The current crisis (ecological, health, socio-economic and political) and transformative (social and technological) situation is forcing knowledge institutions to ask themselves a series of weighty questions about their principles and their very reason for being. The magnitude of the challenges they face can be overwhelming. Knowledge generation models, the training of professionals, the education of free individuals, staff working conditions, the participation of the community in their management and many other conflictive aspects are currently the subject of debate.
Answers, even tentative ones, to these problems and challenges are urgently needed by universities. Despite the complexity of the times, it is still desirable to look to the future with proactivity and conviction and, rather than simply improvising reactive responses to an ever-changing context, lead an innovative strategy of change towards a future beneficial to the institution, its community and society in general.
Collaborative leadership styles that place importance on the recognition of interdependence, networking and the search for cooperation between multiple actors towards common goals are gaining popularity in organizations. Universities are not immune to this paradigm shift and knowledge institutions are increasingly committing to involving the entire university community in their transformation and change processes, employing a wide variety of formats, methodologies and means to identify changing needs and involve the various affected parties in the search for new, better solutions to their challenges and problems.
The drafting of a university's strategic plan represents a crucial point in decision-making at the very highest levels. It sets the course that the institution will take in the following years, determines its vision of the future and strengthens its guiding values. Strategic plans should also provide a creative, collective response to the problems they are to address. Accordingly, it is necessary to listen to the various sectors of the institution (research, teaching, administration, student body, etc.) and compile their problems and needs, determining the actions to be developed in subsequent years, establishing the budgetary priorities and making decisions on how best to invest the available resources to meet a very broad spectrum of demands, challenges and needs.
In the traditional approach to strategic decision-making, a high-level executive team sets the directives and pillars of the strategic plan after consulting and/or listening to representatives of some of the stakeholders. The most innovative approaches include open innovation and participation processes that encompass the whole university community and make it co-responsible for the future of the institution. In this scenario, new multidirectional communication environments, which are often digitally mediated, make it possible to identify unanticipated problems, needs, challenges and goals, calling upon the wealth of knowledge, ideas and proposals of the entire group. In this way, a given plan can incorporate better collective decisions and strengthen the trust and relational fabric of the organization. Accordingly, it is fundamental to establish a broad and inclusive dialogue process in which contributions are not defined by the status of the hierarchical level of the person making them, but by their intrinsic value and the quality of their arguments, as perceived by the community itself.
It is in this approach that the participatory phase of the process for the development of the UOC's Strategic Plan for 2022 to 2025 will lie. At CNSC/Tecnopolítica, we have been collaborating with the Strategic Planning Office to support the rollout of the Decidim platform in the process, carry out external consultation work regarding its design, and conduct research aimed at its critical assessment with a view to generating academic knowledge and indicating possible improvements for future editions.
A participatory process for the UOC's future strategic plan
In its current version, the design of the participatory process, which is consultative and deliberative in nature, contemplates four major phases (internally subdivided) that combine the generation of proposals, debates and the manifestation of preferences. Following the format established by the UOC for the drafting of strategic plans, the anticipated result is a set of improvements to the 12 challenges of the plan developed so far, in addition to the incorporation of new challenges, objectives (linked to KPIs) and action plans.
From an organizational standpoint, the UOC can rely on the participation in this process of its contracted employees, in addition to any groups organized specifically for the governance of the participatory process. We envisage two basic types of actors. Individual actors account for almost all of the participants. These are people who can generate new proposals or improve existing ones, participate in debates to share their thinking, manifest mutual recognition and/or transformation of opinions, compare arguments or seek consensus, generate preference dynamics or assess results. Collective actors and the administrators of the process, for their part, constitute committees and working groups and play the managerial, technical, assessment and/or decision-making roles. With the aim of making the whole process transparent, these committees and working groups will have a forum they can use to report on their meetings, publish their minutes and validate not only the results (the what), but the process itself (the how), that is, the explicit, objective reasons for the debate and the decisions made. This will allow participants and groups to shape the why, how, where and when of each proposal.
Decidim, the UOC's new strategic commitment
Given our relationship with research and our experience in the scope of digitally mediated participation, at CNSC/Tecnopolítica we support the rollout of Decidim, the digital citizen participation platform, for the organization of the participatory process for the future strategic plan. Decidim is a democratic, open-source infrastructure used by organizations all around the world, from cities and states to associations and cooperatives. Decidim operates as a participation matrix, a device to configure, manage and foster participatory mechanisms ranging from participatory processes to official bodies, from citizen initiatives to participatory budgets. Decidim is free software and its social contract promulgates a series of democratic principles that every organization using it should take into account: guarantee access to and the reuse of any improvements made to the code; facilitate access, downloading and analysis of all the information generated; offer accountability options from start to finish; prevent the manipulation of content and indicate any changes made to the content of the platform during the processes; avoid sharing information with third parties and ensure secret voting; and offer equal opportunities to people and proposals based on the established criteria.
The participatory design prototype supported by Decidim has matured over the last few months. The design of the participatory process has adapted to the needs, possibilities and limits of the process to design the current strategic plan, encompassing everything from the UOC's decision-making structures to the existence of 12 strategic challenges that have previously been prepared. Future research is already under way and will be oriented to assessing and fostering improvements in relation to these limitations.
The final result of the participatory process, anticipated for July, will be an organized set of strategic and tactical proposals to improve the institution and its progress over the course of the next few years. The participatory process, which is deliberative and consultative in nature, will result in a strategic plan whose level of involvement will be subject to transparent monitoring over the next four years, thanks to the Decidim monitoring module. We trust that our experience with this platform will stand us in good stead to design and implement new participatory processes and a participatory culture that fosters the incorporation of collective needs, knowledge and interests in the institution in order to construct forms of deliberation, goodwill, intelligence and collective action to improve and strengthen the UOC's ability to face its internal and external problems and challenges, both today and tomorrow.
With the provisional title "The transformation of knowledge institutions from participation (and how to evaluate it): the case of the process of the UOC's Plan Estratègic 2021-2025", it is expected to publish a research report on the entire project with the objective to contribute to laying the foundations of a useful theoretical-practical model for the intentional transformation of universities and other knowledge institutions through the activation of collective intelligence and the creative, free and responsible participation of the entire university community.