Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How to do the cunning plan

After my slightly tongue-in-cheek Cunning plan post last week I've been mulling it over and think it might actually have some legs. The question is how to do it; how to move students from unrealistic to realistic and unfocussed to focused in their approach to careers and employability. As a Service we are doing lots on this already but I'm just wondering (thanks for the encouragement, Andy) if the model will help students understand what we are trying to do (I'm sure there are models like this in careers theory already, I just haven't read any, so I'm making my own up to help me think it through).

I mentioned that we need to be 'careful not to discourage ambition' and I think that's all about starting early. You can be as ambitious as you like as long as you start early preparing for it. Ashely Hever quoted Paul Redmond in a tweet last week saying that "first year is the new final year at university", and I think he's onto something there.


This is where advice and guidance is really important - helping people figure out what they are suited to and what they would like to do. During a student's first year it's not unusual for them to be very unsure about what they want to do, and in the first year this is fine. There are loads of opportunities to try things out and figure out what a person likes and is suited to. It's only a problem when someone is in their final year and they are filling in applications to be a teacher, a police officer, an accountant and apply for postgraduate study all at the same time because they don't know what they want to do (you need a back up but you need to have some clue as well!).


If someone comes to us at the beginning of their first year and says they want to be an investment banker, that's fine too (as long as they are doing a relevant degree - you have to start even earlier to get that bit right). We'll probably advise them to join the Traders and Investors Society, get some relevant work experience during their vacations, aim to get a relevant internship between their second and third year, that kind of thing. If they come to us in their final year and say they want to be an investment banker and they've done nothing that's relevant up to that point (this happens), then we have a problem.

So, this is just a brain dump for me to come back to and a chance to get some comments from others to check my understanding...

Monday, 18 February 2013

I need some systems thinking advice

I've been thinking a lot about systems thinking in the last three weeks or so but after:
...I've hit a brick wall.

I mentioned in my very first systems thinking post that I thought that our system was more complicated than the case studies I heard about at the conference; now I'm convinced this is the case. The value steps of the distance learning administration case study (UoL login only) were "I enquire, I apply, I pay and register, I study, I am awarded and graduate" - but the support the Career Development Service provides to students doesn't fit into to a tidy little process. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong and after finally getting through 'Check' (it's taking us forever) we'll have a tidy little series of value steps, but I doubt it.

Systems thinking seems to lend itself to processes (see Who's using it? in UoL). At the conference the examples were definable processes; the breakout sessions were about expenses, maintenance and DL administration, and the keynote (UoL login only) was about selling insurance; but I don't think what we do can be boiled down to a process. Our 'process' is more akin to the 'I study' step of the DL administration example, i.e. a one to four year period where lots of stuff happens, much (most) of it requiring students to learn and develop independently, and that seems to me to be far too messy and unpredictable to be summarised in as a series of value steps. 'Help me get the graduate job or further study that I want' is always going to be more complicated than 'make me a student' or 'make me an employee'.

How far we can get with this depends on whether or not it will be worthwhile concentrating on just narrow aspects of our system, which we could then (potentially) patchwork together. This is what we had planned to do originally in order to keep things simple (starting with student appointments in the Hub) but then we realised that what was going on in the Hub couldn't be considered independently of what was going on elsewhere. I think it could work with our Leicester Award programmes because I imagine they can be boiled down to a relatively simple series of value steps similar to those identified for DL administration, but I'm struggling to see how we can pull this together across all our areas of our activity.

So I'm completely stuck. And I think the reason I'm stuck is that what we do isn't a simple process. I'm committed to getting this working but I'm struggling to get it any further unless we really narrow the focus.

Can anyone give me some advice? Or point me in the direction of some messier, non-process based case studies? What am I missing?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Our cunning plan

Students who are focussed in their job search strategies and realistic in matching their skills and experience to the kind of role they are applying for are more likely to get a role (though we need to be careful not to discourage ambition). So we're trying to shift students from unfocussed and/or unrealistic to focussed and realistic. Then it's a much smaller step to a graduate role.

Are our students modifying their behaviour to fit our system?

Image by Ben Oh
I think the penny is beginning to drop. Slowly.

I had a systems thinking conversation with Kim yesterday and we both realised something. I blogged last week about the fact that we have been coding our demand data too early and so the help desk have been unintentionally squeezing demand data into our categories that the demand may not necessarily fit. For example, a student might come into The Hub and say "I'd like help with my CV" and we might hear this as (and categorise it as) "I want an appointment", which may not be what they actually want (they might just want a link to a web page that can help them or they may just want someone to check something quickly or it may be that the help desk can answer their query directly). This I got last week.

What I only got yesterday, however, is that students may actually be modifying their behaviour and language to fit with our systems. So they may come in and actually say "Can I have an appointment" because that's how they understand us to be set up to help them, when they might actually mean "I need help with an assessment centre that I have next week", which might be a demand that could be met by us via a workshop that we are running or a web page or a quick chat with someone - but not necessarily an appointment. We are therefore now recording the demand in more detail - not just in their own words (this bit we started doing last week) but checking what they actually mean by, for example, if they ask for an appointment asking them why they want one. Kim is then going to categorise the data from this before we have a meeting with the very helpful Systems Thinking Pete.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Leicester students starting their job search early

A colleague has just pointed out to me this article in The Telegraph from last month: Students look for jobs 'much earlier' in university career, based on Early Career Focus survey from The Telegraph article says:
The survey carried out by found that more than one-in-five students at British universities now look for graduate jobs before their final year of university, in stark contrast with just one-in-20 in 2002. 
The article says that this is due to 2 reasons:
  1. Students are becoming more career-minded
  2. Top companies are approaching students earlier
And second on the list, with 56% of students starting their career search before final year is... University of Leicester, which is heartening.

We know that early engagement is key and we are putting in a lot of work to get students to start thinking about careers and employability from the first year. Perhaps it's beginning to pay off.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Using pivot tables to analyse data

I know I'm late to the party as far as pivot tables are concerned but I've been meaning to blog about this for a while (and now I'm back on a blogging role). We started using TARGETconnect back in September (as far as our students are concerned it's called MyCareers) after integrating it with our student record system over the summer. We're very pleased with what it does on the whole the reporting is limited; until we discovered pivot tables that is. For a few days I faffed around with COUNTIF functions and then realised that this is what pivot tables are made for. So after having a 10 minute tutorial with Laura - Matt, Gareth, Andy and I are massive pivot table fans! Here's a quick Screenr.


Apparently being frustrated is a normal part of the systems thinking process, which is good because that means I'm doing really well. After collecting demand in the Hub for 2 months it turns out we're doing it wrong and need to start again. I'm keen to get this right so with Kim, Nusrat and Matt's help we're starting again. It's not completely wasted (we have learned some things from it) but it's not authentic enough to draw any definitive conclusions from. Our systems thinking colleague (who is genuinely very helpful) has pointed out that we were coding the data too early and the help desk were (through no fault of their own) squeezing the demand into our categories and subcategories rather than accurately recording it in the customer's own words. This I get, and like I said, we're determined to get it right, so we're starting the process again. This time we aren't getting the help desk to categorise but simply getting them to record the following information a spread sheet:

  • ID number
  • date
  • time
  • method (face to face, email, phone)
  • who (student, staff, employer)
  • demand (verbatim - or as good as)
  • our response
  • whether this was us solving it, passing it on (to someone else) or passing it back (to the customer)

We've also realised we need to collect demand at all points of transaction simultaneously - previously we had hoped to keep things simple by getting the collection right in the Hub first and only then rolling it out to other parts of the Service. Instead we're now going to try and collect it in all parts of the Service at once, at least the ones that are customer (student) facing, so that's all staff involved in:

  • the Hub
  • appointments (guidance and feedback)
  • experience related activity - volunteering, Leicester Award, internships, enterprise, internships and Unitemps

Other points of contact are the curriculum (although that's mostly staff contact) and employers (employer contact), so we're going to leave those be for a while. Also, given the pressures on the Service at the moment we're just going to start with volunteering and Leicester Award (although I haven't told them this yet!) - this will involve all staff in these teams collecting demand for a couple of weeks. Once this is done we'll sit down with our systems thinking colleague again and properly analyse the demand.

So it feels a bit like we're going round in circles but unless we get this beginning bit right we'll be working off skewed data. So far we're still on stage 2 of check - so plenty more still to do. I did ask when the frustration stops and it feels like we're making progress - there's no definitive answer to this but I hope it's soon! One thing that's obvious is that whilst we're not lacking enthusiasm (although, to be honest, that does wane occasionally) we are lacking expertise. In principle the approach is simple, but in practise its easy to get it wrong and end up barking up the wrong tree.

Onward and upward!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013 pages

I've been meaning to blog about this (and a lot of other things besides) for a while. If you've not yet got an page I think you should. My first reaction when I saw it was "why would I need one of those?", but having used it for a while I think it's really useful. I've had mine for about a year now and I started putting it on my work signature about 6 months ago. I used to put my blog URL on my signature but since I've been blogging less that was looking a little redundant. I know colleagues that put their twitter address (bit risky) or their LinkedIn address (bit boring) on their signatures, but seems like a good alternative. You can create a good looking page very easily (not that mine's great yet) pulling together all your social networks into one place. You can see mine here, and if I wasn't using a dynamic views template on Blogger I could embed it in this post or on a page or in the layout. There's a really good iPhone app too (hurry up with the Android one!).

I really like the way you can pull in loads of different pages into one space and get a really neat preview on the page (although does anyone else find that the Twitter and Blogger previews aren't quite up to date?). I've not added my Facebook page because it says "Adding Facebook will allow visitors to your page to see all of your recent friends, photos, and status updates, even if they have limited access on Facebook". Which I don't want, but I have added Twitter, Blogger, Instagram, LinkedIn and Google+ (although you do need to be a bit careful about bringing everything together in one place).

I was reminded about all this yesterday when I (along with every other user on the planet) got an email update about them going independant again (AOL bought them out a few years ago) In the email they describe their commitment to be "the best personal identity service on the web", which they may well be.

Stuart Johnson
Deputy Director
Career Development Service
University of Leicester

Friday, 1 February 2013

Systems thinking next steps

I feel like I'm going round in circles.

A quick brain dump following a couple of systems thinking meetings, including one with the Systems Thinking Intervention Manager and one with my boss and 4 other members of the team.
  • We've revised (and hopefully finalised, our purpose - "Help me get the graduate work or further study that I want" (the '"that I want" bit is quite brave - we might revisit that bit)
  • We need to think about data that we have to verify our assumption that students who engage with us early are more likely to gain graduate work or graduate study
  • As part of our demand capture we need to record actions taken and whether or not the demand was 'one stop', 'passed' on' or 'passed back'
  • We need to be careful that our codifying of data doesn't loose the richness and need to be particularly careful to ensure that demand is captured in the customer's own words (not our interpretation to fit our neat categories)
  • We need to look at the last 2 months of demand capture more carefully to infer what matters to customers and therefore determine what we should measure
  • We need to get the whole team on board with this
More to follow - I bet you're finding this fascinating