New journal article. The impact of career focused online discussion forums

It feels like an age since my HECSU funded research was published in Dec 2019 which amongst other things laid out the value of ODFs in benefiting the career learning and exploration of career identity for participants. That research is a rather hefty report (free to download and well worth a read, although I may be biased). I decided I really wanted to have a go at writing this research up into a journal article, a) because then I can share a more scaled down and accessible document b) I fancied the challenge of writing a research article.

I found a home for the published article, in the Canadian Journal of Career Development, which really appealed to me due to the high quality peer reviewed articles they publish combined with that it is still free to download through creative commons (no naughty paywalls here which is a rarity).

I’ve included an excert below and why I find ODFs so interesting and of value for careers work.

The act of writing for our career has also been shown to not just be an endeavour of creative prose. ODFs offer a rich medium to create and share the evolving stories we all have and continue to tell ourselves and others. Part of their allure is they create a technologically opaque veneer to the cognitive worlds we inhabit, open to what we choose to share and our critical literacy to interpret what is shared. Given the maturity of the underlying technology of ODFs but scarcity of scholarly activity it is hoped this study provides inspiration for careers services and practitioners who have yet to explore their global potential”.

Please do read, share, comment!

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Fowkes, L. (2021). The impact of career focused online discussion forums . Canadian Journal of Career Development, 20(2), 61-68.

New research! Exploring the value of email and telephone careers guidance

For the past twenty months, alongside two colleagues, we’ve been involved in a HECSU (now part of Jisc) funded research project where we’ve explored and compared the efficacy of email and telephone careers guidance. I’m really pleased and excited to say this is now available for free download from the Prospects Luminate website.

It’s been quite the labour of love as part way through the global pandemic happened and wider events took over which caused some delay, however, we’re really pleased with the finished report. A major reason we took on the research was because there is a paucity of scholarly research in the careers ‘guidance at a distance’ space. It just hasn’t received much attention and I’d guess much of the reason for this is the dominance of face to face guidance.

Ironically, just as the pandemic delayed this research it also highlighted to us as a research team that our topic would have renewed importance for the sector as careers services needed to rapidly adapt and provide services online and at a distance. Indeed, I blogged at the time about the now ubiquitous phrase of the “new normal” for careers services and of the benefits technology can bring such as increased scale and reach to serve a wider range of students. Both email and telephone careers support could form part of this expanded offer for careers services.

We hope our research will benefit the debate around the efficacy of e-guidance and telephone guidance for complex career learning and decision making, and contribute to the wider evidence base for practice.

We focused on three initial research questions:

  • What are the perceptions of guidance practitioners involved in the delivery of one-to-one guidance at a distance?
  • Is e-guidance equally beneficial for students’ career learning, development and progression as compared to telephone delivery?
  • Are there any additional benefits of e-guidance purely in the asynchronous nature of the interaction as reported by the student?

I’ll be following up with some more musings about our research in due course, but for now do have a read and share with anyone you think will be interested!

Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on

New AGCAS article – my experience as a first time practitioner reseacher

I blogged about finishing my first research project last year so it was great to write an article for the latest edition of the AGCAS journal Phoenix (June 2020 – The Research Issue) about my experience as a newbie to practitioner research. The general gist is that it’s overcoming some of the fear of the unknown and realising as a practitioner you have an important voice. I’d never had any formal training or background into research methods but I write about some of the tactics I used that worked well for me. Most important of all was a belief I could learn and one of the most important attributes was just being curious enough to search for answers. Doing anything for the first time all comes down to taking one small step.

I’m now part way through a second research project (HECSU fund again and this time with two of my colleagues which is great) comparing the impact of email and telephone guidance interactions. I’d liken this new project to a second child. You can fallback on some of the lessons you’ve learned previously and you have more belief you can overcome whatever comes your way but equally, two children (even my own) are absolutely never the same! Part of me wishes I’d have taken the step into research sooner but I think I always found reasons not to or I’ve prioritised other development opportunities.

Hopefully this journal issue provides some inspiration to potential “first steppers”.

Careers support at a distance: The new normal for university careers services

It’s often said that absence makes the heart grow fonder and in these exceptionally challenging times I’d imagine we are all missing parts of our former routines and lives.  But unpredictable and profound changes can also provide us with opportunities to adapt in the new normal.

 In my own role as a Careers Consultant in the higher education sector I wanted to focus in on the essential shift of careers services to an online delivery model and the resources that have emerged to support both practitioners and students.  For pioneers like the Open University providing online support sits very much as business as usual but for some careers services the move from a campus to online only model of support has been a paradigm shift in a very short space of time. 

So what does online careers support look like?

The first point I’d like to make here is that it’s easy to fall into the trap in viewing online delivery as merely a set of tools e.g. email, telephone, forum, webinars, webchat, social networks and any other one-to-many and many-to-many platform.  Crucially this misses the context of how technology and the internet is so intertwined in many of our lives.  Having moved from a previous careers role three years ago that largely offered campus based face-to-face support to one now that is 100% online delivery was certainly a culture shock but I have to say one that has proved to be exciting and enlightening.

Reflecting on my own pre-covid experiences with other careers practitioners at events and conferences I found there was a diverse range of involvement and confidence levels in online careers service delivery.  Some careers services have had an established blended service offer for some time whilst for others, online delivery was minimal and ancillary to the norm of face-to-face campus-based delivery.

So, what has been incredible and heartening to witness is the extent that university careers services have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by rapidly shifting their support to an online model, being there to support students in these difficult times.  There’s a really great piece in WONKE Supporting student careers in challenging times, on how the sector has responded.  Key tactics have included supporting students in the jobs market with online workshops,  virtual careers fairs, online assessment centre support and strengthening careers resources that speak to different groups of students at different stages in their student journey.

How sharing intelligence and resources has helped.

Both AGCAS and the CDI have also responded rapidly to the needs of careers professionals to help keep us up to date in developments such as labour market information, sharing best practice, resource development and establishing channels of communication to stakeholders. 

The ISE has produced a steady stream of research and news updates about the impact of the crisis on student recruitment and employers.  Prospects has also shared regular labour market updates and articles on  the human impact about how COVID-19 has affected career opportunities.  Platforms such as (an open collaboration between a number of organisations that provide support and services to students and recent graduates) have been launched. New podcasts have emerged chronicling (and sharing good advice) the impact on lives and careers whilst platforms such as OpenLearn have been instrumental in sharing free content such as the recently launched (and very timely) MSE’s Academy of Money.  

What will the new normal be like for careers services?

The conversation has now moved into how universities will reopen with Cambridge the first to announce the decision that all face to face lectures will be moved online until the summer of 2021.

Whilst there is uncertainty how other universities will follow suit and which courses they can meaningfully transfer online I wanted to think about what this may mean for careers services?

For many, an online curiosity has turned into an online reality.  Some unintended consequences may well have emerged.  We are in the midst of a rapid advance towards the digitisation of careers services that goes beyond just technological tools but a change in mindset towards the value of online careers support.  This has the benefit of equality of access for students with no or limited campus access e.g. students enrolled on online courses, or in the workplace through apprenticeships) and students with health and wellbeing needs that had made campus access difficult.  Neurodiverse students for example may well prefer not to access large group face-to-face environments and so can benefit from new technologies and have real choice. 

My predictions for careers services and practitioners. 

Technology can remove campus restrictions of time, space and place and careers practitioners are increasingly finding themselves woven into the same online social fabric as the students they want to support.  Practice may not have kept pace with online innovations and a purely online world of careers support is likely to highlight skills gaps that takes time to identify and bridge.

When some normality takes shape there will be an acknowledgement of what the early adopters have come to realise.  That online careers support can provide increased scale and reach to serve a wider range of students and that guidance at a distance whether by telephone, skype, email, webinar or social channels can be impactful and valued by students.  The new normal doesn’t have to be about what we’ve all lost but also about what else we have gained.  This makes it even more critical that rapid adoption is supported by evidence-based approaches, staff CPD and sharing of best practice. 

Social media and careers: an ecology for Law and Chaos.

I’ve written a couple of posts about my recent research and have been using my blog to muse over some continued thoughts about how our careers are shaped by social media. Although my project focused on online discussion forums (ODFs) there are theories I find particularly influential and complimentary in accounting for how our careers can be impacted and shaped as we switch between our offline/online activities and our use of social media platforms.

Firstly, I drew extensively on Laws iconic (2009; 2010) theory of community interaction and career learning (sensing, sifting, focusing and understanding) and its value for contemporary careers work. It helped me shape a critical perspective to explore the influence and social impact of ODFs on career learning and development. This is because the interaction between the individual and the social groups we inhabit invariably influences the course of our life in terms of expectations, support, decisions and the opportunities this creates. Forums and of course other social media platforms can be a space for finding out and figuring out content and thoughts useful for our career. This is in no small part to the space forums provide to both create stories and build relationships.

Secondly, I was drawn to the work of Brown (2000) and how he described a learning ecology on the web as benefiting from the cross pollination of ideas and knowledge being carried back and forth (I do like that physical comparison) between the overlapping local and virtual communities that we are part of. It’s the idea that there is an important interface between our offline and online activities at constant influence with each other. Brown alludes to this boundary and its fluidity in how each of us can be consumer and producer (in digital parlance we now frequently call this ‘content’). The concept of nodes, network, access and relationship building sit within a connectivist theory of how knowledge is distributed, although ahead of his time Brown refers to this as distributed intelligence where the community is the expert. In an age of information abundance this is increasingly important.

Finally, Brown also describes an ecology as an open system as having the characteristics of being open, complex, adaptive, dynamic, interdependent, diverse, fragile and partially self-organising. There’s a familiar chime here to Pryor & Bright’s (2011) Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) where individuals are characterised as complex systems subject to the influence of complex influences and chance events. This interaction of complex entitities leads me to the general feeling (I could be wrong) that in practice there is a trend to instrumentalise and underestimate how our career can be impacted within the offline/online spaces we occupy, especially the often unintended causality between the two. For example, my research highlighted the impact on career identity through interaction in career focused online forums. What we don’t know is how much of career identity formation can be attributed to discursive construction versus social learning? Although in a wider sense there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by where a social media faux pas hasn’t done some kind of irreparable damage to someones career.

Where I see most careers support currently pitched is the internet as a benevolent tool for our careers where mastery and an element of control is required. I found an antidote and fresh perspective offered by Staunton (2019) who considered both the instrumentalist and critical perspectives in how the digital networks can impact upon our career and which challenges the neutrality of social media e.g. surveillance and loss of privacy.

I can’t help feeling that as our online activity becomes more prevalent and widespread it increasingly feels more complex, more difficult to separate and the impact more unpredictable. Undoubtably the internet and its communities can be a powerful ally but a more critical mindset may be more valuable than an immediate set of digital skills and social media accounts.


Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay


Brown, J. S. (2000) Growing Up: Digital: How the Web Changes Work,
Education, and the Ways People Learn, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 32:2, 11-20, DOI: 10.1080/00091380009601719

Fowkes, L. (2019) Bumping online discussion forums in a social media age. Prospects Luminate.

Law, B. (2009) Community-interaction and its importance for contemporary careers-work. [Online]. Available at (Accessed 9 Dec 2018).

Law, B. (2010) Career learning theory the original article. [Online]. Available at (Accessed 9 Dec 2018).

Pryor, R. & Bright, J. (2011) The Chaos Theory of Careers. Routledge, New York.

Staunton, T (2019) Icarus, Grannies, Black Holes and the death of
privacy: exploring the use of digital networks for career enactment, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2019.1698007

Providing careers support in online spaces – what’s the same, what’s different to face to face?

With the very recent release of my HECSU research (Bumping online disucssion forums in a social media age) I’ve been doing some more thinking about providing careers support online and how that can impact practice in online spaces. An area that was surfaced in the four semi structured interviews I conducted with careers practitioners was the complexity and skill required to support students within online discussion forums. This links back to a question that Hooley (2012) asks of practitioners in how can we use the internet to provide people with support for their careers? With face to face careers guidance support still very much the dominant delivery model I think it worthwhile to pitch the following question.

“Providing CEIAG in online spaces – what’s the same what’s different to face to face?”

This is a useful starter question for practitioners or services seeking to expand their provision and move delivery further into online spaces. Goss & Hooley (2015) make the credible point that we need re-contextualise existing practice rather than viewing online conversations as simply another mode of delivery. In my experience this is entirely true, especially having changed roles from campus based support to delivery of guidance services as a distance utilising technology. The thematic analysis of my interviews begins to provide some insight to the challenges practitioners can face in providing guidance services online, even if though the focus was online discussion forums.


I’ve tried to gather my thoughts (and aware I’ve missed out a lot) and have come up with three broad topics.

1. Online spaces creates added dynamic complexity: Social media allows us to interact with people and their user generated content (UGC) across a diverse range of platforms. This in effect creates the potential for a community or network mind whereby the group rather than a single user becomes the expert. Brown (2000) uses the ecology metaphor to describe an environment for learning and defines an ecology as having the characteristics of a system that is open, complex, adaptive, dynamic, interdependent, diverse, fragile and partially self-organising. I’ve found this metaphor also works very well in describing social media applications. For practitioners this can mean needing to think about how online spaces are created and managed beyond just rule following but to support educationally meaningful experiences. In face to face work we might consider how to create a space to share and communicate effectively but many to many spaces bring additional factors and responsibilities for the practitioner to consider such as community building (Hostetter, 2013) or remaining facilitative of views that are biased and push against our impartial aims.

Finally there are still the challenges of asynchronous online environments versus 1:1 synchronous guidance. Visual nonverbal cues and immediate answers to questions all help practitioners gain a sense of latent needs, client feelings, story, viewpoints and also share those thoughts back in real time. In counselling, immediacy is a very powerful tool as psychological closeness within communication has distinct benefits. Although synchronous tools can foster immediacy this becomes more difficult in asynchronous environments, therefore practitioners often need to work out how to manage both a lack of feedback from clients and how to generate social presence in an online world.

2. It’s a difficult and skilled balancing act to create a safe space but still manage privacy, safeguarding and negative psychological impact: There has always been a difficult balancing act in guidance work in terms of managing disclosures that could move into safeguarding territory and also operating within the confines of training and ethical boundaries. Personal issues are work issues but in guidance work practitioners are careful to contract and work with what they are trained and feel comfortable to offer support with. For example, if you’re not a trained Counsellor then signposting a client for support. Disclosures in a many to many online space requires careful consideration both because of the latent nature of communication and the public nature of social media. It is easy to be left wondering when is a message (a post) is a cry for help and when is a message a disclosure of an issue that’s been resolved?
Online discussion forums (ODFs) for example have long been recognised as an environment where individuals can discuss key emotional topics (Kendal et al, 2017), especially in a health related context. Where anonymity can be afforded through the use of pseudonyms this can help allay some of the privacy concerns posed by social networking sites.

3. Ethics are just as vital to online work: In its code of ethics the CDI makes a point that all career development activities and services are covered by this code regardless of how they are delivered, e.g. face to face, in groups, by telephone or web-based. In a many to many environment with lots of voices and viewpoints it’s more important than ever have impartiality and transparency. This can also be where practitioners feel that sense of their own professional identity in how their role is clearly demarcated from others, especially those with vested interests. In an age of information abundance the need for critical digital literacy is vital. This can apply to the information we signpost and curate into online resources. But this leads to me to two questions. If we’re teaching them who is teaching us? And are we making too many assumptions about how our training and competencies as practitioners are equally effective in online/offline contexts?


Brown, J. S. (2000) ‘How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn’, p. 6.

Career Development Institute (2019) Code of ethics. [Online]. Available at

Goss, S. and Hooley, T. (2015) ‘Symposium on online practice in counselling and guidance’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 1–7 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2015.995471.

Hooley, T. (2012) How the internet changed career: framing the relationship between career development and online technologies. Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling (NICEC) 29.

Hostetter, C. (2013) ‘Community matters: Social presence and learning outcomes’, Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 13, no. 1, p. 10.

Kendal, S., Kirk, S., Elvey, R., Catchpole, R. and Pryjmachuk, S. (2017) ‘How a moderated online discussion forum facilitates support for young people with eating disorders’, Health Expectations, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 98–111 [Online]. DOI: 10.1111/hex.12439.

The impact of career focused online forums

I’ve been involved with online discussion forums within a personal capacity for well over two decades so when I joined the OU as a Careers Consultant in 2017 the use of forums in both educational (they are used extensinely as part of the learning design of modules) and careers based contexts was of great interest to me.

It was for this reason I embarked on a year long HECSU-funded research project to discover the utility and effectiveness of online discussion forums (ODFs) in supporting the career development of OU students.  I’m really pleased with the outcome and my report can now be viewed and downloaded on the Prospects Luminate website.

There are several reasons why I thought this research was important and necessary.  Before I submitted the bid for my research and to establish the evidence base it quickly became apparent there was a paucity of research in connecting student participation in online forums for career development purposes (not the case for educational purposes such as assessment, increasing attainment, reflective practice and as spaces for peer to peer practice to name a few).

Secondly, the lack of evidence creates a theoretical vacuum.  In the case of forums I felt there were some really interesting ways to explore forums in terms of their impact on identity formation, career learning and career development.

Finally, although user generated content has been the driving force of social media (and online forums are a type of social media) social networking sites appear to dominate the thoughts of those involved in careers research.  In the report I make the following point.

Consequently, ODFs should not just be viewed as a quaint antiquity superseded by ubiquitous social networking platforms but as an established social media application that still has relevance and value. As a many-to-many platform ODFs sits alongside SNS in their ability to share user generated content, build relationships, have conversations and reveal elements of identity

It would be great to hear your thoughts.



Theorising online discussion forums for career

It’s been a lengthy hiatus since I last posted but I’m happy to report I still work within HE careers and I’m very pleased to be doing so!  So what have I been up to?

During the last year I’ve been involved in a HECSU-funded research project exploring the utility of online discussion forums for distance learners.  The report is finished (not yet published but I’ll post further when it is).  Whilst waiting I wanted to share details of a workshop I delivered at the recent AGCAS annual conference 2019 (look out for the hashtag #AGACASAC19 on Twitter).

I came up with the snazzilly titled “Bumping online discussion forums (ODFs) in a social media age – How ODFs can extend the reach and impact of careers support” which you can view and download from the AGCAS website (Workshop Session A2).  There is of course lots of other brilliant material to peruse whilst you’re there.

I’ve been involved with forums in one description or another for well over 20 years.  In the report I make the point that:

“the wider educational and social benefits of student participation in ODFs are well established however the literature review revealed there is a paucity of research in connecting student participation in ODFs for specific career learning and career development purposes”.

In the workshop I focused on three ways (so not exhaustive as the report will show) we can theorise how ODFs could be useful for our career.  Here goes.

Identity construction: Identity can emerge through discoursal construction in social contexts through the act of writing and reading. (LaPointe, 2010; Lengelle & Meijers, 2014).

Career learning: Our learning in particular moves us all from tacit knowledge, action and experiences through a process of career construction recognising our language serves as the tool of our story creation and meaning making (Savickas, 2005)

Community Support: Some of the most influential factors in career choice relate to events which occur in the context of our ‘community interaction’ between the individual and the social groups of which we are members. (Law, 2009)

Once the report is published and available for free download I’ll post more thoughts about my research.  Do let me know your thoughts!



LaPointe, K. (2010). Narrating career, positioning identity: Career identity as a narrative practice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77, 19.

Law, B. (2009) Community-interaction and its importance for contemporary careers-work. [Online]. Available at

Lengelle, R. and Meijers, F. (2014) ‘Narrative identity: writing the self in career learning’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 52–72 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2013.816837.

Savickas, M. L. (2005). The theory and practice of career construction. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counselling: Putting theory and research to work (pp. 42–70). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Daring to fail

I recently had a short article published in Phoenix (Oct 2017 edition) which is the AGCAS journal, produced three times a year.  The theme this time around was student well-being but in my article I offer the view that to enable us to support students to cope with change and develop resilience we need to first consider how we approach challenges and failures in our own roles (I’ve had a few!).

Photo by Eva Elijas on

Feeling conflicted in your career? Maybe there’s more strength in this than you think.

We’ve all felt emotionally confused right? A common trend for my own conflicted moments is what serial TV blockbuster to watch. Particularly when I have what seems like a minuscule window of opportunity when the kids are in bed and my melatonin levels haven’t gone off the scale. The problem is choice. For this reason I am always behind the curve in viewing the latest multi-season boxset extravaganza. Lost was lost on me and I’ll probably start watching Jack Bauer 24 years after the first episode aired. I naively mistook Game of Thrones as some sort of British historical drama and I wrongly thought the Walking Dead would never take off with the lead being the bloke off Teachers with a dodgy American accent. My most recent boxset binge, Vikings (please no spoilers), has been no exception to my late arrival but a recent episode got me thinking on how much work we do in careers with people feeling conflicted. I appreciate this isn’t just isolated to my line of work but there’s no doubt there is a lot of this feeling around and it’s usually not welcomed. In fact some see and hope our job is to help provide the cure!

So let me give you some background on why a particular episode resonated with my work as a Careers Adviser. The series focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok and his clan doing, well, what Vikings did back then (but with the added panache of a big TV budget). Following a raid he meets and eventually forms a close bond and friendship with a priest called Athelstan (after a let’s say a rocky start to their friendship). Now Athelstan was obviously a religious man but his experiences with the Vikings and introduction to the Norse gods made him question the legitimacy of his own beliefs and faith. Athelstan often wrestled with this and ultimately* (*spoiler alert) this led to his untimely death. Grieving the demise of the one man he could trust Ragnar spoke out poignantly to the priest as he buried the body in a secluded but beautiful spot.

“You’re a brave man, Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me, you were fearless because you dared to question”.

As I watched this I thought “wow” as it felt so very true and yet somehow I hadn’t actually ever put that into words before . A challenge to the general orthodoxy that feeling conflicted is somehow a default position of weakness. In my work I see examples of this internal conflict with scenarios such as;

“I’ve achieved a senior position in my current role but don’t enjoy it but to give it up would feel such a waste. It just took so long to get here”

“I’d love to be working as X but it seems such a risk to do this. I’d have much to gain and much to lose”

“I’ve got so many ideas of what I could be, what if I make the wrong choice – why can’t I just be satisfied?”

This got me curious into what causes this internal conflict so I got down to some reading and found this article. In it psychologists suggest the mind consists of multiple states that may to a varying degree be in conflict with one another e.g. memory and emotion.  So the brain operates a democratic process due to this “modularity” as no processing centre holds the keys to decision making.  Perhaps this goes some way to explain why we often feel conflicted. What’s interesting to me is that the timing of events and decisions plays a part as well as the article then goes on to explain;

“The divided decision model indicates that the ultimate determinant of a person’s choice is not her simple preference. Rather, people may have a variety of contradictory preferences that become dominant at different points because of their timing”.

This also leads me to another psychological concept called cognitive dissonance explained in detail here. The term is used to describe the feelings of discomfort we feel that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. For example, taking action when internally we know this to be wrong. Where this relates to careers work is that our lives necessitate the need to make decisions and these decisions are fertile ground for creating cognitive dissonance. This is why;

“making a decision cuts off the possibility that you can enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative, yet it assures you that you must accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative”.

I’d imagine this is a statement many of us can relate to which makes it seem like there is an element of the inevitability of the human condition rather than a question of indifference or strength of mind.  Yet there’s even more of this self-talk trickery we can also identify with, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome.  That internal voice that you’re not good enough and somewhere along the line you’ll be found out (I get this feeling when I write but if you’ve made it this far perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much).

So where am I going with all of this? Listening to and exploring those inner voices and not explaining them away shows you are questioning the programming we often operate as a defence mechanism. Becoming more self-aware should be seen as a great strength as being conscious opens the door to personal growth and professional development.

As Ragnor would say “you were fearless because you dared to question”. We need to take the time to do more of this.  What do you think?


Time for internal debate should be seen as a strength even though we often seek clarity