When a fresh face enters a vice-chancellor’s office, a revised strategic plan invariably emerges from under the door a few months later.
But the University of South Australia’s new vice-chancellor David Lloyd has decided to break with this closed-door tradition and instead host a giant 48-hour online brainstorming conversation about university strategy with any and all of the institution’s staff, students and alumni who care to take part.
South Australia will thereby become the first university in the world to hold what it has dubbed a “Unijam”, which will use technology developed by IBM.
Professor Lloyd, who took over as vice-chancellor and president in January, said he had first seen the technology used in-house at IBM while he was working in the pharmaceutical industry in 2004.
“They were crowdsourcing ideas from 250,000 employees globally: it seemed such a sensible way to do it. I always wanted to try it so when the opportunity came up I jumped at it,” he said.
The technology has since been launched commercially, and used by many organisations including Nato and the European Union.
Data-mining for treasure
The Unijam, which will be held on 29 and 30 May, will revolve around multiple two-hour text-based discussions on particular themes taking place in parallel - “like having whole series of conferences going on at the same time”.
Although Professor Lloyd said there was the potential for a “lot of noise”, he added that the technology would be able to filter the streams of thought in a “clever” way, with conversations data-mined in real time to highlight emerging themes and popular ideas.
Participants will be able to indicate support for ideas using a system similar to Facebook “likes”, and it will be possible to identify the preferences of various cohorts.
Professor Lloyd, formerly the bursar and director of strategic innovation at Trinity College Dublin, said he has also approached figures to drop in on conversations and “seed” new ideas. Invited guests range from business leaders and politicians such as South Australia’s premier Jay Weatherill to Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng and senior academics including Stanford University president John Hennessy.
The Unijam, Professor Lloyd said, will consider the “full 360 of what you see in a traditional university strategic plan”, including ways to make the transition to online education, boost industry relevance, better connect with alumni and “properly internationalise”.
He admitted that outcomes were not “fully controllable” and there could be “awkward” suggestions. But he said he planned to make a distinction between popular no-cost or low-cost ideas that “we should just go ahead and do” and other longer-term plans that go beyond the exercise’s five- year purview.
Discussions were likely to “go dead” in the small hours of the morning, Professor Lloyd said, during which time he would be sleeping in his office. But the ease with which people will be able to take part led him to expect strong participation from the university’s 170,000 alumni around the world - with whom he hoped the event would be a way to “reconnect”.
“If I asked for someone to come and sit in my office they probably wouldn’t do it, but if you can log on from the bath at your leisure and give your tuppence-worth I think people will,” he said.
Professor Lloyd added that the Unijam presented an excellent opportunity to help spread the word about the relatively young institution, which was founded in 1991. “The publicity it generates doesn’t hurt,” he said.
Meanwhile, back at the event’s campus headquarters, student engagement will be encouraged with barbecues and pizza parties.
“I could have issued an open call for submissions but the Unijam will only involve people who have a vested interest in the institution. It is not a moan session; it is about how we actually improve, so those who come on will be quite committed to delivering good ideas,” Professor Lloyd predicted.