6 steps to successfully manage change in higher education

There is a reason ‘change management’ has become an industry in its own right. From Harvard Business School courses[1] and PwC reports[2] to New York Times bestsellers[3], hundreds of thousands of words have been written about how to best manage the change process and that is because it is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

6 steps to successfully manage change in higher education

Studies have found one in three CEOs have failed to achieve the desired outcomes from transformation initiatives[4], while research advisory firm Gartner says the typical organisation has undertaken five major firmwide changes in the past three years – half of which failed and only 34% were a clear success[5]. Step into the higher education sector and the results are even more startling, with reports that 80% of all change initiatives fail to realise the expectations leadership had for them[6].

What is higher education change management?

Higher education change management is the process of preparing a tertiary institution and associated departments, staff and students for an upcoming change, developing an operational plan to guide the process and implementing the transformation.

Why is change management difficult for universities?

Few sectors are under more pressure to roll out change initiatives than higher education. The global pandemic caused a devastating fall in overseas enrolments. The battle for funding is ever-present as governments tighten purse strings. Digital transformation is a top priority as students demand more online courses. The challenge for universities is they also confront unique workplace and cultural conditions that make managing change difficult. These include:

  • Multiple faculties, schools, campuses and departments operating under one banner

  • Heavily unionised workforces
  • Highly educated staff, some of whom believe they know better than ‘administrators’
  • Academics who pledge allegiance to their disciplines over their employers, and
  • A culture of consensus-based decision-making.

Given such hurdles, it is essential for tertiary leaders to proactively bring their staff, students and partners on the change journey and that starts with knowing the key steps for doing so.

  1. Start with the end in mind – it seems obvious but many universities make the mistake of declaring change without having a clear vision of what they want to achieve. Such initiatives are typically doomed from the start as a roadmap is not only a crucial guide for leaders rolling out the change but instills confidence in the stakeholders being asked to embrace it.
  2. Communicate the need for change – in exploring the dynamics of managing change in Australian universities, PwC shared the tale of one institution where staff felt they were not sufficiently consulted before the announcement of major changes to its operating model[7]. The result was a workforce that immediately felt disenfranchised and an executive that found it difficult to retain and attract not only the number but calibre of staff it required to gain momentum. Do not make the same mistake.
  3. Support stakeholders before, during and after – words are important but they mean little if staff, students and partners do not have the tools needed to adapt to change. Employing a dedicated training and support team is a great way to ensure all stakeholders have access to new systems or processes that will allow them to adapt to the new normal. It is also important to maintain momentum, with ongoing support crucial in identifying and overcoming new hurdles that arise due to the change.
  4. Plan for fatigue – the road to true change can be long, which is why it is essential to be ready for stakeholder fatigue to set in. Keep an eye out for administrators slacking off on tasks or academics starting to bemoan the process. This is the time to shake things up. Try assigning new leaders to create renewed enthusiasm, rolling out team-building exercises or celebrating the wins you have already achieved. It is all about making a long journey not so arduous.
  5. Embrace automation – respected advisory firm Forrester says many change initiatives fail due to staff being overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of change – manual documentation of changes, lengthy approval processes, redundant meetings and inefficient risk assessment processes[8]. Cutting-edge tools such as robotic process automation, intelligent document processing and AI-assisted automation can help automate change management and, in doing so, make the process faster, cheaper and more enjoyable for stakeholders.
  6. Measure your success – few sectors place more value on results than higher education and it should be no different when managing change. Once a process has been rolled out, continue to monitor and analyse performance to ensure it is achieving its purpose. This includes ongoing communication with stakeholders, measuring KPIs and realigning activities as needed. A post-implementation review should also be completed to reflect on what worked well and what could be improved the next time change is needed.

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[1] Harvard ManageMentor: Change Management | Harvard Business Publishing Education
[2] strategyand-ten-guiding-principles-of-change-management.pdf (pwc.com)
[3] Business Books - Best Sellers - Books (nytimes.com)
[4] Change Management Statistics You Need to Know in 2023 (walkme.com)
[5] Organizational Change Management | HR Insights | Gartner.com
[6] Higher Ed Higher Education Change Management | The Change Leader (changinghighered.com)
[7] Managing Change in Australian Universities (pwc.com)
[8] The New Change Management: Automated And Decentralized (forrester.com)

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