Changing higher education leadership in a network era

As societies change, so must leadership. Today’s higher education leaders must be ready to adapt to the new era of fast-paced technology, and to understand and engage in the complex environment in which it operates. Reputation and connectedness will be real assets, according to Harold Jarche, an internationally renowned expert on workplace transformation.

Canadian Jarche told the biennial conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education that as education institutions increasingly grapple with adapting to new challenges and optimising the potential of new technologies, solutions lie in simple structures that foster an organisational culture.

Jarche was a keynote speaker at the 26th ICDE World Conference, held at Sun City north of Johannesburg from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”.

The network era

“As we enter what I call the network era, we are seeing fundamental shifts in society, in our institutions and the way in which we do business, shaking the foundations,” said Jarche. “We need to know: Why are these things happening? How is it that we are going to change? What are we doing about it? How is it going to change our understanding of leadership?

“If we think about society as humans organised in different ways, we have continued to change over the centuries. As we change from one institution to another we don’t lose the previous form, but the previous form is no longer dominant.”

Shifts have happened when societies have changed the way they communicate, Jarche argued. For instance, the printing press led to industrialisation, and religious institutions had formed and changed communication, also changing the way societies were organised.

Today, societies were moving from market domination to network domination. “We have no clue what is going to happen. But we see the signs of this everywhere.” An example was changes in financial technology and banking, and the ‘bit coin’.

“Every aspect of our lives is going to shift.” The Arab Spring heralded major changes, and the ‘Occupy movement’ was an experiment in how to organise as a networked society."

Collaboration and cooperation

“The networked society demands that we collaborate and cooperate,” Jarche said.

“Collaboration is working together for a common purpose, usually done in business, and requires the leader to set the agenda. Cooperation is when we share freely, with no expectations of direct payment.”

The market sector thrived on competition, and the power of competing rested on people with better and dominant ideas. Moving into the networking era, reputation would be earned through cooperation.

People with strong reputations would be influential and fare better in the network society. “In 2003 I was unemployed in Canada. I started writing a blog. The reason that you know me is my blog. I built a reputation by giving to the network. My blog has given me everything.”

Jarche is convinced that the network era, with its digital prowess, will extend productivity.

In this age, he said, individuals have incredible productivity and even a small team can get a lot done. The smart way of not employing a lot of people can be witnessed in Silicon Valley, home to many of the world’s large high-tech corporations and thousands of start-up companies. “It obsoletes industrial labour.

“But being productive is not as important as being creative.”

What about education?

Using digital networks, and extending individual learning, anybody could work at any time.

The education discourse was being transformed, and the academy was becoming obsolete. The academy that dominated at the time of Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato was being questioned by distributed networks of open educational resources.

Jarche said the era retrieved the age of discourse, of which Greek philosopher Socrates was a major proponent. “Now people are coming back to him as they connect on Facebook, or on Twitter." Conversations on these platforms are not mediated by experts.

Entering the network era, work is changing. Work procedures are becoming automated, and there is much more non-standardised work.

“What we have is the shifting of value. The knowledge we need to be able to do that kind of work moves from explicit, codified books and manuals, to the implicit, understanding how to negotiate a current situation. It changes the learning that we need,” Jarche said.

Specific to the current context, much learning is now informal. “Instead of building widgets we are now creating ideas”.

Creating ideas is not based on how much land one owns, said Jarche, giving Google as a good example: it is based on idea, which has an intangible value and is volatile.

“We’re now seeing the decrease in the value of obedience and diligence. If it’s not getting automated, it’s getting out-sourced.”

Given advances in technology and the nature of current developments, said Jarche, there will be increasing need for empathy as a critical skill while machines handle the rest.

“Doctors might become redundant if we get robots in future, but nurses will be in demand.”