Human from Scratch: an emergent role for humanising the organisation 

PhDI Innovation Portfolio Proposal 

Planned Innovation 

Human from Scratch is an emergent role-based approach to addressing organisational culture at organisational learning at UNE. 

Organisational culture is well-identified in the literature as a critical factor in the success of organisations (e.g. Argyris & Schon, 1997; Bass & Avolio, 1993; Higgins & Macallaster, 2014; Schein, 2004; Trice & Beyer, 1993). UNE has not historically had a strategic focus on organisational culture – we have now arrived at a point where the Vice Chancellor has identified People and Culture as a significant issue at UNE, and a key strategic priority to address going forwards (Heywood, 2019a; Heywood, 2020; University of New England, 2019). 

Organisational culture is a symptom of underlying organisational learning issues – a contextual example here is recently when the Vice Chancellor invited staff to contribute their thoughts on organisational culture on a public blackboard; some contributions highlighted an adversarial perspective (Heywood, 2019b). This is a classic example of Senge’s second organisational learning disability – ‘the enemy is out there’ (1990, p. 18). Organisational learning is also well-identified as a critical factor in the success of organisations (eg Argyris & Schon, 1997; Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006; Senge, 1990). 

This convergence of organisational culture and organisational learning is the problem we as an organisation are setting out to solve. Addressing organisational culture and learning at a strategic level often takes a top-down approach (Bass & Avolio, 1993) and focuses on structural change (eg Heywood, 2019a; Heywood, 2020). This will often then result in specific interventions being developed in order to effect changes amongst staff on the ground. 

Organisational culture and organisational learning interventions usually happen in two ways in universities – through HR and organisational development directorates, or through the engagement of external consultants. The former approach can be limited in impact if the program design follows a corporate training model of transmissive learning (Antonacopolou, 2006), rather than employing the effective learning models and pedagogical practices familiar to the education disciplines. HR programs can further be limited by a lack of systemisation and reaching only a few targeted staff (Zheltoukova, 2014).  

External consultancy interventions often fail to have sustained impact due to being divorced from the institutional context – complex systems can only effectively be changed by agents within the system, native to the context (Yunkaporta, 2019). At UNE this experience expresses itself as a sentiment of resistance to external consultancy from staff who feel the complexity of their context is not understood and cynicism about the lack of sustained ongoing engagement with the organisation.  

There is a third development entity present in universities – academic development – that employs pedagogical expertise and effective learning practices to develop staff capabilities. However, the content of these programs is almost exclusively around the scholarship of teaching and learning, educational technologies and other teaching-focused domains (eg Fraser, 2001; Bath & Smith, 2004; Debowski, 2014), and are not focused on developing staff capabilities in the organisational behaviour domains of learning and culture. 

However, the potential for a new role emerges at the nexus of the three attributes (pedagogical expertise, organisational behaviour expertise and nativeness to the organisational context) – the concept of an ‘organisational learning designer’ (OLD) (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Organisational learning designer nexus 

Organisational learning design represents the evolution of the capabilities of established roles and structures, leveraging the value that these roles have into a new domain – similar to the emergent boundary-spanning role of a ‘knowledge broker’ (see Cooksey, 2011).  

The organisational learning designer role is the proposed innovation for this project. This will involve undertaking a prototype implementation of the role to understand what this role could look like and what affordances this role may have towards facilitating positive change in organisational learning and organisational culture.  

Due to the administrative and budgetary barriers of establishing and recruiting a new formal role, the proposed implementation strategy for this project is an ‘internal consultancy’ approach, where an existing staff member makes OLD services available to UNE staff within existing workstreams. Further, rather than being structured as a general development program, OLD services will take the form of negotiated, contextualised interventions for targeted groups, designed to meet a specific identified point of need. Using a complexity frame of reference (Byrne, 2014) and positioning targeted intervention groups as ‘cultural islands’ (Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006), this model of prototyping the OLD role maximises the potential for positive change whilst remaining a manageable and achievable model for the PhDI project. 

Innovation context 

This innovation is situated specifically within the UNE context, which has a number of different contextual frames. 

Overarching and strategic context 

UNE, as an institution in the Australian higher education landscape, is facing a period of uncertainty and rapid change, with many calls for change to maintain relevant into the future (eg Cawood, 2018; Rogers and Smirl, 2018; Stockton, Filipova and Monahan, 2018).   

This rapid pace of change and uncertainty is reflected within UNE’s own strategic context; where projects rapidly emerge, change and cease to meet shifting directives from leadership and competing demands from internal stakeholders. Any proposed innovation thus needs to be flexible and agile to bend with these changes; anything fixed, and rigid will break. 

Within an organisational learning context, UNE can be conceptualised in the same way that universities generally are conceptualised in the literature – as counter-examples; organisations that certainly, and ironically, do not learn in any kind of effective sense (Gibbons et al, 1994; Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006). This is further supported by UNE’s historical lack of successful organisational culture and learning strategy. 

In terms of cultural context, UNE is currently framed as an institution that resists change and is biased towards adversarial, critical interaction (Heywood, 2019a). As such, there will be a significant need for meaningful stakeholder engagement and relationship building in the implementation of this project. 

Role context 

My position as a researcher is framed by my employment context within the structure of the organisation – working in the central Learning and Teaching Transformations (LaTT) directorate. This directorate, via the Strategic Learning Initiatives team and Academic Development pillar, has carriage for driving strategic change in the learning and teaching space, designing curriculum and learning, and providing academic development services. These functions are adjacent to the proposed work of an OLD, who would work in a similar way but deal with different conceptual domains. 

The role of a learning designer (used as a catch-all term for analogous work such as leadership of curriculum transformation, academic development and educational design) is a third space role (Whitchurch, 2008), and as such has some significant affordances for enacting change in universities (Kogan & Tiechler, 2007). This includes positioning as a ‘stealth’ change agent (Ramos-Torrescano, 2017), agent of social change (Campbell, Schwier and Kenny, 2005) and ‘partner in arms’ who leverages relationships with academic staff (Debowski, 2014). These same affordances may also apply to the proposed work of an OLD. 

There are historical tensions between faculty staff and the LaTT directorate, and conflicting perceptions around roles and responsibilities. However, there is also a history of successful work grounded in effective partnerships with faculty staff and other stakeholders, and now strong senior leadership alignment with strategic attention to organisational learning and culture. 

UNE also has a history of engagement with external consultants, whose initiatives have failed to have long-term meaningful impact. As a result, the sentiment towards external consultants tends towards cynicism. This particular contextual element means an innovation developed and implemented from within the university’s context may be advantageous (Yunkaporta, 2019). 

Implementation context 

The university’s current ability to innovate in the recruitment space and establish new roles in an agile way is limited, which means that formally establishing a new organisational learning designer role is not a viable option for this project. Instead, the implementation follows a model native to the university context – the provision of academic development on a negotiated needs basis. In order to distinguish from academic development work, this project adopts the term ‘internal consultancy’ to reflect the nature of the work. 

Key stakeholders: 

The matrix below identifies key stakeholders in this research project, and is a hybrid that follows Kennon, Howdon and Hartley’s (2009) stakeholder analysis matrix, but is adapted with a coding overlay modified from Mendelow‘s (1981) stakeholder mapping model (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Stakeholder matrix 

The four quadrant codes represent stakeholder types and the strategy these types need are as follows: 


Also referred to in various matrices as ‘meeting needs’ or ‘keep satisfied’, these stakeholders will likely have barriers to engagement of some kind. 


A tongue in cheek but notably alliterative term to capture the need to maintain good relationships and high engagement levels with these stakeholders. 


Lower priority but maintaining communication and monitoring engagement is still useful for these stakeholders. 


These stakeholders need an intentional and ongoing engagement strategy and are the primary target zone for initial implementation. 

I should also note that while ‘detractors’ – or as Rogers (2010, p. 414) refers to them, “anti-innovation champions” – may not be a typical stakeholder term, the climate of both UNE and academia in general is such that resistance is frequently encountered by new initiatives and innovative approaches (eg Battin, 2018) and should be taken into account. I have made a distinction between those who may be detractors on the basis of expertise and those who may be detractors on the basis of power and authority. 


As a researcher and an agent, I am native to the organisational context and thus inextricable from it. This context, and the human focus of the research, lead to several assumptions both around the research and the organisation. 

Research assumptions 

Guiding assumption 1: Subjective experience is the only truth 

Working in an organisational context, where organisational behaviour is the lived experience of the staff in the organisation, there is no such thing as empirical truth. Whether something is true or not is irrelevant – the subjective interpretation of lived experience is the force that drives behaviour. Thus, data in this project is framed around ‘trustworthiness’ – characterising data in ways that most strongly resonate with the context in which the data will be interpreted and used in action. 

Guiding assumption 2: Traditional research paradigms are not appropriate 

While universities are research institutions, and academic staff rigorously pursue their research according to traditional research paradigms (Gibbons et al, 1994), their behaviour in organisations is governed entirely differently. Kahneman (2011) describes the ‘affect heuristic’, where an immediate, unconscious emotional response is used to guide behaviour. Tversky and Kahneman (1974) describe other similar cognitive biases that are observable in human behaviour within organisations. The experience of organisational learning and particularly of organisational culture is a subjective, emotive one – and when someone is reacting emotionally, there is no amount of empirical evidence, no intellectual argument, that can shift that position.  

We find this in the approach of research such as the Voice Survey (University of New England, 2019), that uses a standard survey approach to capture staff sentiment on a range of issues – while such data may be useful for giving a picture of overall trends, it is devoid of meaning for individuals, who cannot see their own experience reflected.  

Guiding assumption 3: We need to humanise the way we work 

As described above, universities use traditional research paradigms to approach not only their knowledge production work but their organisational work. Universities are characterised as purely intellectual, conservative and rigid (Gibbons et al, 1994) and as machine or professional bureaucracies (Lunenberg, 2012). In the organisational learning literature, universities are often portrayed as counter-examples (Gibbons et al, 1994; Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006) – organisations that are incapable of learning. All of this work and rhetoric dehumanises us (Campbell, Schwier & Kenny, 2005). 

An assumption is thus that countering these attributes – becoming something more human and less machine, more meaningful and less empirical, more messy and less rigorous, would be beneficial to both the goals of this research and the people in the organisation. To be meaningful, research must be grounded in people (Montuori, 2013). 

Overarching assumption: 

In order to have the potential to enact real change, research in this project must break from traditional paradigms to engage in acutely human methods that work with, not against cognitive biases and speak to the lived experience of staff in ways that are meaningful and contextualised. 

Organisational assumptions 

Guiding assumption 1: UNE staff have an appetite for organisational learning and culture interventions at a ground-up level 

While the appetite for such interventions will vary significantly across different areas of the organisation, experience during the initial reconnaissance and socialising period of this research suggests that there is a strong appetite in certain areas.  

Guiding assumption 2: UNE executive has an appetite for culture work outside of top-down functional strategy 

Further reconnaissance will need to be undertaken in this area to understand the appetite for culture work beyond the area of senior executive local to my work and research context – the Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic Innovation – and thus to develop appropriate stakeholder engagement strategies. 

Guiding assumption 3: LaTT leadership will allow me to undertake this work within the bounds of my normal workload 

With the current leadership team, stakeholder engagement has been such that there is strong support for my undertaking this research within my workload and the intended outcomes of this research are valued for the development of the directorate workforce. However, given the 3-year duration of the project, it is possible there could be a change of leadership which could change these circumstances. 

 Review of relevant literature 

The literature review for this project is approached as an inquiry-driven ecology of ideas grounded in narrative (Montuori, 2013), that describes the journey through the literature landscape. This narrative is situated within the reconnaissance phase of Maxwell’s (2003) action learning spiral – not only as a simple collection of relevant literature, but an arrival at various literature bodies as a result of the capability analysis of researcher and institution. I also often think of this narrative as a process of sensemaking (Weick, 1995), or as a means of establishing empathy with the organisational context within a design thinking frame (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). My constant driving question was – what is the right thing to do? 

I am also conscious that this is a proposal, not a final portfolio, and so this narrative seeks breadth, not depth. 

In my initial stepping into this project, my first node of exploration was organisational culture. This was the source of the phenomenon that sparked my inquiry, and correlated with the strategic narratives of the institution. And in this body of literature, I found much in the way of validation. Organisational culture is what Rittel and Webber (1973) refer to as a ‘wicked problem’. Author after author described how organisational culture was the key to a successful organisation, and failing to effectively address culture would cause significant issues in an organisation  (eg Argyris & Schon, 1997; Bass & Avolio, 1993; Cameron & Quinn, 2006; Hatch & Schultz, 1997; Higgins & Mcallaster, 2004; Schein, 2004; Trice & Beyer, 1993). As a university, like many other organisations, we were suffering from culture by default (Ozenc & Hagan, 2017), and it is the job of leadership to address this (Bass & Avolio, 1993). 

The problem was, amongst all the comprehensive descriptions of culture, models for conceptualising culture and top-down narratives, I struggled to find the humans. Even with the extremely useful models like Schein’s (2004) layers of culture, there was nothing that spoke to what the real experience of the people on the ground within an organisation might be – what did it actually mean for us all to be culture carriers (Schein, 1993)? 

Looking sideways, I found part of this experience in the arm of organisational culture literature that talks about the concepts of languages, rituals and artefacts. Culture itself has a level of abstraction as a concept, but these three areas described the concrete, tangible experiences in our work lives. Wood (1982) and Kegan & Lahey (2001) talk about the language we use in the workplace as an expression of culture. Other scholars explore the expression of culture through ritual (Islam & Zyphur, 2009; Smith & Stewart, 2011; Ozenc & Hagan, 2017), and others still focus on the physical and metaphorical artefacts we produce and that surround us (Higgins & Mcallaster, 2004; Causey, 2017). 

This seemed very promising to me – tangible expressions of experience firmly situated in the visible layer of culture (Schein, 2004), that people on the ground had agency over. Further, these expressions were something that could be intentionally designed using a design thinking process (Ozenc & Hagan, 2017), a scaffold that would make change even more achievable. So, I began to focus my efforts on a strategy for changing these artefacts through intentional design work. 

The problem is, however, that this was only a superficial concept of the human experience and didn’t account for how humans experience and behave in change. As it turns out, humans are inherently ‘immune’ to change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009), a notion that is inextricably linked to psychological concepts. Which led me into a rabbit hole of literature from the psychology disciplines, around the cognitive biases that are the source of many of our behaviours (Kahneman, 2011; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) and our human need for psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999, 2002 and 2003). Now, it wasn’t possible to think about change without considering how humans act in change. Strategy was useless without considering how humans construct their mental models and understanding of the world around them.  

Construct, of course, being a very short road to constructivism – the rabbit hole led me to radical constructivism (Raskin, 2002; von Glaserfeld, 2013) and then circled back around to Vygotsky’s (1962) social constructivism, and suddenly I was back in my home discipline – education. Arriving here, I thought – what if culture is only the symptom, and the real problem here is learning? Maybe what we need is something that enables us to learn more effectively? 

Note the word ‘we’. The educator in me is drawn to concepts of pedagogy and andragogy, and the ease with which such expertise allows effective learning experiences to be designed. But the word ‘we’ was a thorny one – the collection of individuals in a workplace make up a collective larger entity, the organisation. An entity about which the education disciplines and their knowledge of individual learning had little to say. 

And so, I arrived in organisational learning, and the concept of the learning organisation. Here, too, was much in the way of catharsis – Senge’s (1990) organisational disabilities described so much of our everyday experience, and Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper (2006) offered a rather scathing indictment of universities as organisations being ironically unable to learn. There was also much to be found in terms of conceptual models and theoretical strategies (Argyris & Schön, 1997; Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper, 2006; Rowley, 1998), but again, it was difficult to see the experience of humans here. 

In exploring organisational learning, and undertaking much sensemaking around the intersection of organisational learning and individual learning, I found people talking about how a focus on individual learning fosters organisational learning (Kim, 1998, Laurillard, 1999; Rowley, 1998), and how that individual learning needed to move away from transmissive corporate training models (Antonacopolou, 2006). I found particular synergy in Argyris & Schön’s (1997) notion of single and double loop learning as an expression of learning at both the individual and organisational level, which resonated particularly strongly with centralised strategic change work and the need to reconceptualise the ways we work in this area. 

Single and double loop learning led to triple loop learning (Flood & Romm, 1996; Peschl, 2007), and here again I found links with constructivism via radical constructivism (von Glaserfeld, 2013). Another link to individual learning surfaced in the form of transformational learning (Mezirow, 2000, 2003) – all different ways of navigating how and why we learn and behave in the ways that we do.  

And so, everything was linked – but with the knowledge of synergy also came the angst of being unable to disentangle concepts. I could not resolve the tension between what had very obviously become dynamic, complex, transdisciplinary Mode 2 research existing in a Mode 1 institution built on traditional discipline-based research paradigms (Gibbons et al, 1994). I could not choose a discipline. I could not narrow down what the ‘right’ thing to do might be. The concept of the problem I had set out to solve and the question I had set out to answer had become increasingly complex. 

Enter complexity theory and systems thinking. I was rescued by the disciplines that said not only was it okay to wrangle with complexity and the interconnectedness of system elements, it was essential to developing a deep understanding of the context I was working in. Complexity theory was fundamental to conceptualising the organisation (Antonacopolou & Chivas, 2007; Cooksey, 2001;  Tsoukas, 2017), and systems thinking (Meadows, 2008 ; Senge, 1990; Senge & Sterman, 1992) was the key to success in organisational learning.  

From here I found many who apply complexity concepts to individual learning and pedagogy (Byrne, 2014; Jonas-Simpson, Mitchell & Cross, 2015; Mitchell, et al, 2015), organisational learning (Cooksey, 2001; Webb, Lettice and Lemon, 2006) and leadership (Hazy & Uhl-Bien, 2013; Lichtenstein et al, 2006). New concepts emerged that spoke to each of these areas – heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon, 2007), learnership (Cooksey, 2003) and generative leadership (Goldstein, Hazy & Lichtenstein, 2010). Others applied systems thinking concepts to higher education (Banathy, 1999; Ison, 1999) to better understand ourselves. 

At this point, I now had a fairly rich tapestry at my fingertips, and woven into it were many threads of action that  could be enacted in an agency frame (Caldwell, 2006, 2012) to create positive change in organisational culture as a function of increasing organisational learning capability. But I still lacked a concrete way forwards – what actually could be done in practice? What is the innovation ‘product’ I should produce? 

For a while I tried to hang this hat on the idea of a framework – the scaffolding to provide structure for change to happen – but was plagued by the knowing-doing gap (Pfeffer & Sutton, 1999), the knowledge that rigid structures break, and the notion that all a framework might do is continue to dehumanise us (Campbell, Schwier & Kenny, 2005). I finally found a solution by turning my attention back to a human focus. Instead of an inanimate structure or process, my product needed to be a human, or more precisely, a role. An innovation in the shape of a human, defined by their behaviours, values and goals. 

But what kind of role? My own experience as a learning designer in higher education has been sharply defined by Whitchurch’s (2008) concept of the third space – existing somewhere between academic and professional staff. Third space roles have some significant affordances as change agents (Campbell, Schwier & Kenny, 2005; Debowski, 2014; Ramos-Torrescano, 2017), due to a freedom from the expectations of academic and administrative positions (Bath and Smith, 2004; Whitchurch, 2008). These affordances suggested that the learning design role as an agent of change might be a ‘high-leverage’ change point (Senge, 1990). Learning designers have experience in the domain of individual learning and the design of effective learning experiences – much of the work rhetoric in academic development lies in moving away from the transmissive pedagogies identified as ineffectual in organisational learning initiatives (Antonacopolou, 2006). Learning designers also – tacitly or explicitly – are systems thinkers by nature (Pesina, 2019; Rowland & Adams, 1999). 

This created a point of emergence for me – the learning design role as a pedagogically-grounded agent of change, and the bodies of literature around organisational behaviour in learning and culture. Cooksey (2011) talks about the emergence of such boundary-spanning roles that act as knowledge brokers in innovation and change – the role that emerged in this context was an ‘organisational learning designer’. This is my innovation, my gap, my right thing to do. Bringing into life someone who harnesses the affordances of systems thinking capabilities and pedagogical expertise of the learning design role into a new domain of organisational learning, using a toolkit of concepts across many literature bodies to design interventions for embedding organisational learning within a complexity frame of reference. 

Research methods 

Research framework 

This project uses Maxwell’s (2003) modified action research spiral as an overarching framework that draws together a diverse set of methods. This framework sits on a foundation of developmental evaluation (Patton, 2011) in two distinct phases (Figure 3). In this model, the action research spiral is front-ended by a reconnaissance phase that has three key elements – situational analysis, literature and competency. Each of these terms plays a critical role: 

Situational analysis: Applying a complexity frame of reference (Byrne, 2014) to gain an in-depth understanding of the innovation landscape. 

Literature: Maxwell uses this term broadly to mean not only academic literature, but knowledge gained from diverse sources. This is particularly appropriate in the transdisciplinary context where knowledge and meaning must be found in contextually appropriate sources – often academic literature, and also often not. 

Competency: An analysis of the capabilities and affordances of both the researcher and the institution. 

The reconnaissance phase establishes a deep and complex understanding of the innovation context. It also involves informal data collection processes and reflective sensemaking processes, which are critical to the development of the innovation itself. In this way, the reconnaissance phase also forms the first of the developmental evaluation – the innovation is constantly iterated over the course of the reconnaissance period in response to this informal data. In the PhDI program, this phase also constitutes the Research Learning Program. 

Important to note here is the experiential nature of the reconnaissance phase – as a researcher I am deeply embedded in the institutional context, and the reconnaissance work is experienced in real time while working in this context, not observed passively as an external party.  

In the PhDI context, the reconnaissance phase leads to both the development of research questions and the development of the innovation itself. Following this, the action research spiral begins, which is simultaneously the second developmental evaluation phase. 

The action research spiral – plan, act, reflect/evaluate and iterate – is in neat synergy with the developmental evaluation process of evaluating and iterating action to meet contextual needs. In this project, the ‘act’ component of the action research takes the form of intervention or case ‘nodes’ (Figure 4) – a designed intervention for an identified group of participants, bookended by pre- and post- intervention Participative Narrative Inquiry (PNI – Kurtz, 2014) sessions.  

Figure 3 – Research framework  

Figure 4 – Case Node structure  

Sampling processes 

For informal data collection, “participants” emerge in the course of undertaking reconnaissance – either presenting themselves opportunistically or identified at a point of need by the researcher. The majority sample here will be identified stakeholders who work in relative proximity to the researcher and have a higher frequency of engagement with the researcher. 

Due to the institutional context and the implementation of the OLD role as an ‘internal consultancy’ service, formal data sampling will unfold in a similar manner to other institutional point-of-need service provision, such as academic development. A need will be identified either (or both) by leadership roles in the institution or by the researcher, and a potential participant sample group will be negotiated by the two parties. This potential sample group is then approached by the researcher using formal recruitment and consent processes to determine a final participant group. This sampling approach is likely to result in groups that are organisationally co-located and homogenous, which is appropriate for the institutional work context and speaks to Lipshitz, Friedman & Popper’s (2006) concept of ‘cultural islands’. 

The sampling process is repeated for each case node (each instance of negotiated intervention and inquiry) – roughly five case nodes are anticipated for the project. 


Negotiation process 

The negotiation process for identifying participant groups and designing interventions will differ for each case, based on the nature of the identified need (specific vs general), the organisational context (authority, time, relevance and so on) and the type of intervention. The process may include a needs analysis with the leadership party and takes place prior to the initial inquiry session with the participant group.  

Participative Narrative Inquiry process 

The PNI process involves assembling participants as a group and undertaking a process similar to an unstructured group interview – without any predetermined questions, the researcher scaffolds participants to tell stories around their experiences, and work collectively with each other in the session to make sense of these stories. Effectively, the data analysis happens in real time with the participants – Kurtz (2014) asserts that PNI is not about ‘extracting’ stories from participants and then taking them away to analyse without participant input; stories must be ‘worked with’ in the participant context so they are able to derive their own meaning and sense from the data they are generating. Yunkaporta’s (2019) view that the only sustainable way to store data is in relationships also speaks to this approach. Thus, the participants determine for themselves what data is recorded from the session and how it is most meaningfully done, which may or may not look like traditional data recording methods. This process ensures data ‘trustworthiness’ – a collective decision is made on the ways data most strongly aligns with the context. 

Data-gathering methods 


Storytelling plays a key role in organisational learning (Boje, 2008; Brown et al, 2005; Parkin, 2004), and to this end stories are key data sources in this project. As informal data sources, stories unfold in an emergent manner in the course of context-embedded work. 

Other informal data sources can be found in Schein’s (2004) visible layer of culture – the languages that we use in conversations and stories (Kegan & Lahey, 2001; Wood, 1982), the rituals we experience (Islam & Zyphur, 2009; Ozenc & Hagan, 2017 ; Smith & Stewart, 2011) and the artefacts we encounter (Causey, 2017 ; Higgins & Mcallaster, 2004). 

Informal data collection in the reconnaissance phase of the project will span all of these domains. 


The primary formal data type for this project is narrative data from stories. Narrative inquiry is a qualitative methodology positioned around stories (Clandinin, 2007; Thomas, 2012), but takes a more traditional approach that risks meaning and engagement for participants. Participative Narrative Inquiry (Kurtz, 2014) is an extension of narrative inquiry that grounds all story work in the immediate experience of participants and privileges the meaning participants make from the data they generate. 

The PNI method involves soliciting stories from a participant group in real time, without predetermined questions. This process is framed either around understanding the context and needs of the group in order to effectively design an intervention (pre-intervention session), or around making sense of the intervention, evaluating its impact and identifying ongoing needs (post-intervention session). The act of storytelling will require scaffolding from the researcher, as the Mode 1 organisational context is such that academic discourse is privileged and human narratives have been systemically devalued (Gibbons et al, 1994). Accepting the validity of human narratives and becoming able produce them ourselves is a learning process in itself. As well as researcher scaffolding, group participation may have a generative effect to further facilitate storytelling. 

A critical role of data collection in the project is transcending the research purpose to serve a human purpose – it’s not just about data collection, it’s about saying ‘you are heard’. The act of data gathering is as much about developing relationships and serving emotional needs as it is about data points. This particular perspective drives the choice of methods into participant-focused qualitative methods grounded in meaning, rather than more traditional methods. 

Data analysis 

Sensemaking (Thurlow & Helms Mills, 2009 ; Weick, 1995) is a term used to describe the critical organisational process of ‘making sense of’ or deriving meaning from events and phenomena. This notion underpins the research process in this project, and is used as a frame to describe the organic data analysis processes that focus on generating meaning rather than empirical truth. 

The practice of sensemaking encompasses reflective strategies that are likely chosen unconsciously according to System 1 biases (Kahneman, 2011), and in an organisational context exist both as individual practices and group practices. 

Kurtz’s (2014) framing of sensemaking takes the form of ‘working with stories’ – using them as raw material to explore, mould and generate in the context in which they emerge. This is a group practice done collectively in participant sessions. It is likely, but not certain, that this process will include low-level and informal thematic coding, where participants identify common themes and the significant data points they wish to record. 


Table 1 captures the different methodological aspects encountered in the research framework. 

Table 1. Research framework methodological aspects 

 Method Data type Sampling method Analysis 
Conversations Emergent verbal encounters in the course of context-embedded work If initiated by researcher, opportunistic and/or purposive In-situ sensemaking with interlocutor/s Reflective sensemaking by researcher Post-instance sensemaking with others 
Stories Intentionally solicited verbal recounts of experiences from institutional members Purposive In-situ sensemaking with researcher Reflective sensemaking by researcher Post-instance sensemaking with others 
Researcher experiences Emergent experiential events and rituals in the course of context-embedded work n/a Reflective sensemaking by researcher Post-instance sensemaking with others   
Institutional artefacts Emergent artefacts (physical and digital documents and media) encountered in the course of context-embedded work n/a Reflective sensemaking by researcher Sensemaking feedback from others 
Feedback Intentionally solicited verbal and written feedback from stakeholders on aspects of the research process and on iterations of the innovation Purposive  In-situ sensemaking with stakeholder/s Reflective sensemaking by researcher 
Participative Narrative Inquiry Pre-intervention PNI – group verbal storytelling sessions focused on understanding the group context and need Post-intervention PNI – group verbal storytelling sessions focused on making sense of the intervention, evaluating its impact and identifying ongoing needs Opportunistic and/or purposive In-situ thematic analysis with participants In-situ sensemaking with participants   

Proposed timeline and milestones 

Table 2 outlines the high-level view of the timeline and milestones for this project. It is necessarily light-touch at this stage, as flexibility to navigate the volatile strategic environment of the university and of my own workload is essential. This timeline will be continually revisited and revised through the duration of the project. 

Table 2. Proposed Timeline and milestones 

Date Milestone 
TBA Ethics approval gained 
27th March 2020 Confirmation of Candidature presentation 
March – Dec 2020 Case node 1 
Jan – Dec 2021 Case nodes 2 and 3 
Jan – Dec 2022 Case nodes 4 and 5 
Jan – Oct 2023 Writing and portfolio curation 
Oct 2023 Portfolio examination; program completion 

Anticipated resources required 

The biggest resource need for this project is time – although the design of the OLD role as an internal consultancy eliminates any need for financial resourcing, there is a critical need for time allowance to undertake the design work, interventions, data collection and analysis and evaluation processes. 

This also implies a need for institutional and workplace support – there is strong alignment with the implementation of the OLD work, the strategic goals of the university and the work priorities of the LaTT directorate, but there are significant competing demands for time that mean support to prioritise the work of this project is necessary. 

If time and strategic demand issues are not able to be adequately solved for me to be the sole prototyper of the OLD role, it may become necessary to informally recruit another person to take on this role. This strategy would distribute time pressures across multiple people rather than a single point of failure but would require a period of intensive capability development in ‘onboarding’ another person. 

Technical requirements are considered negligible – the majority of the work in this project is human work and capturing and socialisation can be done using my existing online ecosystem. 

In terms of capabilities, the strong human focus of this work requires a deep capability set around interpersonal skills, leadership, coaching and stakeholder engagement. This capability set is something I have worked actively to develop under the guise of the competency reconnaissance element of the research framework.  

Dissemination and learning from outcomes 

For this research, it makes most sense to conceptualise ‘potential adopters’ as ‘people who may take on an OLD role’, and ‘potential consumers’ to be conceptualised as ‘people who may engage in organisational learning and culture interventions with an OLD’.  

Formal socialisation 

While it perhaps goes without saying, the PhDI program compels formal socialisation through the creation of a portfolio. My goal for this portfolio is to develop it on a public-facing Wordpress platform, so that the formal aspect of my work can be socialised with all key stakeholders both internal to the organisation and across the sector. The affordances of the Wordpress platform are such that it can also be used to seek feedback from stakeholders and engage with it in an accountable way. 

Informal socialisation 

Informal socialisation within UNE will most likely be amongst potential consumers. Strategies already in place for this research project include 1:1 and small group coffee meetings, posting in online workplace groups in Teams, Slack and Workplace, and distributing physical artefacts in the LaTT directorate. I have also been somewhat intentionally styling myself as an artefact of informal socialisation, modelling in my own behaviour the learnings from the reconnaissance phase of the research. This will likely continue and broaden to include the learnings from the implementation and evaluation of the OLD role. 

Socialisation for potential adopters will likely be most significantly done through communities of practice, such as 3SC (UNE’s community of practice for learning design and learning design adjacent roles), Ascilite’s TELedvisors SIG (a professional special interest group for learning designers, academic developers and learning technologists across the sector) and other professional body SIGs. These offer a range of opportunities from face to face meetings, online discussion forums and webinars to engage potential adopters in this research and socialise outcomes. 

I will also continue to use my Twitter account to socialise my work to my broader professional network. 

Developmental evaluation process 

As part of the PNI process with each intervention group, I as a participant researcher am equally engaged in the sensemaking process with the intervention participants. This process serves several purposes above and beyond data collection that speak to dissemination and learning from outcomes: 

  • allowing participants to make their own sense of the context, intervention and outcomes 
  • allowing participants to give me formative feedback towards the development of future interventions (this may be tacit feedback, understood through the sensemaking process) 
  • allowing me to evaluate the intervention in situ.  

This is then followed by my own individual sensemaking reflections, which feed the development of subsequent intervention iterations, and then finally the development of the final project outcomes. 


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