Thoughts on sustainability

I thought I’d share some thoughts on the first session at the recent programme meeting in Nottingham. With the session being ably led by Stephen Brown, I was able to gather a number of key points from the discussion, which will be added to the Design Studio pages on sustainability and working for change.

Change can be hampered by institutional location (lack of status, association with specific agendas, etc) but enhanced by having an ‘agile’ location i.e. project team that is ambiguously or multiply located across the institution, project activities that are taken up at different sites and with different ownership. Having champions in departments and professional services is essential to this agility/hybridity.

Collaboration such as we have through the cluster groups can also help with this issue. People coming from ‘outside’ to talk about change do not carry any particular baggage about status, role or location etc. Also the CAMEL-type approach of the clusters allows for ideas to be communicated across institutions at different levels – between managers, systems people, staff developers, etc etc – again making sure the message is multiply anchored.

In the interests of getting things done it can be helpful to have a clear project identity, perhaps based around a particular location, team members, acronym etc. We have seen evidence of project identities being used to open up particular kinds of conversation, to act as a shorthand for certain kinds of change (perhaps an alternative short-hand to that used by management). The space of a project can be helpfully neutral in terms of institutional baggage. It also carries the cachet of external funding and external interest. However, towards the end of a project’s lifetime it is important that the identity is diffused and subsumed into the areas of the institution where project outcomes are being taken up, or project goals being pursued, or the project’s direction of travel is being supported. The project should not continue to hang around like a ghost or a bad smell, but hand on its values and goals before making a quiet exit.

The main focus of this session was on how this ‘handing on’ is best managed, in other words how innovations initiated by projects are sustained after their funding ends. We were encouraged by Stephen to think about how the outputs of our projects align with the ongoing responsibilities and priorities of different institutional stakeholders. (An aside from me on the distinction between outputs and outcomes: outcomes are inevitably situated in a context i.e. this is what happened here. Outputs may inform change in other contexts.) One concern in this kind of conversation is that ‘outputs’ can be conceived of too narrowly as products, whereas the most valuable outputs can sometimes be the processes that have led to a particular outcome. The processes themselves – baselining, iterative evaluation and feedback, consultations, collaborations, team relationships – can become embedded. Representations of processes – guides, toolkits, process models, workflows – can also be shared to support similar changes in other contexts, or in the same context going forward into the future.

Another question that came up – from the Enable project – is whether projects should always aim to make stakeholders happy. One valuable outcome might be to make stakeholders less happy so they demand changes to processes and resources in the institution. So if outputs need to be good examples of a better world, an outcome may be stakeholder dissatisfaction with the world as it is.

A final question from me: can projects simultaneously make things better (perhaps by picking the most tractable issues within a general problem space that they have defined) and be the conscience for more radical and continuous change going into the future?

Link to JISC’s sustaining and embedding innovations good practice guide

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