What is Ours to Do?

Before we look at what is ours to do, we first need to think about what is Organisational Development (OD) in this context?  I think of it as connecting organisational strategy, policy, process, people, and their development in order that organisations thrive through their people and culture.  When we think of it like this then OD is everyone’s responsibility.  However, structurally it is often situated in HR&OD departments, maybe because of the focus on people and because roles in these departments have the benefit of working holistically across the organisation with a clear line of sight across the connects and disconnects.  However, other roles and responsibilities can also have the advantage of this line of sight: leadership roles, those working on strategy or projects, coaches and business analysts for example.

In our community of OD practitioners across the UK, OD is conceived of differently in different organisations and our responsibilities and intended outcomes can vary.  However, some of what connects us is our ability to see what is disconnected, the skills that we have developed, and our passion for people and culture.

In our recent conversations on learning from the first few weeks of the disruptive period of the COVID-19 pandemic we paused to think of ourselves as ‘an instrument’ in the organisation, noting that where we added value before the pandemic may not be where we need to be adding value now. This does not negate what went before, or what may come afterwards.  However, as with OD generally it is about seizing opportunities – not in a responsive way, but with a recognition of something that would add value to the organisation is now at its most appropriate point.  I often think of this as an idea, action, or initiative whose ‘moment has arrived’.  We also noted how we are missing the opportunistic conversations that we have as we move across campus, that help us to connect and smooth and even disrupt, all key to the ways in which we undertake our roles.

Some are leading teams who are feeling ‘unhinged’ because the things that they had been working on before the pandemic do not have the same imperative during this crisis.  We recognise that it does not mean that just because something that was important before is not important now, it just means that ‘its moment has shifted’ and in many cases is likely to return later.  This helps us to recognise our role as supporting and encouraging our teams not to ‘create unnecessary noise’, inviting them to ‘let go’ and to support them in their transition to reflecting on how and where they can best add value at this time.

In our discussions this prompted us to ask: What are people seeing when they look at OD practitioners at this time? And who do we want people to see when they look at us?    It also begged the question who do others want or need us to be?

In turn this encouraged us think about ‘what is ours to do’ and how we can use our skills, abilities, opportunities, and insights to add the best value.  Whilst some of our colleagues are ‘head down’ in the urgent, immediate, operational challenges of moving to remote working, furlough etc, some of us have the advantage of being able to take a ‘helicopter’ view of what is going on, what we can learn from it, what we can contribute and how we can add value – and that is what prompted many of us to join this discussion.

Rumi, the Persian poet once said: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.   We discussed the role of OD as ‘awareness agents’ and not as ‘change agents’, here to build great organisations

We saw then our role as making time for learning, for sense-making, carving out time to be reflective in the midst of a huge operational brief, the need to pause and take a helicopter view of what is going on and to move into ‘big thinking’ space.   We saw also that we need to be interrupting the thinking of others who are also caught up in the urgent, immediate and operational, who should perhaps now be extracting themselves to think more into the medium and long term – after all if we and they are not doing this, then who is?  It made us think what are the questions we should be asking of others?

We were prompted to challenge and stretch our minds to think about who we could be in this space and who others may need us to be.  And that who they need us to be is not necessarily the same as who they want us to be. Yes, that feels a little scary.  May Sarton, the Belgian-American poet said: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

So, we developed a series of questions.  Let us find just ten minutes a day to think about how we respond to one or more of these questions, or maybe discuss it with others. Then capture it, commit to it, and make some use of it this week.

  • What am I noticing at this time?  What can I learn from it?
  • What are people seeing when they look at OD practitioners during this time?
  • What do I want them to see?
  • Who do I need to be?  Who do people need me to be?
  • How does this shift my purpose? My contribution?
  • How do I use myself as an instrument?
  • What new personal and work practices can help me?
  • How do I increase my powers of ‘noticing’? How shall I use this to look for new ways of doing and adapting?
  • When and where am I creating space for others to think past the urgent, immediate, operational?
  • What story would I like to tell about this time?

Look out for the next blog in this series.

Dr Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University, together with colleagues from the Learning from Disruption sessions that took place in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down:

Caroline Bryant, Regent’s University London; Lisa Stevenson, Sheffield Hallam University; Bethany Hyman, Brunel University; David Wallace, Queen Mary University of London; Rosemary Benson, London Metropolitan University; Laura Brown, University of London; Simon Inger, University of Bath; Sophie Lovejoy, Organisational Development in Higher Education Network (ODHE); Daniela Bultoc, University College, London; Sam McVaigh, Manchester Metropolitan University; Lisa Anderson, University of Dundee; Sophie Sowerby, Durham University; Sara Corcoran, University of Suffolk; Annette Robinson, Lancaster University; Susan Kane, University of York; Saire Jones, University of Westminster; Trudie Donnelly, University of Warwick; Ailbhe Lynch, City, University of London; Sarah Akhtar, Sheffield Hallam University; Colleen Harding, Bournemouth University.

Talent Development – Defining, Identifying and Supporting

In the July 2014 issue of the Leadership Foundation’s publication Engage, Linda Amor and I have published part one of an article on the ways in which we are approaching the challenges of talent development at Bournemouth University.  We have set out to find answers to the following questions:

How do/should we

  • define ‘talent’?
  • identify ‘talent’?
  • support existing ‘talent’?
  • support future ‘talent’?
  • retain ‘talent’?

In this article we highlight just some of the literature that has informed our thinking and explain the steps that we are taking in order to identify the organisation’s response to the questions raised above. We intend to provide a second article in 2015 which will include a report and evaluation of the activities, how the organisation has responded to the five questions raised, and how those responses are influencing our practice.  Please see the article at the link below and read on to find out how you can become involved.


A full evaluation of the BU activities will commence at the start of 2014/15 and we will summarise our findings in a second article for Engage. We encourage those who have read this article, who are also working on developing talent within their organisation, to contact Linda and I to share your stories in order that we can also feature some of your approaches in the next article.  Or please feel free to share some of your experiences below and we will contact you!

Best wishes


On Academic Writing – from Professor Matthew Bennett

Blog 1 September 2014


Hi ODHE Bloggers – you may remember Professor Matthew Bennett who joined us at ODHE in Bournemouth in May.  He is conducting some research into how academics write and I thought that you may be (i) interested in this if you write academic articles yourself and (ii) might know of academics who would be interested in becoming involved in the research.  Please see the call for participants below and forward it to anyone who you think might be interested.

Best wishes


On Academic Writing – from Professor Matthew Bennett


Writing is not easy, yet academics must write.  Communicating your research and ideas to your peers through writing is an essential part of an academic career, you may be doing brilliant research, you may be a fantastic speaker or teacher, but if you can’t express your ideas through the written word your career may flounder.  Writing lies at the heart of research.  There are no quick solutions, fixes or dodges and I don’t profess to have any, but I am interested in the process of writing and seek your help in exploring this.


The importance of writing is no great news and if you are like me dyslexic and find the challenge of writing exactly that, a challenge, then what can you do?  We all have different approaches to writing – our own coping strategies if you like – that allow us to get the words on the page, the thoughts and ideas clarified and expressed.  It is an intensely personal process and what works for me is unlikely to work for you. 


So what does works for you?  How do you go about writing that difficult piece of prose? 


Have a think while I share what works for me. 


How I write

Ideas often flow better for me from conversation, but as an introvert I don’t have much time for conversation!  So I talk to myself, mentally rehearsing what needs to be said, framing initial ideas and nebulous arguments.  I can be seen on the walk to work deep in thought, in fact deep in silent conversation, and not always silent to the amusement of those that walk their dogs in the park I cross each day! 


These silent conversations shape my initial draft, since when I sit down to write I am simply noting down the conversation.  I then refine this early draft picking out and questioning the logic, developing the argument as I craft iteratively the text before me.  For me writing is therefore a process of constant refinement, iteration and clarification as my ideas and argument take shape in the words that I write. 


It’s different for everyone

Others work differently I know, my mother for example who is a retired academic talked to me recently of how she used to coin a statement, or phrase, something elegant and clever that she then picked at to see if it was true, forming her argument in light of it.  For others it is all about the research question that is being posed and I know that some of my colleagues believe that all your ideas should be formed and in sharp focus before you start to write.  It is a bit like having a beautiful artefact that they can see in their mind’s eye, which simply needs to be described.  I cannot write like this and my approach is more akin to that of Stephen King who, in his wonderful book On Writing, describes the process of writing as the excavation of a fossil with the story slowly emerging from the ground with work and care.  No one way of writing is any better than any other and each may have their own particular style and this may also vary across discipline boundaries which leads to my basic question how do you approach the process of writing?


It is this question that intrigues me, a question that I would like to explore for its own sake but also perhaps because it might amuse me in time to write about it in a book or paper. 


So what do I need, to help me explore this idea?


Getting involved

Well I need the help from my fellow academics, not just geoscientists like myself but social scientists, chemists, historians and engineers.  I am interested to know what helps you to write – a short email with ‘a brain dump’, a couple of paragraphs or a list of bullet points is all I need with your own reflections on how you approach the task of writing.  If you are not an academic but write a lot as part of your profession then drop me a line as well.  In return I will reflect on how I can best summarise, or collate your collective ideas, to play them back to the academic community in ways that would be useful. 


So going back to the questions posed earlier – how do you write?  In framing your response it might help to reflect on the following questions, whilst also adding anything else that you feel it would be relevant for me to know.


How do you approach your academic writing?  Describe for me the process by which you shape your ideas and craft your prose from conception to completion of a piece, whether it is a journal article, a book or a chapter.


What is the most challenging part for you?  And how do you overcome this?


Where do you like to write?  Can you write anywhere – on the plane, train or in a stolen five minutes, or do you need a block of time and a quiet place, or a noisy coffee shop?


Do you write for a specific audience and journal or in a more generic way formatting once written for a particular journal?  Does this vary depending on the piece?  Do you always know where something is to be submitted before you start?  What in truth guides your choice – clinical analysis, convenience or simply the tradition in your discipline?


How do you write collaboratively?  Do you take the lead, or do you write truly by committee?


How much are you influenced by the norms of your discipline – and what is your discipline?


These are the types of thing I am interested in, I am trying not to be prescriptive and all I ask is that after some reflection you open up an email, insert my address – mbennett@bmth.ac.uk – and write to me something about how you write!  I will respond asking you to sign a consent form and with further details of the study and I promise to preserve your anonymity at all times, unless you specifically state that you are happy to be acknowledged.  Thank you.



QAA and Employee Engagement

twitter_avatar2Bournemouth University (BU) recently had a review by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and achieved a ‘commended’ judgement for the quality of student learning opportunities.  This is the first time the judgement of commended for this category, the highest award possible, has been received by any university.  The term ‘learning opportunities’ describes the different mechanisms and facilities that a university provides in order to enable a student to succeed. For this category, the QAA look at many areas of how an institution supports students, including the quality of teaching students receive, academic support, the resources available to students including the library and IT facilities, and the general support they receive.

The review identified a number of examples of good practice which led to the award. These included the many ways in which BU works to engage and involve all members of staff in its mission, values and strategic priorities, including those articulated in its Strategic Plan. The review also highlighted the way that the University engages students individually and collectively through the Students’ Union, in its development of academic strategy and policy.

Employee Engagement

‘Employee Engagement’ is a contested term (Kular et al, 2008) and lacks clear definition.  At BU we think of employee engagement in two ways; firstly for staff to have the ability, motivation and opportunity to fulfil their roles, which is similar to the research undertaken by Towers Perrin in the US (2003), and secondly for staff to have the opportunity to contribute to the life and development of the organisation.

How We Engaged Employees in the Development of our Strategic Plan

Phase One

In the Spring Term of 2011, before the long-awaited government white paper on Higher Education (HE), we organised a series of ‘Conversation Events’ for all staff and students where we asked them what they valued about the organisation that they would not want to change, regardless of what was set out in the white paper.  The idea was that once the white paper was published we would have a number of options, and we wanted the options to be grounded in what staff and students valued about BU.  The events were attended by hundreds of staff and the Students’ Union encouraged students to attend too and they made a valuable contribution to the debate.  We noticed at this stage that there was low participation from staff in lower grades who thought that they did not have anything to contribute and so we organised a specific session for them so that their voices could also be heard.

Phase Two

The data from the Conversation Events was analysed using a Grounded Theory methodology and, following the publication of the white paper, was used to form the basis of further discussions with the Students’ Union and University Board.  From this work came a series of proposals that we that we took back to hundreds of staff and students in the Summer Term 2011 and said to them ‘this is what you said, is this you meant?’ and ‘if this is what you want us to do then what values do we need to live by in order for this to happen’?  From these sessions we were able to refine the aspirations of staff and students into a plan that included a Vision that focused on the concept of ‘Fusion’ for staff and students; three Strategic Themes: Creating, Sharing and Inspiring; three Strategic Enablers: People, Environment and Finance; five values: Excellence, Achievement, Authenticity, Creativity and Responsibility.

Phase Three

In the Autumn Term 2011 we held a series of Strategy Focus Groups that focused on the Vision for BU2018, the Strategic Themes and the Strategic Enablers, taking one topic for each Focus Group.  At these sessions we shared the draft plans that supported the Vision that would make up our Strategic Plan.  Once again the event was attended by hundreds of staff and some students, including representatives from the Students’ Union.

Phase Four

During the rest of the academic year 2011/12 Schools and Professional Services worked to develop local Delivery Plans that would support the achievement of the Vision set out in BU2018 for the next six years and which would form the basis of their annual Delivery Plans for the next six years.  The Strategy was launched in September 2012, by which time many staff were already ‘living the Vision’ and aspiring to achieve it.

What Happened Next

We still have a lot of work to do in order to deliver on the ambitious aspirations set out in the Plan and we continue to run focused employee engagement sessions on how we are working to deliver on those aspirations.  For example, we have just completed a series of informal discussion groups with hundreds of academic staff on the ways in which we can embed ‘Fusion’ into the academic career framework; we ran focus groups with 100 staff across the organisation (at all levels) on the type of leaders we need to achieve BU2018 and how they need to be supported and developed and the outputs from these have formed the basis of our Leadership Strategy launched in 2013; we have held focused engagement sessions with staff affected organisational level projects, such as  the ‘Student Journey Project’; and we are just about to engage staff in dialogue on how they think we should define, identify and support talent within the organisation. 

It has been a busy time!  It is great that this form of employee engagement is being recognised externally, as well as being appreciated by staff internally.   Despite all this hard work it does not mean that everyone has engaged, or that everyone is engaged – but a few mavericks are healthy in an organisational context aren’t they? How do you define employee engagement in your institution and how are you facilitating it?

Colleen Harding



Kular, S., Gatenby, M., Rees, C., Soane, E. & Truss, K. (2008) Employee Engagement: A Literature Review, Kingston Business School Working Paper Series No. 19

http://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/4192/1/19wempen.pdf [Accessed 25/09/13]Towers Perrin (2003) Working Today: Understanding What Drives Employee Engagement,

http://www.towersperrin.com/tp/getwebcachedoc?webc=hrs/usa/2003/200309/talent_2003.pdf [Accessed 25/09/13]