I’ve been thinking about learning design as a profession, the kind of work it is, and what we do, and trying to map it to the domains of the Cynefin Framework. This is to help explain what we do as a team to others in the institution and to look at what structures would support our work, especially in an environment of scaled-up development.
The Cynefin Framework contains four domains:
Things in the Simple domain are, for better words, simple. It’s essentially an easy-to-follow process from input to output, with the process being both knowable and controllable. This simplicity usually applies to the process, not necessarily the tools or technology used, so a lot of manufacturing can fall into the simple domain.
The Complicated domain requires a lot more steps in the process. It relates to very complicated work with many steps and stages, but it is still knowable and controllable. It can be helpful to think of the Complicated work as tasks that can be programmed, it might include if-this-then-that statements and loops, but it can be mapped and has a predictable output.
The Chaotic domain, on the other hand, doesn’t behave predictably. In fact, in many cases, the actors, objects and actions aren’t even clear. Inputs don’t necessarily equal outputs. Things don’t make sense, and it’s very, very challenging to map out what’s possible within the domain with any clarity or any reason.
That leaves us with the Complex domain. In the Complex domain, many actors and forces exist, and their effect on outputs isn’t predictable. This inconsistency in output is the key to understanding the Complex domain. While a process might be knowable and, in some cases, mappable, even to a programmatic level, how things actually influence and affect one another isn’t predictable. Small changes can have significant consequences. There are many points of potential behaviour. How things may or may not interact and relate isn’t predictable.
And there’s a clear reason for this unpredictability – people.
Work that involves groups of people tends to reside in the Complex domain because people themselves are complex. They are individualistic, organic, adaptable and unique in their skill sets, knowledge and behaviours. Every facet of a person will have different impacts on how they work, behave and contribute. So it’s not just that the process is complicated; when you add people into the mix, they create variation, and that is what creates complexity.
This is the reality of Design as a practice and profession – with Learning Design being an application of design practice to a specific context (like web or graphic design). Design is the kind of work that is suited and required for the Complex domain because its nature is to creatively adapt and problem-solve to a change and work with variables and constraints.
If we look at some of the factors that Learning Designers have to work with:
- Alignment to the course and program learning outcomes
- Different delivery modes and models of teaching and learning.
- The technologies used to deliver the course as a whole and every interaction and activity within it.
- The need to plan and development of lessons that aid student’s learning
- Help develop content in a variety of media based on the affordances and constraints of each media type.
- Review the effectiveness of lessons in student learning based on the application of psychology and learning science.
- Edit copy and ensure consistency of terminology across a course and multiple authors.
- Manage production timelines across multiple teams and media types.
- Ensure aesthetic principles are adhered to across the course and program.
- Develop universally accessible content and activities for students across devices, access levels and physical capabilities.
- Develop assessments that provide evidence of learning that is engaging for students and can provide a spread of marks that reflect student’s different abilities.
- Align the course to the institutional graduate attributes and professional qualifications based on external bodies’ requirements
- Knowledge of government standards and practices related to the course and program specifics
To that list you have to add in the roles that they are required to interact with throughout the development of the course:
- Subject matter experts
- Course authors
- Media production teams
- Video producers and editors
- Program coordinators
- Project managers
- Team managers
- Their own peers
- Professional bodies
Each factor and each person involved in the process requires not just an action, but an interaction. That interaction might produce the required outcomes and outputs – or it might no, because people are Complex. They might be stressed, not in the mood, be sick, with family, hungover, unprepared, short of time – there are thousands of ways each individual could be affected by their lives and what is going on outside of work, let alone what happens within the job!
That Complexity I’ve just outlined is for just one course! When you multiply that complexity across multiple courses, across a team, across a program of study, across faculties and departments you are adding a multiple of additional complexities. These multipliers of complexity create an environment that is quite new and unique in terms of management. It is an environment that has no levers of control and no direct way to manipulate outcomes. Management relies on relationships, negotiation and compromise – elements that traditional management structures struggles with. Within the University environment where hierarchy reigns supreme, it is a a fundamentally different and often incompatible way of working.
But this is why the Cynefin framework is such an important tool – by identifying the domain you are working in you can adjust your ways of working and the common practices and structures to match.
That’s where I’ll leave this post. I want to discuss the challenges of working in the Complex domain a bit now and unpack what it’s like to manage a team and a range of projects in that space. I’ve also got some suggestions for how we can improve our ways of working in the Complex space to help feed into institutional and management discussions.