How to Navigate Change in Today’s New Normal

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Car garages operating on a ‘click and collect’ basis, retailers switching to wholly e-commerce, gyms pivoting to virtual body-weight sessions, pubs running virtual quizzes with beers sold in takeaway milk cartons… and educators ramping up what was often a peripheral digital provision. Last year was defined by unprecedented global change and disruption. But in a post-COVID-19 world, how many of these new business models will remain? 

Forming New Habits in Unsettling Times

Habits can be surprisingly quickly formed and some can last a lifetime. Our successes are largely down the complex ways we can hypothesize, test, iterate, and ultimately, adapt.

It’s hard to remember the conscious decision you made to initiate what would become a habit. For example, setting the table in a particular way or how you chop your carrots—why Julienne when you could Batonnet, Oblique, or Brunoise? Similarly, self-isolation, R-numbers, and furlough weren’t part of our main vocabularies this time last year but now flow off our tongues. 

The formation of a habit depends on the relationship between the effort it takes to do a particular task and the reward you get from doing it. I love the endorphin hit I feel after running, but not the time it takes to get ready, run, and then get cleaned up afterward. Some habits form, briefly stick, and then drop off when change intervenes. From an organizational point of view, the key to achieving something as grand as a ‘transformation’ relies on the minimization of effort and maximization of reward, making the new habits stick. 

Adapting in a Time of Continuous Change

Digital transformation has been a ubiquitous term used in RFIs and RFPs for at least a decade, but I imagine no one expected it to manifest in the way it did in 2020, albeit enforced, by such obviously external factors. We often joke with clients about how slowly life changes in academia, but not now. Most universities and colleges across the whole world are adapting their business model to cope with change. It’s a period of upheaval, challenge, and also hope. 

Part of the reason why I love Moodle is that it has developed iteratively with the gradual adoption of digital teaching within academic institutions. Moodle is the most feature-rich system available and has been through many refinements and many (many) versions. For all of the positivity the open-source model brings, there’s also the drawback that you have an astronomical number of versions in use and massive duplication of effort in testing the same updates and plugins. 

In every mission-critical system, businesses and universities have moved away from self-hosting and towards SaaS models which offer economies of scale not possible with any other hosting method. One positive outcome of this enforced focus on distance learning could provoke the wholesale shift from a focus on the minutiae of versions, testing, and updating, towards developing academic staff skills. 

To a certain extent, this is already happening organically, but I anticipate this will accelerate through our engagements this year and into the future. Despite all of the planning that goes into improving the adoption of a teaching and learning system, leaders rely on the rate at which individuals can adapt to change, and this can vary wildly as they each have their own motivations, agendas, and abilities. 

The balance between sufficiently incentivizing desirable behaviors and dis-incentivizing non-desirable behaviors can be difficult to strike. In general, focusing on tweaking and improving what’s already available, rather than making a wholesale change is the most cost-effective method of improving provision. 

So, What Drives Digital Transformation? 

Evangelists can be relied upon to passionately recommend the tools they’ve adopted, but as Public Enemy (the American hip-hop group) famously said, ‘Don’t believe the hype’. Digital transformation cannot be technology-focused and just about changing the core which you use to underpin your ecosystem. Instead, it must focus on improving the capability and motivation of your staff to use the tools. In most cases, a wholesale change of system precipitates years of building adoption and cost, whereas a focus on staff development to support habits will create pedagogically sound, truly engaging digital teaching. 

Change (as something that happens to us) is always external. How we respond to it determines whether we make a successful transition to a new norm, or not. We can control the transition, even when we can’t control the change. 

Want to learn more? Contact the columnist here.

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