Published on 2014/01/30

Effective Organizational Change in Higher Education

Effective Organizational Change in Higher Education
Determining roles, responsibilities and expectations prior to entering into a partnership can pay major dividends when it comes to managing change in an implementation scenario.
Private industry and, to a lesser extent, public consortia, change more quickly than institutions. Vendors fill needs for commodity services such as payroll outsourcing or student information systems. Others build strategic partnerships with customized offerings to support institutional strategy. Commodity services help schools re-focus on their core mission; strategic partnerships help schools differentiate themselves with the help of outside expertise.

Changing a higher education institution is not easy, even as the president or as a member of the board of trustees. Explicit power by virtue of position is necessary but not sufficient to catalyze change: tenured faculty on committees may object; administrators on long-term contracts may “de-prioritize” the change; staff may passively resist; students may rebel; and alumni may threaten to cut donations.

The challenges to change are not a flaw. They are part and parcel of providing the stability that allows tenure, provides job security and maintains the institutional reputation. The wrong change — jeopardizing an endowment, risking accreditation — can destroy an institution. But the tendency toward caution and resistance can be vexing for change champions.

Increasing the Rate of Change

When preparing for organizational change, consider how much change is expected in the next five years. If a large volume of change is anticipated, consider making change itself easier.

Three organizational capabilities in particular can improve the rate of change:

  1. Organizational change management
  2. Enterprise project management office
  3. Enterprise architecture

Organizational change management is the discipline of understanding research and best practice of how people and groups change, starting with John Kotter’s eight-step organizational change model as described in “The 8-Step Process for Leading Change.” Organizational change management understands how to motivate people, communicate well and engage people in implementing changes.

An enterprise project management office is responsible for managing a portfolio of changes as well as managing projects for each change. Organizational change management understands people and how they change; project management works with teams to build plans and enact them. Project managers do the focused heavy lifting and report progress, freeing administrators from the day-to-day planning for change.

Enterprise architecture as a discipline is less understood in higher education. It reflects on anticipated changes and the institution in context, and identifies patterns and standards that can be used and reused in changes to ensure that departments work well together, information flows effectively and IT technologies and solutions have the necessary requirements to support departments during change. Enterprise architecture focuses on how the processes, information and tools of an organization can more effectively support the needed changes. It can also ease the pain of working with vendors by identifying integration points, even as early as in the request for proposals.

Approaching Change: Three Considerations

1. Revolution or Evolution?

When ready to proceed with a change, first consider whether the approach will be revolutionary or evolutionary. Revolutionary changes come with new administrators who expend political capital to move quickly, or they come from a clear call to action such as in response to a scandal. Revolutionary change happens quickly — sometimes in a week, a month or a semester — but is more likely to be undone later by the people who weren’t on board with it.

Evolutionary change is a much slower process of engaging and committing campus stakeholders. Evolutionary change works through faculty committees and through sitting down with individuals and groups to build a shared vision and shared plan. Evolutionary change can take years, but when done successfully, it builds political capital and makes change last.

2. Who is the Lead?

Think about who will be responsible for the change. Ideally there should be a higher-level sponsor for the change as well as a project manager who owns the change on a day-to-day basis. These people need to be involved very early to understand and relate the need for the change and how the change will be implemented.

3. Who is Involved?

Third, carefully consider the stakeholders; who may be affected by this change and how they may be affected. Identifying who may be affected is hard in a large institution: the list should include key individuals as well as teams, departments and other groups. Although rarely used, formal tools such as organizational network analysis exist to identify people’s relationships and patterns of influence.

Identifying how stakeholders may be affected is even harder. In particular, try to identify people’s current incentives and disincentives. For example, if your institution moves from paper to electronic records, the people currently measured by the number of paper forms they process may not want paper to go away. A useful side benefit of identifying the current incentive structure is the opportunity to better align incentives with what’s best for the overall organization.

Press the Red Button

Now having done the pre-work — understanding the type of change, who the champions will be, who the stakeholders are and why they care — use a tried-and-tested organizational change model such as John Kotter’s, which begins with clarifying the sense of urgency.

Vendor partnerships can help higher education institutions work on what’s most important to their core mission, by providing commodity services or by forming strategic partnerships. The change required to build these partnerships can be formidable, but effective practices exist both to implement change and to increase the rate of change.

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Readers Comments

Chelsea Bellows 2014/01/30 at 12:31 pm

I agree with the point about having a project management office through which all major changes are executed. This may sound daunting for smaller institutions, but have hope! My institution is small (enrollment is about 3,500 — and that’s after a growth period in 2012) but we decided several years ago to start a separate office for project and change management. Now, our “office” was made up of precisely one full-time project manager and an administrative assistant who was shared with our continuing education unit.

I should mention that as a small institution, we had originally planned for administrators to take on the brunt of contract management, stakeholder communications and other key aspects of project implementation. The issue was that our administrators either became overworked or simply didn’t have the expertise to execute a project in its entirety.

I can’t overstate the value of having a PMP. They are trained to understand change management and they know what needs to be done at each level of the project. The fact that they don’t operate at the administrative level but rather as their own entity gives them leverage among staff who might otherwise be resistant to what they see as top-down change.

Hiring our project manager was the best long-term planning decision we’ve made. It’s taken a load off of the administration’s back and, although we haven’t had perfect implementation of each project since, we have improved with each project. In 2014, we’re looking to hire a second PMP to expand our office as we’ve seen the positive results of doing so.

anon 2014/01/30 at 5:59 pm

I take issue with the suggestion that “revolutionary” change will necessarily be undone quickly and ultimately ineffective at introducing change. I think the problem is that many institutions cling onto this belief, making change slow overall. Incremental change is good, but sometimes a swift change of direction is needed to breathe new life into an institution’s practices.

That said, I think Borwick makes some valid points about the need to better consider change management in advance of any major implementation.

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