I recently had the chance to attend an inspiring event called Experiences of Major Organisational Change run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

LFHE is a consultancy body that is “committed to developing and improving the management and leadership skills of existing and future leaders of higher education.” The event was held at Reading University, and offered an opportunity for HE professionals to share insights about the processes and challenges of creating major structural and cultural change in higher education institutions.

We heard presentations from five speakers — change agents who have driven different kinds of transformation in their universities, and who have successfully overcome significant barriers to the results they wanted to create.

In this article I offer a summary of what I felt were the most thought-provoking and inspiring lessons and ideas from the day’s events.

Challenges shared

As a warm-up activity, the seventeen delegates were asked to work in small groups of three or four. We each gave a short summary of our own professional contexts, and reflected upon the issues around organisational change that we were experiencing within our institutions.

I offered a brief overview of recent organisational changes at my home institution, the University of Greenwich, and outlined the difficulties of coordinating institution-wide engagement across our geographically dispersed community (we have three campuses in two different counties). Against this backdrop of an institution already in transition, I described how the Greenwich Connect project — our vision for learning innovation — is striving to create a step change in teaching and learning practice at the university.

I was struck by the similarities in some of the organisational challenges being faced by many of the universities represented. Nearly all were currently undergoing some kind of major structural or cultural transformation. In some cases the changes were reactive — desperate antidotes to recognised problems. Other programmes of change were more deliberate and measured — strategic visions intended to ensure that the institution stays relevant, effective, and can meet learner expectations in the years ahead.

Communication, trust and belief

The first speaker to share a story of institutional change was John Leary, Director of IT Services at Reading University.

John has been orchestrating a major restructuring of the university’s IT support services in the wake of a broad strategic review. The project is focused upon moving away from the previously dispersed and localised pockets of support to create a single centralised IT structure. An important aspect of this goal for John is to nurture a new environment in which academic and support staff see themselves in symbiotic relationship with each other.

Reflecting upon the roots of his success so far, John emphasised the importance of having a clear governance structure for the project, and a strong leadership team to oversee and drive the change. He considered a clear, principled strategy to be critical for creating a shared vision, and stressed the importance of engaging stakeholders as early as possible — presenting the change as an opportunity for them rather than a threat.

Effective communication was a critical factor, and John warned us about relying too much on the “cascade of information” — the idea that communication to personnel at the top of the organisation will naturally trickle down to everyone else. This doesn’t work, and you end up with a lot of people in the institution who do not get informed.

For me, one of the most memorable points made by John was that you have to believe personally in the value of the change you are trying to create. As he put it, “you can’t sell what you don’t believe in.” Developing personal credibility as a change agent, and building a relationship of trust with stakeholders is critical.

Navigating institutional cultures

In contrast to John Leary’s emphasis on putting structural change ahead of cultural change, the next speaker focused explicitly on the importance of culture. Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences at Canterbury Christchurch University, has driven significant transformation within her faculty.

Beginning with an overview of management theory, Janet described the three ‘layers’ of Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model:

  1. Artefacts. These represent the most visible aspect of culture. You can see them expressed in tangible or symbolic ways, like in staff uniforms and corporate branding. People from outside the organisation can often observe and understand artefacts at face value.
  2. Values. This level of organisational culture often needs to be communicated to the outsider. Values are espoused in mission statements, policies and codes of practice. This aspect of culture is not always self-evident, and is publicly expressed.
  3. Assumptions. Deeply embedded within the culture of an organisation, assumptions are implicit, often unconscious, and hard to identify even by insiders. Janet described these as the part of the cultural iceberg that is underwater — vast and influential, but largely invisible.

It is important, Janet argued, for change agents to develop an understanding of this third level, the intangible elements of an organisation’s climate. This is partly because you sometimes have to communicate plans for change in discrete and subtle ways to minimise reactive resistance. Our ability to navigate the landscape of cultural assumptions is critical to the success of this strategy.

Janet adopted what she described as a “leader as servant” approach, acting continuously as an advocate of her faculty and publicly demonstrating loyalty to the organisation. As drivers of change we not only need to be strong role models ourselves, she said, but we must also maintain consistency in our approach and style of leadership.

She also made an effort to be visible within the institution, and found ways to meet staff as often as possible. As she built relationships with them, she discovered that academics naturally love to critique. Their initial dissention may not, in fact, indicate genuine resistance to change, but may simply reflect their need to debate things.

As a ‘post-’92’ institution, the strategic vision of Canterbury Christchurch is focused on the need for growth in student enrolment and retention, increasing learner success rates, enhancing graduate employability, raising admissions criteria and strengthening research activities. Janet has created measurable improvements within her faculty in all of these areas.

She attributes much of her success to having a strong vision, a clear timeline, and more than a pinch of good luck.

Direct and inclusive communication

The view from a small specialist institution (SSI) was shared by Keith Bartlett, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Quality at Norwich University of the Arts.

Keith pointed out that SSIs have the same responsibilities as larger institutions, but fewer resources. As a result, they need to be especially innovative in creating their own opportunities for success. When he arrived at NUA in 2001 (then the Norwich School of Art and Design) it was experiencing some major challenges, and he was essentially tasked with turning the institution around.

With a sense of urgency, a strategic plan was developed that would address three major themes between 2001 and 2014:

  1. Survival;
  2. Sustainability;
  3. Growth, consolidation, brand and reputation.

Key milestones along this journey included major changes in senior management, a growth in student numbers, expansion into new media and design disciplines, receiving degree-awarding powers in 2008, and developing the university’s research profile. Keith now describes NUA as being in a “good place as a business,” with ongoing strategies in place to further enhance quality and the student experience.

Keith said that one of the most important factors in the success of this change programme was effective and inclusive communication, and the direct engagement of both staff and students. For example, being such a small institution, all 200 staff could fit inside the university’s only lecture theatre at the same time. This offered a valuable opportunity to engage with everyone at once — a strategy that Keith sees as critical to the outcomes he achieved.

Having a clear reason for wanting change to occur was also considered to be important. A vision that can be shared by the whole organisation, Keith said, will encourage a shared commitment to its values.

Performance in the midst of protest

Perhaps the most dramatic story of the day was shared by Clare Mackie, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Learning and Teaching at the University of Sussex.

Clare described a period in her institution’s history that was marred by discontent, and characterised by demonstrations from both staff and student communities. Historically, the university has always had a relatively robust protest culture. But between 2010 and 2013, a programme of job cuts and outsourcing planned by the administration became the focus for a particularly volatile phase of unrest.

Amidst the police riot vans, student occupations and arrests of that time (on one occasion Clare described being bundled between buildings by security, draped in protective sheets while protesters howled her name) she had the unenviable task of rescuing the university from a set of chronic problems that had started to become uncomfortably visible. Resisting the temptation to implement a quick fix, Clare fought for a longer-term fundamental re-think of the way the institution operated.

As part of her diagnostic strategy, Clare chose to communicate directly with staff and students — and not only student representatives, but “regular” students. Her methods went against the cultural grain of the university at that time, and Clare occasionally found herself having to defend her communication tactics against critical senior members of staff who felt they had been bypassed.

Among many insights that she gained, Clare discovered that a significant percentage of students were suffering from stress as a result of the way academic assessment had been structured. Some students were having to sit up to 17 exams at a time. Over the next eighteen months, Clare led a programme of change which aimed at nothing less than a complete restructuring of the academic year, and a redesign of the modular framework for degree courses.

As a result of her efforts, student completion rates improved dramatically, and graduate employability rocketed to 72%.

Reflecting upon these successes, Clare referred to John Kotter’s model of transformational change, and pointed to a number of key elements that influenced her experience of change at Sussex:

  • the shared sense of urgency was important for overcoming institutional inertia;
  • to be effective, change teams needed to be integrated and non-hierarchical;
  • staff on the ‘front line’ of academic practice needed to feel a true sense of ownership over the changes being implemented;
  • the change itself had to grow organically from within;
  • senior staff needed to be engaged in the process from the earliest stages.

Begin with existing pockets of excellence

Finally, Jennifer Barnes, Pro-Vice Chancellor for International Strategy at the University of Cambridge, offered a glimpse into how change can be created without necessarily having the executive authority to impose it.

To navigate a productive pathway through a long-established institutional culture, Jennifer became an expert in cultivating influence and creating change through subtle but powerful means. She ultimately succeeded in creating a robust international engagement strategy for her university, and in the process she learned valuable lessons about creating change under the radar.

Jennifer suggested that change agents should begin by appreciating the things that are already going well in the institution. Identify the people who hold attitudes that are in alignment with the desired change, and find pockets of practice that exemplify the direction you want to move in. It is much easier to focus on things that people are already doing well, and then encourage them to do more of that. It dissolves the fear of change, of the unknown.

It was not long before Jennifer’s colleagues started to ask how they could build upon their current successes to make their international efforts even more fruitful. In this way, the foundation for an international strategy was born, and it was partly driven in the end by the very people that Jennifer may otherwise have struggled to convince.

This served as another reminder of the point made earlier by Clare Mackie, that stakeholders in the change process must hold ownership over the idea and its implementation.

So, these were the highlights of the day, for me at least. I found the stories and conversations very inspiring. I hope that, in accordance with the vision described by co-organisers Tom Irvine and Rebecca Nestor, that this becomes a regular event and eventually forms the basis for a UK community of practice around issues of institutional change in higher education.

I am very grateful to the Educational Development Unit at the University of Greenwich for funding my travel to Reading, and for facilitating my participation in this experience.