Over the Christmas break I took a couple of short Flybe flights during which I browsed the inflight magazine, Flight Time. It carried an article entitled 'What is agile working and could it help drive your business success?', and its principal message was that businesses which adopted an agile working culture would consequently attract and retain great staff while increasing productivity and revenue. Big claims! I was intrigued. For some time now, the business sector has spoken of 'flexible working' in the same way as HE has spoken of 'flexible learning' - something the CBI has been actively promoting in different forms for many years. There have been many parallels between flexible working and flexible learning: allowing employees freedom to work from different locations; supporting them with the provision of technologies that facilitate communication and accessing information; and introducing a less rigidly structured working day, week and life.
So how is 'agile working' different from 'flexible working' and what might this mean for part-time learners, and the institutions which offer opportunities for work-based learning?
In many ways the presentation of agile working in the article has much in common with flexible working. 'An agile policy offers employees more control over how, when and where they work'. 'The benefits to staff mainly surround increased flexibility and work/life balance'. 'Agile working allows employees to create their own work environment how, where and when they feel most productive, delivering optimum results.' Replace 'agile' in these sentences with 'flexible' and little, if anything, changes. However, the article contends that the principal difference is that 'an agile working policy offers the maximum level of flexibility to employees while focusing on results rather than time spent at a desk'. Underpinning this is the implementation of 'unified communications' (UC). The writer states that 'UC technology provides employees with the ability to perform their role anytime, anywhere... Real-time communication services, including instant messaging, presence information and voice and video conferencing are easily integrated with non-real time communications like email and voice mail... UC offers businesses the opportunity to replace complex legacy systems with one single solution which can communicate and collaborate effectively across a variety of channels, provide opportunity for significant cost savings in the long term and offer significant return on investment (ROI)'.
Big claims again. So I did a bit of web searching to find out more about UC, see if it was something universities have embraced, and what its potential might be for facilitating the development and design of programmes of study that would more seamlessly integrate the work and study dimensions of work-based and part-time learners.
My search was neither deep nor extensive. However, it is clear that a good number of universities have embraced UC, working with any one of a range of companies which offer a tailored UC package targeting individual institutions' specific ambitions. For the most part these packages seem to have a limited vision for how UC can enhance teaching and learning, and in particular flexible learning, although one website stated that it wanted its new UC platform to support its distance learners. More commonly, the introduction of UC has been for the benefit of (administrative) staff. One website states, for example:
The platform allows staff to talk, instant message, and email each other across a variety of devices, such as landlines, smartphones, PCs and tablets. The university's workforce has benefitted hugely from VIA UC's enhanced conferencing functionality, which is available over the telephone or by video.
Whilst in conference, employees can also take advantage of the innovative whiteboard feature and document sharing capabilities. As a result, the university has seen a significant increase in productivity amongst its staff.
One step at a time, you might say, and I would agree. Universities are generally huge institutions and it is undoubtedly prudent to explore the capacities (and perhaps make and rectify mistakes) of a new high-tech platform on a smaller scale before rolling it out.
But my principal point in writing this piece is to highlight not only the advent of UC within higher education but also its potential for institutional departments which offer work-related, work-based and part-time courses. While some of the claims of the benefits and opportunities of UC made by the leading platform providers are likely to be exaggerated, an opportunity for 'UC' collaboration between Centres for Lifelong Learning (and their equivalents) and employers nonetheless exists. At a time when the Apprenticeship scheme together with other government-and student-led emphases linking tertiary education with employment is highly prized, now could be a good moment for such Centres to capitalise on the opportunities. At the very least, Centre Heads need to keep their eye on the UC ball, and if possible be part of institutional strategic planning committees. Those with existing, strong relationships with local employers might choose to engage with them with a view to understanding in more depth how UC is benefiting their workforce and whether and how this might be a way of developing future collaborations. The challenges will be significant, not least pedagogical. But now is the time to put toes in water and plan for a future where collaboration between Centres for Lifelong Learning and employers is strongly technologically integrated.
Link: Flybe Flight Time, 'What is agile working and could it help drive your business success?'
written by UALL Policy Officer, Dr Alison Le Cornu