UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

We Need More Critical Friends!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 31 Mar 2009

My First Encounter With The Term ‘Critical Friend’

I first came across the term ‘critical friend’ when it was used to describe my colleague Paul Walk when he was interviewed at the JISC-funded Dev8D event. Shortly after the event I noticed the term being tweeted by a number of participants at an e-learning event.

The Critical Friend Network

On further investigation I found the Critical Friends Network which quotes Professor John MacBeath, Professor of Education Leadership, University of Cambridge:

The Critical Friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure.

Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

The Critical Friend’s Network has been funded by the JISC Users and Innovation (U&I) Benefits Realisation programme and aims to build a community of shared effective practice for current and future JISC Programme Critical Friends. Membership of the CF Network is open to Critical Friends, JISC Programme Management and project teams as well as the HE/FE sector as a whole.

Critical Friends I’ve Encountered

The term ‘critical friends’ would seem to be self-explanatory. And I find it a valuable concept to describe, for example, the approaches myself, David Sloan and a number of other accessibility researchers and practitioners have been taking over the past four years in our criticisms of the approaches taken by WAI in the developments of guidelines to enhance the accessibility of Web resources.

Peter Murray-Rust is applying similar critical thinking in a series of blog posts on “Libraries of the Future” which will inform his talk at the ‘Libraries of the Future’ debate to be held at the Bodleian Library on 2 April 2009.

We Need More Critical Friends!

I feel we need more critical friends, especially at a time in which organisations will find funding increasingly difficult to obtain. We can see the need for such critical thinking by looking at recent history, such as the rise and fall of the UK eUniversity, from the HEFCE Press Release published in 2002 described the appointment of the senior management team for the “government-backed initiative to provide online delivery of UK higher education courses to students worldwide and to give improved access to higher education for under-represented groups of students in the UK” through to the The Real Story Behind the Failure of U.K. eUniversity (PDF) which described how “The picture behind the public failure of the UKeU is more complex, interesting and salutary than many reports would suggest“.

Frankie Roberto demonstrated how the role of a critical friend need not be resource intensive when he initiated a discussion on the MCG (Museums Computer Group) JISCMail list with the one-word question “Why?” about the launch of the Creative Spaces service by a group of museums. In the email messages  about this newly launched service, questions were raised as to whether the debate was really needed with the complexities of, for example, copyright issues being suggested as a reason why discussions on an open mailing list where not helpful. Paul Walk responded to this by saying:

So, this thread was started by Frankie Roberto asking the question, “Why?”. His approach, a simple one-word question, was criticised – unfairly I think. Implicit in Frankie’s question is a challenge – it invites someone to explain, very succinctly and convincingly what it is that that Creative Spaces (in its guise as a user-facing application) is for. I think this challenge is well made, and deserves to be answered.

Well-said Paul.  And if the general public can listen to, read about and , if they so desire, engage in discussions about complex issues such as sub-prime markets and global warming professionals in the sector should also be not allowed but encouraged to contribute to the discussions about the networked services we are seeking to develop.

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12 Responses to “We Need More Critical Friends!”

  1. Jeremy said

    I don’t want to re-open the whole debate about Creative Spaces again, Brian, but firstly, I don’t think that people thought that no debate was needed or appropriate, far from it, certainly not myself who was the first to (publicly) challenge whether a simple “why?” is a suitable way to conduct such a debate. Basically, whilst it’s obviously provocative enough to get a discussion going, it struck me as rude – critical but not friendly. That’s perhaps the peril of casual written communication sometimes and we all have to be a bit thick-skinned, but one could ask that question more constructively and simultaneously give some credit for the work that had been done. Criticism can be concise but needn’t be lazy. And Frankie later did make some proper “critical friend” comments that did need addressing, but “why?” doesn’t count.

    The term “critical friend”, by the way, is common parlance in the world of school governors, who have just that role towards the school they work with. It’s a very valuable concept (but far from new)

  2. chriskeene said

    Hi Brian

    Link to ” The Real Story Behind the Failure of U.K. eUniversity” wasn’t working for me. I think you need a ‘www’ or ‘net’ in front of educause.

    Thanks
    Chris

  3. This is the first time I have come across the term “critical friend”. After looking up the definition on Wikipedia I was drawn to the idea that “A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work”. In this respect I think ‘why?’ would be a valid starting point in many situations. This also suggests that a critical friend should be free to question if the work is likely to achieve the desired outcomes.

    Personally I would like to find ways to seek external views as a way to combat the bias towards optimism which can often result from closed group decisions.

  4. Interesting debate. :-)

    I’ve not come across the term ‘critical friend’ before, and so I’m not sure whether my “Um, why?” question (don’t forget the ‘Um’!) counts or not.

    Whilst such a short question is clearly open to interpretation, I was hoping to convey my position of bewilderment at coming across a service which didn’t seem to communicate what it was or who it was for.

    As Jeremy’s comment demonstrates though, you could also have perceived the question as rude and unhelpful, and so I attempted to rectify this with a more detailed critique and deconstruction of the service’s homepage. This approach was perhaps more worthy of being described as ‘critical friendship’, although perhaps could also have been interpreted as being unduly critical.

  5. PeteJ said

    Brian,

    I initially wrote a longer version of this comment, but maybe I should just say that I tend to disagree with your assertion that “the role of a critical friend need not be resource intensive”.

    I think one of the challenges we don’t always deal well with is balancing those tensions referred to in the MacBeath quote, particularly across a (continually widening) range of different communication tools with (as you’ve discussed in other posts here) different characteristics and affordances.

    As I think Jeremy’s comment indicates, our choice of channels matters, and our choice of style and language matters – a lot. I didn’t participate in that discussion, but I did observe it, and felt a good deal of – well, let’s just say “discomfort” – at some of the comments.

    In my own use of tools like Twitter, I recognise that I’m far from immune to the tendency to reach – perhaps a little too quickly – for a “smartarse one-liner”. My firing off (sigh, and I was trying to avoid the military metaphors) 140 characters of decontextualised snark is a very long way from being a “critical friend” (IMHO).

    I don’t disagree with your premise that “critical friends” are good things to have, and I’m certainly not arguing that we should bite our collective tongues when criticism is required.

    But I also think that being an effective “critical friend” implies the development and deployment of a palette of skills and sensitivities. And that probably does imply some investment of resources, perhaps on an ongoing basis as we reflect and adapt to new contexts and to emerging communication channels and techniques.

    • Mia said

      I think PeteJ’s comments:

      As I think Jeremy’s comment indicates, our choice of channels matters, and our choice of style and language matters – a lot. I didn’t participate in that discussion, but I did observe it, and felt a good deal of – well, let’s just say “discomfort” – at some of the comments.

      and:

      I also think that being an effective “critical friend” implies the development and deployment of a palette of skills and sensitivities. And that probably does imply some investment of resources, perhaps on an ongoing basis as we reflect and adapt to new contexts and to emerging communication channels and techniques.

      sum up my feelings pretty well. And Owen’s point is vital:

      To be a critical friend you need first to establish your credentials as a friend to those to whom you are offering criticism.

      If you’re not a friend, you can’t be a critical friend.

      I also think the communication has to be both appropriately private and timely – I’m not saying entirely private, but in a forum where the discussion is supportive and constructive. If there isn’t an appropriate forum, then ask the question privately.

      That said, I’m not sure what happens when you raise concerns privately and don’t get an acknowledgement or other response.

  6. Thanks for the various comments. In response to PeteJ’s comments, when I said “he role of a critical friend need not be resource intensive” I meant that one need not necessarily have a budget to establish a Critical Friend’s network. But I would agree with the comments that sensitivities need to be considered, especially when using a range of different communications channels, each with their other different patterns of usage and expectations (is Twitter or a blog, for example, really the author’s space where they can say what they want, unlike a mailing list which might be considered as public space?). I think PeteJ has summed up the position nicely:

    I .. think that being an effective “critical friend” implies the development and deployment of a palette of skills and sensitivities. And that probably does imply some investment of resources, perhaps on an ongoing basis as we reflect and adapt to new contexts and to emerging communication channels and techniques.

  7. Part of the problem with Critical Friends is that you can’t just ‘appoint’ them – they are about an overall relationship. Whether you are a ‘critical friend’ or just ‘critical’ will depend on the attitude others have to you.

    To take the example of Peter Murray Rust’s recent blog posts – I’ve met Peter several times, and know something of his attitude, and would feel he is broadly an ‘ally’ (or friend) to the mission of libraries. However, I can imagine (and indeed had this expressed to me) that to some he simply comes across as a critic in some of his remarks. This is not to say the criticism isn’t valid, but it isn’t seen as inherently ‘friendly’.

    To be a critical friend you need first to establish your credentials as a friend to those to whom you are offering criticism.

  8. Hi Owen – via Friendfeed I came across some interesting discussions about my blog post and Peter Murray-Rust’s (PMR) posts on the Library of the Future:

    As I’ve said in multi-comments around PMRs postings, I think there is a culture issue – library culture is consensus driven, science / computer science culture is challenge and fact based. That’s of course a ridiculously sweeping generalisation, but it doesn’t make it any less true’” – Richard Akerman

    Hmm. Not sure about that. Do you mean that Librarians listen to what users say and synthesize it into a consensus position? I would agree that listening to users is part of our culture. That hasn’t always been true in computer services.” – Frank Norman

    Perhaps as well as cultural differences regarding constructive criticisms versus rudeness there are also disciplinary differences?

  9. […] have been described by Brian Kelly as a Critical Friend” to libraries (and I accept the […]

  10. […] in response to my blog post by Pete Johnston and Mia Ridge made similar points arguing that “our choice of style and language matters – a […]

  11. There are differences in emphasis between the terms ‘advisor’, ‘consultant’ and ‘criticalfriend’ but integrity must underpin the relationship. Much is to be said for the ’sophisticated client’ and success is often dependant upon the willingness to change in the light of evidence based research. An effective “critical friend” must imply the development and deployment of a palette of skills and sensitivities. That does imply some investment of resources,which are indeed best served on an ongoing basis as we reflect and adapt to new contexts.

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