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.



On-boarding coaching: the positive difference

By Karen Carter, University of Gloucestershire, Organisational Change and People Development Manager

We piloted on-boarding coaching earlier this year, with four members of staff who had been newly appointed or newly promoted to senior management roles. We started to consider this following feedback from some participants on our senior development programme (that was initiated and rolled out last Autumn), that they would have found coaching at the entry point to their roles particularly helpful.

We know that joining organisations at a management or executive level is a demanding experience, both for the individual & the organisation. This is all the more so when the organisation is also undergoing rapid change. Further exploration reveals that the failure rate of executives in UK organisations is rarely a failing in the hiring process, but more commonly a failure to recognise the difficulty of joining and leading in a new organisation.

Our pilot participants included a Head of School, a Head of Institute, a Dean of Quality and Standards and a Subject Group Leader. The intervention consists of a one and a half hour coaching session with an external coach within the first four to six weeks of starting, that helps with orientation, includes a health check on how the person is getting on, and sets a plan for the coming months. Some participants chose to have one or two further coaching sessions.

The evaluation showed that the most helpful aspects included: feeling valued and having confidence in the University, because it had invested in them from the start; putting ‘new person’ fears into perspective; and receiving reassurance that their experience was ‘normal’, given the organisational context, rate of change, and culture. Outcomes included: setting expectations around developing a face to face communication culture; changing behaviour to be consistent with positive intentions; committing to mindfulness practice; and snapping into a broader focus congruent with operating at a higher level.

As a result of this positive feedback we have incorporated on-boarding coaching into the induction programme for all new senior managers.

After six months in post all senior managers go on to participate in the senior management development programme, which consist of 360 feedback and a coaching session. This gives them the opportunity for coaching support at the point when they are challenging the status quo, as well as assessing their connection with colleagues, hearing observations around how they lead and feeding development actions into the continuous Staff Review and Development process.

Employee voice – speak to the wind or make a difference?

I had the privilege of providing a case study about the University of Kent’s Change Academy at the Universities Human Resources conference last month. The topic of the session was the power of employee voice and it discussed similar themes to those shared at an earlier plenary session featuring Nita Clarke of the Engage for Success movement who spoke about the power of staff engagement.

A few gems stuck in my mind from Anita’s talk:

“Engage for Success surveys have revealed that of the 30 million employees working in the UK, only one third feel fully engaged with their work with a resultant impact on productivity, innovation and organisational results. Of those surveyed, 64% feel they have more to give.”


By way of comparison, a parallel example was given: “What if we said our IT systems only worked one third of the time? Would that be seen as acceptable?” I won’t go into the details of why that particular example resonates for me personally at the moment but these results could be extrapolated across a whole range of other parallel scenarios. There is no question that fulfilling work is a key factor for human happiness as well as positive organisational results so why do we do so little in our organisations to get the best from everyone?

We live in an environment of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. There is no ‘normal’ any longer and we find ourselves struggling to keep up with the pace of change and the speed of technology. Many organisations are having to make tough decisions about how to deal with issues of staffing and workload and the fine skill of prioritisation is becoming ever more important. However, there will be no return to the easier days of yesteryear, if, in fact, that time ever really existed.

Effective prioritisation requires the ability to hold in our minds the vision and purpose of what is important to our organisation and what we want to achieve. We can then return to this vision when we need to make tough decisions on how we spend our time.

Given the challenges we face, we will only succeed if we work in partnership with staff across the whole organisation and listen to their voices. An average of thirty percent of engaged staff is simply not enough. We must articulate what we value within our organisation and have the courage to have honest conversations.

It is the responsibility of managers to get to know their staff as individuals, to coach them and help them to develop, to not allow bad behaviours and to show appreciation that is both authentic and specific. Similarly, all staff must take personal responsibility to know what drives and motivates them as individuals and to get to where they they need to in order to work in roles and organisations that they care about. This is where people will make a difference for themselves and for their organisations. This is where staff will find their true voice and this is where real engagement will occur.

By Cindy Vallance, Head of Organisational Development, University of Kent, Twitter @cdvallance


Why I Wasn’t In Bournemouth

“This is odd, I’m nervous. It’s been long time since I went to a conference where my main feeling is trepidation.” Such were my thoughts as my train trundled towards Roffey Park for the second annual conference of the fledgling OD Network Europe. Why trepidation? I recognised just three names on the list of 130 participants; only one was from a university. It’s a long time since I was so thoroughly among strangers. I also have a scientist’s aversion to the tortuous and woolly language of some of the ODN abstracts and articles. Well, that’s good. I’m an introvert who came here to broaden my horizons and get out of my comfort zone. Notice what you’re feeling, it’s all about the whole self, right? I was going to blog comparatively about this and next week’s UHR conference, but this stuff is so bursting out of me that I have to catch it now, as I trundle back again.

 Roffey was itself a comfort zone, as usual, but boy were my horizons broadened. In a good, scary way. Immediately evident were the networks that already exist, often rooted in the various expensive and committing qualification programmes people had been through.  But of course we’re a warm, humanistic community, so it’s hard to be friendless for long. The range and depth of experience and knowledge in the room were breathtaking, and I got a sense that many were grounding their practice more explicitly in the underpinning scholarship than I do. It was like happily pursuing a profession – geologist, say – having done an A level, then finding yourself in a room full of geologists with degrees.


Among the wide-ranging sessions a recurring theme was the emergence of a “next generation” OD frame, taking in complexity, connectedness and non-linear systems. In keeping with the conference theme of “collaborating and innovating in social systems,” there were highly resonant tales of successes and challenges in dialogic, co-creative approaches. One session that used art to tease out our own development journeys gave me two major “ker-zzzingg” moments that I hadn’t expected (like a-ha moments but more fizzy). An “innovation” sampler was the loudest, funniest, happiest workshop group I’ve ever been in, but also deeply educational. Mots du jour included “constructive deviance” and “rhizomatic,” but beware: “engagement” has joined “empowerment” in the bucket of jargon terms to make knowing, ironic jokes about.


Someone commented that there was a sense of excitement, potential and experimentation, which they found absent from the slightly grandee-dependent meetings of the larger US parent network. This momentum is being tapped by a set of action-research clusters that we formed in the final session, hubbed by Roffey but aimed at turning ourselves into a community of researchers in the support of practice.

 It’s proposed to take this European network to the mainland next year. Will I be going? Oh, emphatically yes, even if it means (gulp) missing ODHEG again. The world is wide, and I seem to have found my learning edge.

 (Twitterati can check out @ODNEurope, #ODNE2014)



Lessons from a transformational leader

At our last ODHE meeting in February, we were lucky enough to hear from a transformational leader, Professor Bob Cryan, Vice-Chancellor of Huddersfield University. Prof Cryan was recently awarded The Guardian Inspiring Leader award, and his presentation certainly inspired me to reflect on some of his leadership philosophies.

People not structures: Prof Cryan spoke about how his focus is on the leadership in the University, not about its structures. In his time at the helm, he hasn’t changed anything structurally.  I find this remarkable when I think about the amount of structural changes happening in HE across the sector. I wouldn’t like to guess how much OD time is spent helping management teams plan and enact structural change, when much of it seems to be cyclical. Schools, Units and Faculties merge, only to be split again a few years later.

Simple hooks: Prof Cryan asks staff ‘What have you done to be inspiring, innovative, and international?’ By keeping things simple and memorable, the University can pare its desired staff behaviours down to three key elements. I think about the lengthy and generic values statements I come across, and I think, here too, there’s definite mileage in brevity and simplicity as Cindy referred to in her last blog post.

Never stop learning: Prof Cryan outlined his career-long learning approach, comprising top management programmes, postgraduate study, and even recently returning to undergraduate study to gain an understanding of the modern student experience. It made me reflect on how many leaders don’t prioritise and protect time for their own development. One of the challenges in my Institution is engaging academics in development who (often by virtue of their superb research skills) suddenly find themselves with management and leadership responsibilities. Having a senior leader model the way is admirable.

100%: Prof Cryan mentioned that he sets 100% targets “so that there’s nowhere to hide.” For example 100% of academics should research, 100% of academic staff are HEA Fellows etc. This made me reflect on whether my targets are ambitious enough. By aiming for 80% or 90% completion on tasks, or on satisfaction ratings, does this allow everyone to psychologically take their foot off the gas?

It can’t be easy to be a transformational leader, but I’ll be mindful of Prof Cryan’s approach and aim to factor it in to leadership discussion and thinking in my own Institution.

Embed from Getty Images

Getting Unstuck: It Starts with a Question

By Sally Wilson, Sally Wilson Associates, Coach and Independent Consultant & Trainer to higher education

This is the title of a piece written by Renee Charney (February 19, 2014) that gave me food for thought – especially as I had committed to writing the ODHE blog this month (and have only just made it by a stroke of the keys!). My ‘stuckness’ for a topic was also informed by an ODHE colleague recently circulating an SOS with the comment ‘why do we suddenly go blank when we’re asked to produce something ‘innovative’?!’

This had me pondering on the expectations of OD departments by their organisations and the notion that somehow ‘they’ (OD) will ‘pull something out of the bag’. Mindful of Cindy’s January blog on making the complex simple, I’m struck by the more complex the difficulty facing an organisation, the higher their expectation of OD and the consequent pressure on OD colleagues, together with the pressure they place on themselves to be ‘creative and innovative’.

Being stuck at times is part of the human condition. Charney identifies being stuck as sometimes ‘feeling out of control and unable to unravel the twisty-turny, thorn-ridden mess’ before us. We’ve all been there, and we’ll be there again. The challenge is perhaps determining why we’re stuck.

For example, a project/commission/problem presented to OD can initially sound like it would be straightforward enough, but turns out to be ‘a bear of a project’. Charney goes on to say her own identification with this is ”I get embroiled in distractions, each one potentially sending me in a slightly new direction. I’m like the lost wanderer standing at a crossroads, but each time I think I’ve made my decision I suddenly see another road opening up and I think “That might be an interesting path to poke around for a while…..”


As in coaching and problem-solving, it starts with a question.  What questions might help to lead us from uncertainty and avoid paralysis?

How willing am I to do something different around this? How much choice do I have about the way in which I act ? What currently stops me taking action? What am I reacting to in this situation? What do I know? What do I need to know? What models/techniques do I have for bridging the gap? Would a graph/visual of the situation help? Should any segments be added to a diagram?

What types of questions help you get unstuck?


What’s Stonewall got to do with OD? Dosey Doe your OD partner!

By Meriel Box, Head of Staff Development, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)

In 2003, three gay staff (including me) had an ambition to establish an LGBT Equality Network to support our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff – to drive positive cultural change as part of our HR Rewarding and Developing Staff Strategy. Adopting the Stonewall mantra ‘People perform better when they can be themselves’ we wanted more colleagues to be themselves, to celebrate their diversity, reducing personal stress, challenge homophobic behaviour, and fulfil their potential; in essence to feel safe in a ‘gay friendly’ work environment and to be ‘out and proud’ role models for both current and potential LGBT students and staff. For LJMU, we wanted to be a destination of choice to study or work, where LGBT people would have an excellent student and staff experience.

This year we celebrated our network’s 10th Birthday, during LGBT History Month. From increasing understanding of sexual orientation equality amongst staff to improving our University’s external reputation, our network group is a vital instrument which supports our strategic business objectives. As Chair of the network I’m proud of our achievements attributed through the commitment, passion and ‘discretionary effort’ of many academic and professional services staff. Network members include straight staff, alumni as well as LGBT staff and students and external partners who we collaborate with on OD projects across sector organisations and the wider LGBT community.

Each and every member of our network is an equality and diversity champion contributing to our University’s OD profile, recognised by our Board of Governors, VC and Senior Management Team. This is endorsed by and strengthened through our partnership with Stonewall since 2006 when LJMU joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme. As a University we annually submit to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index to evidence and benchmark our LGBT equality practice at an international level with a growing number of other public and private sector organisations. This year LJMU achieved 28th position in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers list, full marks in the ‘Gay By Degree’ HE sector benchmarking exercise for specific services supporting LGBT students and we were awarded Network Group of the Year in the North West.

Stonewall as a key partner has enabled us to realise OD potential, recognising and valuing the difference LGBT people bring to our organisation. I encourage you to dosey doe your OD partner!

stonewallphoto LJMU 

September 2013 LJMU hosts the North West launch of the Stonewall Workplace Guide: ‘Maintaining Network Group Momentum’

LJMU’s LGBT Equality Network webpage

Guidance on LGB workplace equality Stonewall

LinkedIn – Reflections of an Occasional User

By @cdvallance

I have previously written about my use of twitter and blogs.linkedin

The third social media tool that I use to a limited degree is LinkedIn. I know I don’t use LinkedIn as much as I could. I don’t regularly update my status to share information to the same degree that I use Twitter, for instance, where I’ve begun to develop valued acquaintances.

I primarily use LinkedIn as my professional digital Rolodex. It is particularly useful as a way to stay in touch with people external to my own University. When I moved to the UK from Canada five years ago, I left behind respected colleagues and professional associates. Linking in with them has enabled me to maintain contact from thousands of miles away. I have done the same since being here in the UK and still maintain contacts from my early days here.

Rather than relying on my email contact list which becomes out of date the moment someone moves organisations unless they specifically notify me, since they maintain their own profile I don’t need to update their information myself. Similarly, I didn’t need to tell my connections individually when I moved roles. We simply maintain contact with each other directly through LinkedIn.

I also use LinkedIn as a way to ensure that anyone who wants to know a little about me – positions I have held, organisations where I have worked, my education, etc. has this information easily to hand. I don’t include a complete and detailed CV but if someone wants to know something about my professional profile, it provides a way in. For instance, I have signed up to be a mentor at Kent as a way to actively demonstrate my support for this initiative led by our Learning and Development team and have also had the privilege to take part in the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) new Aurora women’s leadership programme as a role model. Providing connections with my LinkedIn profile ensures that those who are interested can see something about my experience and background before deciding if a mentor/mentee relationship or further contact might be worth exploring further.

I use LinkedIn to learn about other professionals as well. For instance, I have looked at profiles of speakers who come to our University as well as learning about potential contractors and services suppliers. However, while I am a member of a number of LinkedIn groups (including the ODHE LinkedIn group), I have yet to engage with these very actively. With groups, I believe at least one person needs to take the lead in experimenting with and helping to moderate discussion topics and at least a small group need to commit to actively engaging in discussions. This could be a longer term goal. In the meantime, I will continue to check in on LinkedIn semi-regularly and see where the tool might lead over time.

Have you found an effective way to engage with LinkedIn – particularly through the use of discussion groups? If so, do share your insights with all of us so we can continue to learn together.

Cindy Vallance, Head of Organisational Development, University of Kent