It’s time to look to the future of FE – not the past

1st April 2016 at 00:00

The future survival of organisations – not least FE colleges – will depend on an ability to break with deeply ingrained habits, rewarding those that can overcome tradition and convention to release the potential of “what might be”.

The world around us is changing at an ever-increasing pace – and, as a consequence, exploding with opportunity. Choose any context: technology, politics, economics; the intertwining of developments from all sources effectively multiply up the rate of change, providing those with agility, flexibility and freedom of mind the ability to transform both themselves and their organisations.

But it is clearly not possible for anyone, or any organisation, to fully digest this universe of change. Even the specialists can only master a few elements – a tiny corner of one galaxy. Even if we could take a snapshot now and totally comprehend the world of developments precisely as they are, we are all fundamentally flawed.

As individuals and collectively within organisations, we all make sense of the world around us by looking backwards, understanding what has gone before, and then using this to project forward.

All of our thinking, decision-making and, therefore, our behaviours are determined by what we see in the rear-view mirror. Past experience is stored within individuals, organisational cultures and even industry sectors in the form of mental patterns, neatly filed and indexed within our brains in the form of ingrained neural networks.

In determining our futures, we draw upon these patterns – force-fitting them to make sense of the challenges of today, which then distort our future actions. We can of course learn from the past and strive to do better, but this backward looking perspective will inevitably colour our judgement moving forward. Such thinking inhibits step change and any hope of innovation is destroyed.

The area review process for FE colleges presents a real opportunity for new thinking – challenging tradition and convention. With an aim to move towards fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers, the natural focus will be on thinking that draws on what has worked in the past; this will inevitably lead to incremental, evolutionary, change.

However, understanding the blockages that constrain our thinking and then accessing techniques which destroy embedded patterns (from the past) can release innovation, with the potential for new frameworks for collaboration, new approaches to excellence and new models for delivery.

The same need for new thinking arises elsewhere in the sector, in charity and local authority provision, and in the independent providers.

First, however, we need to resist the temptation to simply rush in and get this thing done. We are all naturally conditioned in second-stage thinking, using the left brain with its high density of short, rapid firing, neural networks to kick into action and process the available information.

We then leap to a set of conclusions that are broadly consistent with what has happened before, merely modified to fit the parameters dictated by the review process. Job done.

But this process completely ignores the merits of first-stage thinking – drawing upon the right brain, with its much lower density of longer, less connected neural networks – perfect for making new connections.

By suspending the urge to rush into second-stage problem solving, to first ensure a full exploration of the broad set of related, perhaps peripheral issue, we gain a fuller understanding.

If first we understand the challenge properly, and then we unsettle the deep-seated patterns that enshrine conventional and traditional thinking, then perhaps the area reviews can be a catalyst for true innovation.

Dr David Hall leads the Ideas Centre, which helps organisations challenge traditional thinking

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