How to make change a reality in UK universities

By Ian Matthias

Universities need to successfully deliver change in response to rapidly shifting economic, competitive, operational and regulatory conditions. But our in-depth study found three quarters of university change programmes fail to achieve all their objectives. Problems include a lack of leadership support, overloaded agendas and skills shortages. Our analysis uncovers the opportunities for leaders in higher education to overcome these challenges.

We carried out detailed interviews with more than 40 higher education leaders involved in leading change. Participants included heads of strategic change offices, portfolio directors and programme managers of significant transformations. Our analysis suggests leaders need to nurture a dynamic and positive approach to change management. That means recognising it’s holistic and takes commitment, the right skills, and buy-in and awareness across the entire organisation. There are three key focus areas for leaders:

  • Being strategic
  • Supporting broader change management capability
  • Seizing the moment.

Being strategic

Our investigation reveals a major barrier to success is the breadth, size and complexity of the change portfolios underway. The kinds of change involved include creating an integrated student experience, digital transformations and organisation restructures. Many universities have over 100 active substantive change projects, and several have closer to 200. So, a first step is for leaders to understand the workload, ruthlessly prioritise objectives and realistically resource programmes and the change management function. The change team should have a seat at the leadership table, to help shape strategy – and convey the impact of proposals and what’s realistically achievable.

It's also important to learn from failure (and success). As we’ve uncovered in our study and interviews with higher education leaders, a significant majority of programmes don’t achieve all their objectives. And close to half fail completely or deliver just some of their objectives, wasting time and money. But that also means most change programmes succeed to some extent. Leaders need to understand what influences the outcome. One participant said their change programmes “fail because of constant rescoping and not having any solid governance in place.” Governance was a recurring issue, with some reporting it was difficult to measure success (or otherwise) because of a lack of agreed oversight. An agreed baseline of measurement for outcomes and benefits will shift the narrative of failure or success from a subjective debate to a clearly defined metric.

Another significant issue could be how well-established an institution’s change function is. Most universities say they have resource in place, but numbers and ratios vary widely, with structures evolving over time. In our experience, taking planned action early to mature your change function is a valuable investment. That involves:

  • making conscious choices about structure – define roles and responsibilities and how to work together (whether or not there’s one hierarchical structure).
  • introducing a tiered approach – match projects and programmes to levels of resource based on priority, scale and complexity. (From ‘toolkits’ for tier 1, where a light-touch is enough, to training, advisors and coaches for tier 2, where more structured and direct guidance is needed. Then part-time or full-time dedicated resource for tiers 3 and 4, where large-scale transformation is planned.)
  • recruiting creatively – combine fixed-term and permanent posts with in-house secondments. One university we spoke to seconds staff into a Change Lead role for two years. Involving people who understand their university context and have existing internal networks is a great advantage. And they go back to their roles with an expanded skillset.

Supporting broader change management capability

Effective change relies on leaders creating the right conditions – and the governance of an institution can affect delivery. It’s essential to review how to manage change within the existing institutional structure and governance. Russell Group universities told us it’s the biggest challenge to successful delivery. Widely known for their highly devolved and democratic operating models, they’ll need to be imaginative in finding ways to establish capabilities across the organisation, differentiating the governance needed for change, streamlining decision making, and building a change capability that can work across the existing structure.

Central to supporting a broader capability is to upskill people, especially where change functions have limited capacity and resources. But our analysis shows it’s one of the least popular strategies institutions adopt. One participant told us: “We’re heavily reliant on the organisation to deliver change projects...we don’t have enough people with an understanding of the value of change as a discipline.” Universities can:

  • coach sponsors and leaders using tailored programmes
  • develop key individuals in highly impacted areas in guiding and managing a team through change
  • build awareness of the importance and reality of what change involves through university-wide communications and bite-size learning resources.

Seizing the moment

During the COVID-19 pandemic, universities moved mountains. There were changes in everyday working patterns, digital tools and online learning. Our study reveals many universities approached change differently – and this elevated the change team’s role and outcomes in the eyes of the organisation. One participant said: “The work we did was more visible and ultimately led to the [change] team being more valued.” There’s no need to let this slip. Higher education leaders can harness the pandemic momentum by remembering:

  • online engagement increases reach and gives a voice to those previously unheard
  • decisions can be expedited with deadlines and streamlined committees and structures
  • a minimum viable product can be better than aiming for perfection from the start
  • multidisciplinary transformation teams are critical
  • accelerated change is possible.

On the heels of what was accomplished, it’s an ideal time to grow wider awareness of the importance of change management. Only half of our respondents feel executive teams have a high understanding, just under half think professional service leads do, and just a fifth believe academic leaders get it. This falls far short of what’s needed, with one participant adding: “Our leadership have difficulty acknowledging there’s something they don’t know how to do. They need to be coached and given the tools and support to lead change.” Senior leadership endorsement is the number one thing our participants believe would support more effective change management. Leaders need to invest in their own training and development.

Digitisation was central to the pandemic response and universities need to continue gearing up for digital change. Most identify digital as a driver of change and have at least one digitally-enabled programme within their portfolio. These transformations need new skills and conditions together with cultural and behavioural change. And they take more than investment in technology. In education and beyond, we’re seeing organisations re-thinking their approach. For example:

  • Designing and implementing solutions with the user at the centre, resolving fragmentation in systems and processes, and encouraging experimentation and iterative improvements to user experience over time
  • Building stronger and more strategic partnerships with external suppliers – alongside more rigorous commercial management to allow better planning around changing needs
  • Developing in-house skills to equip teams with knowledge and experience and ownership around digital design and successful adoption of solutions.

Make change happen – and stick

Our findings point the way for UK universities to get better at delivering transformation. Change on the scale planned requires awareness, understanding, engagement and behavioural change in large numbers of people. The more leaders can do to support and equip them, the greater the capability of the university to successfully make change happen – and stick.

About the authors

Ian Matthias PA education expert Ian is a highly experienced Higher Education expert and is at the forefront of designing innovative university change programmes to transform operations and deliver sustainable improvements.

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