to the initial points during discussion of the agenda items. At the end, ask if the hopes were realised. Why or why not? How could we do this differently, for better results?
Jennifer Smith Presentation Love your idea of a website like this, so will think about different/suitable mediums. Maybe a website, maybe an ebook, maybe visual story depending on purpose of presentation and intended outcomes. Potentially a video of a real field activity to 'teach'/'demo' key concepts/ideas. Thank you again!
Jill Lyall Meeting We are planning a "team dynamics and values day" for the new year. It arose out of the stresses of 2020 and some simmering tensions within the team - an attempt to "clear the air." So this idea of ritual seems perfect. I present my fantasy about how the day might proceed, using the concept of ritual. Central idea of the ritual: to let go of the old (stresses, conflict and tensions of 2020) and transform them to the new (welcoming in a new year of work that is creative, inspiring and transformative) Begin with obtaining consensus on the rules of self care and care of others, for the day. One the rule are agreed on, everyone says something that is like an oath of affirmation, to agree to participate in a psychologically safe way. First activity - anonymous notes on how team members coped with 2020, what were the highlights and low points, what were some specific team issues they see as problematic, what do they see as some underlying and overt strengths in our team. These can be done on paper squares or card, and put into a receptacle. Shuffle, then spread completed notes out on floor or table, and collaborate to put them into like categories. Randomise team members into groups to tease out the notes further with a view to leveraging strengths, learning from problems, and coming up with solutions to ongoing issues. Someone to scribe the discussion, someone to speak to the whole team on behalf of their group on what they came up with. (alternatively, the group could come up with a creative way to convey the themes, via art work, music, dance or mime - but this might be too "new age" for some!). The finale of the ritual will be something that acts out the transformation into the new, and the letting go of the old dross from 2020. This could be a whole team collaboration to create a play, poem, song, artwork or specific ritual, to give power and expression to the intent. Out of it should emerge a strong sense of direction for 2021. This can be confirmed in the team and written up to be part of the 2021 action plan
Sue Meeting Adding "what I learned this week" to a team meeting agenda to encourage sharing our learning and support developing the organisational learning culture we desperately need.