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Change and Higher Education: Four Simple Observations

The EvoLLLution | Change and Higher Education: Four Simple Observations
For traditional higher education, there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” To survive while other colleges fall, institutions need to stop making change management an event.

I work for an organization that moves at the speed of thought.

While maintaining a clear and unwavering focus on our mission, we are constantly working scores of initiatives within our portfolio, all at some stage between discovery, deployment or discard. We apply various strategies for communicating change, and we train employees to be change ready. As an innovative, fast-paced organization, we require employees to be ready to face work-life in a volatile, uncertain, complicated and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Still resource use is at a premium and employee workload, burnout and turnover are ongoing challenges as we seek to consistently turn initiatives and projects into long-term, operationalized business functions or product lines.

We must do more than just talk about change. We can’t simply train employees for impending change. If institutions of higher education seek to survive, they must be prepared to stop making change management an event, and develop change-resiliency as one of their core organizational competencies. That said, here are four simple observations about change and higher education.

1. Change Management Should Change

People resist change. Look it up. There are countless articles on the topic. Resistance is typically due to fear of losing of control or taking on extra work. It can also be based on a fear of inadequacy or obsolescence.

Change management continues to be one of the foundational areas of employee development training at many organizations across the country. This statement is somewhat difficult to quantify. Corporate training spending estimates in the United States range from about $70 billion to $160 billion annually. Although there are data available to show how that spending is divided into broad categories—interpersonal skills, customer service, compliance, etc.—there is little evidence to show how those dollars are allocated to specific topics. As a proxy, conducting a simple Google search by training-related topic, and tracking the number of “hits” for each topic, can help us make comparisons:

  • Change Training – 3,680,000,000 hits
  • Time Management Training – 3,350,000,000 hits
  • Dog Training – 3,180,000,000 hits
  • Medical Training – 2,490,000,000 hits
  • Financial Management Training – 1,930,000,000 hits
  • Military Training – 1,730,000,000 hits
  • Police Training – 1,380,000,000 hits
  • Parenting Training – 270,000,000 hits (this might explain a lot)

Gartner, known for providing well-researched organizational insights, reported in its article Manage Change More Successfully that in the past five years a typical organization has had five enterprise-wide changes. For most, this pace-of-change is expected to continue. Additionally, Gartner found that a staggering 50% of organizational change resulted in “clear failure,” with only 34% resulting in “clear success” and the remaining 16% having mixed results. From an employee perspective, the measured impact due to change-related stress and fatigue was a 5% loss of productivity, which translated to a revenue loss of $32.5 million per billion. Something isn’t right.

2. Neuroplasticity Matters

The more we do something a certain way (practiced behavior), the more our brain becomes hardwired to keep doing it that way. Doing things in ways that are different to what we have learned literally requires us to re-wire our brain. The Journal of Clinical Psychologyin its 2002 study on Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers, stated that of the people who committed to changing one problematic behavior by making a New Year’s resolution, 77% kept the resolution for one week, 55% for one month, and 40% for six months. The problem was not knowing what to do, the problem was sticking to it.

In its report The Anatomy of the Modern Learning System, Training Industryasserts that if the learning function within an organization wants to stay relevant, it must evolve beyond the delivery of “event-based courses” and become “a learning system that combines interrelated data, processes and resources to create a system of interdependencies. ” Organizations that want to develop change-ready employees must become ones in which change is not an event but a part of the process, so that employees are “hardwired” to be change-ready.

Communication strategies, transparency practices, innovation processes, collaboration, environmental scanning, results measurement, decision-making processes, technology stacks, infrastructure, hiring practices and role descriptions must all be geared toward making continuous evolution a core organizational competency. Commitment to change on an individual level is required for lasting personal change. Similarly, lasting and successful organizational change requires commitment on all organizational levels, with ongoing and unwavering reinforcement over time.

3. Higher Education Isn’t Prepared

Within higher education, the challenges abound: Bureaucracy, isolation, tradition, cost-bases, pride, infrastructural limitations, accreditation requirements, pontification without action.

However as we hear about sundry efforts to reduce costs, increase speed to completion, improve employment outcomes, and other such endeavors, there seems to be little visible impact. In fact, we see the cost of education continue to rise  and national student debt continue to grow, while student and employer confidence in higher education wane and more learners continue to seek alternative means for accomplishing their goals.

4. Change Isn’t Coming

For traditional higher education, winter may be coming. Change is already here. Unfortunately change doesn’t care about rich academic traditions, regalia-clad faculty, or beautiful buildings on sprawling campuses atop grassy knolls. Change eats tradition for brunch, and chews with its mouth open (it’s not pretty). Many institutions of higher education are struggling to maintain enrollment levels necessary to support operations. This is evidenced by the 85 colleges and universities that have closed since 2016 (EducationDrive, 2019). Students (consumers) are more aware of their options and very focused on personal goals and outcomes. They want faster, less expensive, employment-focused education that provides them with opportunities for more immediate gratification.

Adding additional pressure in this competitive, market-driven economy are a plethora of new suitors for the over $569 billion (NCES) spent on higher education (per 2015-2016 data). These new players will continue to flood the market bringing new, contemporary methods for learners to quickly achieve their outcomes at competitive prices, in customer-focused, data-driven ways. Companies such as Credly deliver industry-relevant digital badges that certify various pieces of knowledge and skills, and provide evidence of such to prospective employers at a fraction of the time and cost of a traditional degree. Smartly provides learners with a free MBA, in an engaging, interactive, consumer-grade learning environment.

The mega-company Amazon launched AmazonEducation as they seek to perfect the logistics for delivering education to learners in cheaper, faster, more industry-relevant ways. Their mission is aimed at “building effective learning solutions to support educators and students.” Meanwhile, we also see the proliferation of Online Program Managers (OPM) that can help the traditional college quickly develop, deliver and manage online programs using data-informed strategies, while leveraging knowledge on a national-scale for growing quality online programs in highly engaging student environments.

There’s No Such Thing As “Too Big To Fail”

The graveyard of history is littered with industries and monolithic organizations that were once too big to fail. If the average institution of higher education wants to survive it has to do more than espouse change, as it slowly filters action through the double-mesh strainer of tradition. It has to be prepared to compete at the speed of business and not the speed of academia. Today’s victor can quickly become tomorrow’s victim. Preparation for this reality must become an organizational lifestyle. A lifestyle of consistent, repetitive, unrelenting, all-hands-on-deck preparation. Neuroplasticity matters.