From education to employment

Responsible leadership in the digital age of education

Jon Faulkner, Managing Director, Domain7 UK

#TechForGood – How digital services can help build sustainable communities 

FE leaders have a critical role both in their own organisations and as part of the wider community. They are tasked with meeting the needs of big and complex communities of staff and students – partly or wholly through digital services.  As the economic and social fallout of Covid-19 unfolds, the needs of these communities are only going to increase and digital technology is likely to play an increasingly important role.

In this immensely testing time, many leaders are asking themselves, “how can I make the best choices for my staff, our stakeholders and all our beneficiaries in the wider community?”

How can I act for the greatest good?

When finances are squeezed, the tension that arises between solving immediate issues and achieving the best outcomes for people can leave you between a rock and a hard place.

Yet, there is hope. In my work at Domain7, I’m steered by the concept of ‘responsible leadership’. I believe there are always ways to demonstrate responsibility, even when making the toughest of decisions.

Looking through the lens of responsible leadership can highlight the positive routes forward, and help you boost others’ morale, even if on the face of it the situation seems bleak.

What is responsible leadership?

For me, the key element of responsible leadership is keeping in mind the impact of your actions, on every level.

All our actions have an impact, and this ripples out further than we might think. Through chains of consequence and influence, our actions reach people we don’t interact with directly. We are all connected, and we live on a planet with finite resources which are being put under immense strain.

Sustainability isn’t just about material and financial resources – although these are crucial. To be wholly sustainable, you also have to think in terms of people’s energy, time and wellbeing.

Efficiency isn’t just about being cost-effective for your organisation’s own sake but enabling you and your colleagues to do more – and free up more resources – for others.

What does responsible leadership look like for FE leaders?

If sustainability lies at the heart of responsible leadership then an FE leader’s job is to encourage long term thinking and collaboration within a whole range of different groups including students, other Universities and FE organisations in the local community, local employers and staff. This might be done through encouragement of placements with local employers or through mentoring schemes but also through the structure of their courses.  

For example, students should be encouraged to work on projects that might benefit the wider community with the hope that they, in turn will give something back at a later date.

Lecturers may ask students to design a digital solution to a community problem and then work with a local employer to bring that to life. Harnessing technology can also help to develop teamworking skills in students – they might brainstorm as part of a hackathon or design sprint to come up with technology and design solutions to the problem. Online platforms can be harnessed to encourage participation and ideas.   In this way, they are learning the value of community and nurturing long term relationships outside of the organisation.

An underlying message for all colleges is that if each person is doing something to help local communities be it staff or students then that activity will ripple out to help improve the wider community including businesses and charities.

If we look at responsible leadership in the long term, there are three key principles that come through:

My top 3 tips for leading responsibly

1. Think long-term

When looking to cut costs, be mindful of false economy. Some measures which save you money in the short term won’t actually leave you better off in the long-run.

Digital solutions workflows and visualisations, websites, integrated platforms and systems, are a prime example. They come with upfront costs. However, many will have the potential to improve efficiency and reduce spending over the long-term, as well as allowing you to better serve your communities. If your teams are struggling on a daily basis with outdated computer systems, it’s worth asking yourself what the true cost of these issues is.

2. Identify where you can save resources, while benefiting people

Spring 2020 saw countless organisations making an overnight transition to remote working. As lockdown eases, many are now making a choice about whether, or to what extent, remote working should continue.

Consider this: although there’s huge value in meeting face-to-face sometimes, doing so every day has a big impact on individuals. It involves them investing time, effort, energy and/or money to travel to and from the workplace. There is also the environmental impact of transport.

Look for new ways of working that help you save resources while benefitting people. They’re often facilitated by digital.

3. Make Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) a priority

I believe real and lasting change must start within each individual. All of us are called firstly to acknowledge, as uncomfortable as this may be, the ways in which we personally are party to actions or structures of discrimination. The reality of discrimination is that it is systemic and may play out in subtle ways, even among people who hold the best of intentions.

As responsible leaders we must model and ask searching questions. “Have I understood my own biases?” “Where do I experience unfair privilege?” “Who have I privileged and why?”

From here you can zoom out to your wider organisation and ask, “does our culture value all people?” “Have our processes given opportunity to all?” “Does our work empower the people it’s meant for?”

To ensure you and your organisation remain actively engaged in working towards justice, first identify what needs to change, then create a concrete plan to make it happen.

Bringing about positive change

The FE and Higher Education sectors, like much of society, are going through a period of great change. Leaders should use this opportunity to develop sustainable, digitally connected communities that ultiimately bring about positive change for individuals and the wider groups that they interact with. Wider society – and that includes all of us – can only benefit from sustainable and responsible leadership.

Jon Faulkner, Managing Director of digital change agency Domain7 UK

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