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How do career development practitioners innovate in HE?

October 2023

Holly McLoughlin explores how power constraints and other barriers may factor into the innovative progress of careers services and professionalism of the career development sector - in this study funded by the Jisc careers research grant

In the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education institutions, career development practitioners stand at a critical juncture. At the heart of their role lies a critical challenge: navigating the intricate power dynamics that define and often constrain their ability to innovate.

Practitioner voices on the process of innovation in their work have not been examined extensively in the sector's research literature before. This study examines the factors influencing their decision making about innovative practices.

Key findings

  • The central role of power dynamics - existing power structures in higher education (HE) significantly steer the decision-making processes of career development practitioners. Recognising and addressing these dynamics is vital.
  • Constructing practitioner empowerment - the study found that the CDPs interviewed were actively seeking ways to construct their empowerment to become more effective in their roles and meet the needs of the modern careers context, institution, and policy.
  • Systems thinking - navigating the multifaceted terrain of higher education calls for a broader, systems-level perspective. Such an approach is indispensable for practitioners to understand, adapt to, and influence their environments meaningfully.
  • Contrasting perspectives - an interesting dichotomy has emerged. While literature hints at a resistance to the innovation of group-based guidance, the practical challenges seem rooted more in power constraints and entrenched institutional norms than in actual practitioner resistance.
  • Leadership's role - there's a clarion call for higher education leaders to foster evidence-based innovation within career services, with reassessment and potential reconfiguration of existing hierarchical structures a possible necessity.
  • Influence of social norms - beyond the evident institutional structures, the undercurrents of professional norms of behaviour present their own set of barriers. Addressing these is crucial to unlock the full potential of career services and outcomes.
  • Language and identity crisis - ambiguities in language, especially the term 'guidance' being used for both process and appointment, can blur stakeholders' understanding of career development practitioners' roles. This, combined with inherent micro-biases, may lead to misperceptions and undervaluation of their professional identity.
  • Power, a multifaceted need - for practitioners, power isn't for personal gain or just about influence, it's about power to and with others. Practitioners require power to shape experiences, to address social justice concerns, and to ensure effective processes.

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How can we do this? Power constraints and barriers to innovation

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About the study

This research explores the decision-making processes around innovation by career development practitioners (CDPs) in a UK higher education institution.  It focuses on the influence of power dynamics, institutional norms, and systemic constraints. Through grounded interviews, it uncovers how power constraints and other barriers limit innovation and efficacy of CDPs.

The study calls for strengthening the power base of practitioners using the power zones defined in its early grounded theory. It suggests that collaborative coalitions within institutional frameworks are needed to address social justice issues and improve graduate outcomes. It highlights the need for reflection on social norms of practice to maximize the potential of career services, advocating for a systems-level approach for meaningful change.

This research was funded by Jisc's careers research grant - if you're a careers professional planning to undertake research, you may be eligible for funding of up to £5,000.

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