Leadership, information gathering and the future – What if we’ve got it wrong?

The following text was written as preparation for a seminar entitled “From Observation to Action: Challenges for Policy and Decision Makers in the Field of ICT in School Education” jointly organised by the SATW and EENet that was to take place at Schloss Münchenwiler early October 2004. I took part in that seminar on behalf of the Swiss Agency for ICT in Education (CTIE). The following text expresses personal ideas and opinions that in no way reflect the ideas or policies of the CTIE. Participants were sent a list of questions designed to encourage written reflection. I have taken these questions as my starting point … See also “Stepping down from the watchtower” about the role of observatories in decision-making processes in education.

Sculpture by Gaspard Delachaux in an exhibition called Mangelune at the Chateau de Valangin

Leadership, information gathering and the future – What if we’ve got it wrong?

1. Users’ information needs

Which information is really needed by decision-makers? 

This first question is centred on a select class of people – the “decision-makers” – who manage the education system and who need dedicated information (requiring special procedures to extract it and bring it together) to decide what future we should head for and how we should get there. They are seen as politically accountable for the workings of the system, they express a need for specific information and structures have been created to provide that information. What if such a perspective on leadership and related information gathering is misleading? It is based on the tacit assumption that the education system works like some sort of machine requiring a small group of people piloting the organisation to press the right buttons, that is to say a series of specific and necessarily localised actions employed to produce the desired results. In reality the situation is far more complex. All actors are involved in deciding on and bringing about what happens (at least partially) and all these decisions and activities are interrelated. The metaphor of the living organism would be far more appropriate to understanding the workings of such a complex system than that of the machine. All actors involved in the system both possess and require information. All actors are continually making decisions that affect the system to the extent that decisions in a part of the system necessarily affect the system as a whole.

Which observation areas and indicators are important?

It is probable that when we hear the word “information” in relationship to policy-making in ICT and education, many of us – specialists that we are in gathering and reorganising such information – have a pretty clear idea of what is meant and, if we were to compare notes, it is likely there would be relative agreement between us. Let’s imagine for a moment that we are collectively wrong. What if the information we traditionally think of as necessary to manage an institution (financial statements, figures about equipment, data on usage, information about motivation, student test results, … and more elaborate combinations of data in the form of indicators) is not really appropriate for us to pilot the educational system in a complex, fast changing situation? That this might be the case is hinted at by the way decisions based on such data often produce surprising results. An example: following on from various reports and studies, the DfES decided to redefine teachers’ tasks in England so as to decrease workload and to upgrade the image of the profession. One unexpected result of this action, in the pilot phase, was to greatly enhance the status and job satisfaction of non-teaching staff. This factor was not included in the predetermined evaluation of the pilot project, an evaluation designed to prepare the full roll out of the idea. This example points not only to the way we are ill prepared for the unexpected, but also the way we compartmentalise the system in our attempts to master complexity. It points to how our fragmented understanding overlooks essential relationships with other areas we have mistakenly disregarded as unrelated or irrelevant. 

2. Accessibility

Which information is available? 

In the light of what has been said above, maybe this question should be rephrased to ask ourselves about the way we see information and how that way of seeing affects our ability to understand the relationship between that information and what we need to know. It may well be that our perception of information gets in the way of knowing what has to be known. To illustrate the point, we might argue that talking in terms of “available” information tends to point to a sort of disembodied knowledge that can be extracted, reworked and exchanged, disregarding the extent to which knowledge is anchored in people and in contexts. Is it not just this anchorage in people that makes knowledge out of information? If we considered knowledge as an integral part of the system, just like the people and the structures, then we might have a different attitude towards “information”. That would also shed new light on the notion of “availability”.

Which role do existing “Observatories” play in decision-making processes?

The traditional model of management has decision-makers in a privileged position with respect to information. Part of their status as a “special” class of people is tied to their control over information. The idea of “observatory” reflects and reinforces that model. An observatory is a privileged “place” where information about the system is gathered, analysed and redistributed. What if the idea of the observatory reinforced a “leadership” model that is inappropriate? In a complex system, can pertinent information be gathered together and “understood” in one place? Is it not possible that the very act of doing so necessarily distorts the image given of the system and consequently misleads those it seeks to guide? In analysing available information, observatory staff undergo a learning process. However the knowledge thus developed cannot be handed on so easily to people who haven’t taken part in the process. Knowledge is built by people in exchange with others, not passed from one person to another like a pre-packed commodity. 

3. Trends

What are future trends and scenarios?

“Future” is really the key word here. Leadership has to do with getting us to the right future. Any work we do in developing and sharing knowledge has to do with leading us to that future. Two questions are raised here. One has to do with the future of the current mechanical mindset in the management of education and the role of observatory-like structures to reinforce that approach. My hypothesis is that we will find a growing discrepancy between what we plan for the future and what comes about because of the actions we undertake to make it happen, until it becomes impossible not to see that we are doing something wrong. The only hope is that we reach that point and that we do so before the inherent errors become catastrophic. The other question has to do with how we approach the future, what values underlie the way we seek to make the future happen and how learning, i.e. knowledge building, can help us assist the best future to unfold. Currently we walk into the future backwards (our attention fixed on the past or present) with our eyes closed (blinded by habit and our self imposed limits).

4. Design 

Towards a new service – Which tools and strategies could effectively support decision-making processes?

Science provides us with a model for understanding complexity based on the life sciences that sees a complex institution as a self-organising system in which the future emerges from the extreme complexity of the present. That the future is a result of the complexity itself and not the decision of any one part of the system. The full impact of such a perspective is ground-breaking in that it questions how we can effectively have an impact on the future. It questions traditional ideas of leadership and challenges the way we construct knowledge designed to help build the future. It is in this direction that our efforts need to be directed.

The hypothesis put forward here is that there is a “right” future that seeks to emerge that is in harmony with the system as a whole. That future cannot necessarily be predicted from the past or the present. What’s more, it is not fixed, but is constantly changing because of what happens in the present. That “right” future exists in the present as lines of force seeking to unfold and our job in relationship to leadership and “gathering information” consists of identifying those changing lines of force and seeking to help them unfold. From such a perspective, clearly all actors are called upon to be “leaders” and all actors are actively developing and sharing knowledge about the system. From such a perspective, it is no longer the past and the present that are our prime focus, but the future as it unfolds in the present.

Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, Oct. 6th, 2004

Reading material

Presence – Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, Peter Synge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers, SoL, Cambridge MA, 2004

Wholeness and the implicate order, David Bohm, Routledge, London, 1980.

Synchronicity, The Inner Path of Leadership, Joseph Jaworski, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1996.

The Web of Life – A new synthesis of mind and matter, Fritjof Capra, Harper Collins, London, 1996.

Leadership and sustainability, Michael Fullan, Crown Press, Sage Publications, London, 2004.