Monday, May 30, 2011

Learning to Learn – My Presentation to SIFII REAP Professional Postgraduate Seminar

I have blogged about the year I spent gaining my Masters degree in comprehensive detail (mostly here and here). However I never wrote any summary or reflection on the whole experience. So being asked to speak at the recent SIFII REAP Seminar on Professional Postgraduate Programmes gave me the incentive to put some thoughts in order two years after the fact. 

One benefit of a fifteen-minute speaking slot is that I was forced to be concise. So this palimpsest of a more thorough retrospective may be of interest to anyone who is weighing the options of taking on a part-time MA and maintaining a professional career at the same time.

It is May 2011 and I am standing in Dublin at a podium in front of a room full of academics and Higher Education professionals and I am saying these words.

Good morning everyone,
I was invited to speak to you here today about my experience as a working professional who took on the challenge of a completing a one-year part-time Masters Degree. I intend to give you some insights from the perspective of a participant and to outline some of on my own learnings that hopefully may have broader application.

Firstly, I will give you some context on where I was at in my career that brought me to a professional masters. Then talk about why I took on the MA and what attracted me to this particular MA. I will outline the key challenges that I faced. My specific examples of what worked best and what did not work for me may allow you to draw some general findings. I will finish up with a review of whether it was worth it and what I gained.

Where I was in my career
I work as a brand consultant. I began my career as a graphic designer. I received my undergraduate degree in Visual Communications from the National College of Art and Design back in 1991. So I have been working in the design sector in Dublin for the past twenty years. In the late nineties I began to specialise in the field of corporate identity. I became involved in teams working on large-scale corporate identity programmes for blue chip companies and larger state agencies: examples relevant to this audience would be the brand identities and communications for both UCD and NUI Galway. Over time my expertise grew beyond just the visual expression of organisational identities and covered more of their total brand messaging, values and expressions. Therefore, I found myself giving presentations to — and working with — the Board, the CEO (or the University President), as much as with the Marketing Manager.

Also, within the branding company, I was now leading the design team. So I was getting involved in HR issues such as hiring new talent, managing their career reviews and their training requirements. I was also involved in all aspects of the business from client liaison to costing projects through to longer-term planning.

Why I took on the MA
I found that I had a business-orientated mindset, arguably more-so than the typical graphic designer, and over the years I had self-educated myself about the broad fundamentals of business to a useful degree. My MD used to jokingly introduce me as the “only designer in Dublin who subscribes to The Economist”. So the more challenging class of strategy-based branding work suited my interests and my abilities — as I needed to think far more about the corporate realities that were driving my client's businesses.

However, I also found that — given the nature of my undergraduate qualification — there were gaps in my knowledge of business, and so I decided to achieve a more formal understanding.

I had been thinking about and looking into the various research masters programmes offered by the Dublin design colleges, but they seemed primarily concerned with theory or with craft. None addressed the business side of operating within the professional design services sector. I do completely see the value in, and do support, the kinds of advanced über-specialised technical explorations of typography and the sort of socio-cultural historical analyses that tend to be completed within those MA programmes. However, that was not a pathway I wished to pursue at that time…

What attracted me to this particular MA?
I set myself the goal to expand my knowledge-base and gain more business expertise: such that I would progress my career vertically within the professional design sector (or closely-related sectors).

I had thought about taking on a UCD Smurfit School MBA, but I realised that — given both the small scale of the overall professional design sector in Ireland, and the size of companies operating within it — that would be overkill (and would also most likely shift the overall track of my career to somewhere too far outside of the professional design sector).

I was aware of the Design Ireland Skillnets, and had attended many of their traditional one-day courses over the years. I kept myself actively up-to-date on whatever new courses they offered each year. I even briefly sat on their Steering Committee. So DIT's introduction in 2008 of the One-Year Part-Time Masters in Professional Design Practice, in association with the Design Ireland Skillnets, seemed to be something that was worth committing my time to.

The fact that the course content was to be specifically tailored to the particular needs of the professional design sector was a decisive factor for me. I wanted to be confident that the time I was going to invest into this would be spent on relevant material and that I would achieve as much applicable learning as possible.

I was also engaged by the fact that — while my background is in visual communications and branding — other participants would be working in a mix of complementary and tangential fields, such as architecture, interior design, fashion and craft design. So the mix and interaction amongst the class was something that ought to engender its own insights and learnings. I was sure that — while many of the creative challenges we dealt with in our professional lives would vary — there would be a lot of commonality in the business challenges that we faced. And therefore much that we could learn from each other.

What were the key challenges that I faced?
My first challenge was my own family situation going into the Masters programme.Our second child was only six months old when I began my course-work. We also had an energetic three-year-old. So my hands were already pretty full even before I took on this commitment.

The majority of my class-mates were in similar situations, juggling their work and family commitments alongside of their studies. Indeed, when we began the programme by looking at our Concerns, Expectations, Hopes and Fears, the fear of being overwhelmed by the workload was the group's primary concern. So it is important for the university to be aware of the context which we are working from.

What I found was that the amount of work, time and effort did exceed my original expectations. However — working  within a one-year time frame — it is easy to keep your eye on the prize. Working late every night, on morning commutes and lunch-breaks and dispensing with all of the many distractions which we all indulge ourselves with, it is amazing how productive you can become. You really do need to dig deep and find that resource of 'single focus' within yourself.

In my professional career, the MA programme did not create any direct challenges or conflicts. At the trivial level: all of the formal time commitments fell outside working hours. At the more substantive level, rather than being too burned-out and distracted by the programme, I found myself brimming over with new ideas and learnings that I wanted to apply within the company and to my associates.

What did not work for me
(These are probably quite minor in the grand scheme of things, but I was asked to contribute something under this heading…)
In a one-year scenario I knew I needed to hit the ground running and that every week was going to count. If I fell behind at any stage, then catching up was going to be a significant challenge. So a completely accurate and detailed timetable of milestones, deadlines and events for the year would have really helped me with my planning. Instead: what we did get was a schedule of classes and a pretty broad outline of what would 'roughly' be happening throughout the year. That did not work for me, I felt it was under-delivery. In retrospect, I think there was an intention of giving us phased information on a need-to-know basis and not overwhelming everyone with the scale of the commitment that they had taken on. But I take the opinion that we were all grown-ups and we could have taken it on the chin. So I believe that operating with complete transparency and providing as much detailed information at all times is the best approach to take when dealing with professional students.

In a part-time MA you probably have less than twenty class days together on-campus. That means that, in practice, a lot of the inter-student team work and student/lecturer interaction takes place over email. So if you have any lecturers who are not email-savvy — who lose email addresses and *even* email messages — well, that is only going to generate counter-productive friction. Professionals are bringing along a whole set of expectation with them, based on the way they are used to operating (although they are not all likely to be InBox Zero fanatics or GTD ninjas). So as an action point: ensuring all all lecturers are adept and efficient in their communications outside of the lecture theatre can really bring disproportionate benefits

What worked best for me
One unspoken concern of mine about "going back to college", was the notion of becoming a student again. I was very unsure how comfortable I would be within some kind of a pupil/lecturer relationship. (I was a long way from being twenty-one any more.) Thankfully the team at DIT had a very strong awareness of the sort of relationship they wished to establish with their professional students. Which was much more of a peer-to-peer scenario. Given that this was the first year that this MA programme was being run, I imagine that they were willing to learn a lot from us.

My experience with the team at DIT was that they were flexible and very open to dealing with us on our own terms and happy to take our suggestions on board. To take one example, the DIT Student Intranet — which we were all supposed to use as a central repository — seemed pretty limited and (honestly) clunky compared to the ever-expanding range of web services and online tools we were used to using in our working lives.

So — mirroring the well-noted trend observed in the business world where the fast-moving innovators are circumventing the more counter-productive dictates of their IT Departments — some of us were able to route around the Student Intranet and apply novel approaches and methodologies from our professional work to our course work.

For example, an ongoing Learning Log was a key component of our continuous assessment. I had already developed a writing habit over the years by maintaining a blog of my thoughts and insights on branding and corporate identity topics since 2004. I wanted to co-opt this blogging reflex and to use it to my advantage in my studies. So I set up an online blog-based Learning Log for myself and gave passwords to all of my tutors. This gave me all of the well-documented advantages of 'ubiqituous notation'. I could be editing my log or adding new paragraphs at any time using my phone: be it when I was commuting home on the train, or while having a coffee somewhere. This approach also benefited my tutors, as they always had access to the most up-to-date version of my log. While this was not an approach that anyone had proposed before, DIT were happy to come on board. I just checked back with the team at DIT while preparing this presentation and it turned out that — in their estimation — this methodology meant that I gave my tutors five times as much content as they were used to dealing with. (That figure surprised me, as I am a pretty ruthless editor.) Still it must have been on the better side of the quantity/quality spectrum, as they were pretty more than happy with it.

Linking back to my hopes about how the class participants would work together and what we'd learn from each other. That turned out to be one of the most successful aspects of the year: one that provided a lot of learning-by-doing. Firstly, there were a lot more team-based projects and activities than I expected. For what was a pretty individualistic group (in the good sense), the challenges of those team-based projects meant that we had to learn to work together very quickly to maximise our efficiency and effectiveness. A deeper understanding of the ways that different people have of learning and of their preferred roles and strengths within any team was the most valuable output of that process. Something that paid immediate dividends for me in my professional responsibilities.

Having said that, the one aspect of my MA which provided both the greatest challenge and the greatest reward was the most individualistic: writing my dissertation. I did my research in the area of business blogging and uses of social media within the Irish professional design sector. I saw this topic is an area of expertise that I wished to develop, and a specialism that would complement my existing work as a brand consultant. I intended to gain expertise in this area to bring added value to all of my clients.

In my professional career it is the intellectual challenge of wrestling with complex strategic branding issues that gets me to my desk in the morning. So the level of mastery gained in amassing a comprehensive body of knowledge about my chosen topic; interrogating that; constructing a comprehensive, cogent argument; writing, editing, rewriting and finally producing that great big tangible slab of research was a process that totally engaged me. (Having taken that journey, I think I have the resources I need for whenever I eventually get around to writing my book, some day...)

Was it worth it?
Yes, it was completely worth it. I have found that the MA brought many concrete actionable outputs for the company – in that I had new ideas which we added into the mix and also new skills and knowledge I got to implement. So I have become actively involved in management at a more substantive level, both in terms of my responsibilities and in the opportunities that I have to input.

I also believe that the overall meta-topic of “Learning To Learn” was equal in importance and value to the formal content of the programme and the topics that we covered.

What did I gain?
It would be hyperbole to claim that I was a completely different person after completing the programme. Rather, what I can say is that personal development was it's overarching outcome. I do believe that particular implicit traits and under-emphasised aspects of my personality were put under the microscope, drawn out, honed and sharpened in the intensity of those twelve months.

So that now I:
— Think more critically.
— Query my own assumptions.
— Query the assumptions of my associates and my clients.

Which is supported with:
—  Greater self-awareness
—  Enhanced self-management
—  A greater desire to learn
— A stronger core  of self-reliance

All of which, in my opinion, fall within that master set of central personal attributes that each of us needs to internalise and embody; to carve out success in whatever individual field of expertise we choose to excel in.

Thank you.

#analysis  #dissertation  #learning  #management  #presentation