Universities aim to create and share knowledge. This mission, along with the robust and rigid departmental structure of most institutions creates unique challenges to managing organisational change. Here SUMS Principal Consultant, Fola Ikpehai, reflects on how accelerated change over the past four years has shaped what we know about change management in higher education.

In this article, I take a brief trip down memory lane as I consider how much the approach to change management has evolved in the Higher Education (HE) sector over the last four years since I joined SUMS Consulting in 2018.

Universities are about creating knowledge. They disseminate and engage people in that creation in a way that most other organisations do not. The culture in institutions is often siloed, with individual loyalty being to the faculty, college, school or department. These qualities tend to create a unique culture and way of working that can make managing organisational change within the HE sector more challenging than in other sectors.

But perhaps the last few years, as we have come through one of the most disruptive periods in living memory, have helped demonstrate the importance of a robust, effective approach to change management.

Here are my reflections.

Change Management: Pre-Pandemic

Talking about change management at institutions pre-pandemic was always interesting. While there was a wide range of approaches and views, most conversations about change were steered towards managing projects. In many institutions, there did not appear to be a clear recognition of project management (technical change) and people change management as complementary disciplines.

With not enough of a focus on people change, we saw institutions deliver project outputs- sometimes at huge expense – but with staff in the institution not ready to receive the change and, therefore, not realising the benefits.

Surveys of institutions showed that most universities considered technical change much more important than people change. Very few gave them equal priority, and none that I spoke to at the time saw people change as more important than technical change.

Change practitioners discussed barriers such as:

  • no formal sponsorship for change, or sponsorship in name only
  • limited recognition of the need to resource change management interventions
  • limited or no analysis of the key drivers for change
  • change interventions that were reactive when they did occur
  • difficulty in communicating the benefits of adopting a robust approach to people change
  • lack of capacity to adopt a robust approach to people change
  • limited or no focus on changing mindsets, culture or behaviours.

Change Management: During the Pandemic

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was no time for planning and strategy development as a starting point. Instead, leaders deployed emergency measures to maintain core elements of service provision. The level of disruption experienced by the sector resulted in heightened levels of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Perhaps the role of change practitioners in the sector was evolving and being given a higher priority.

While prioritisation might have been the case in some institutions, there were several cases of change teams not being at the forefront of operational shifts made in response to Covid-19.  I saw three responses from change professionals:

  • Passive role: “Our team has been a recipient of change along with everyone else in the University.”
  • Active role: “We have been working with our Leadership Team to define and implement our strategy for change.”
  • Somewhere in the middle: “A bit hit and miss. We have been involved in some decisions but not others!”

As a sector, we got through the pandemic. However, clearly, there were some missed opportunities to take advantage of change capability during a period where it was necessary to manage diverse emotions and support senior leadership in giving hope and reassurance.

Change Management: Present Day

A quote from a member of the SUMS Change Community summarises things perfectly: “We still need to do the transformation – Covid-19 was just a catalyst.

While highlighting the current landscape as “still challenging”, members of the SUMS Change Community have identified “a positive shift in the sector towards people change”. There is now a recognition that reaching a steady state takes more than assuming that things will all just fall into place.

It seems that change practitioners are finally coming into their own as universities transition to a new ‘business as usual’ following Covid-19. Change practitioners are helping to refocus their institutions and their people as universities move from reactivity and uncertainty towards a focus on planning.

There is also evidence of a move towards ensuring that change management competency is evident at all levels within institutions – not solely the responsibility of a central Change Management Team.

Currently, the focus for many organisations, including the HE sector, is developing new ways of working as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. In line with adopting an effective approach to change, there is a drive to learn from approaches deployed during the pandemic and execute this learning as we implement a ‘business as usual’ beyond Covid-19.

Here are the questions now being discussed across the sector:

  • What has changed pre-, during, and post-pandemic?
  • How has it changed?
  • How do stakeholders feel about what has changed?
  • What has worked well and what has not worked so well?
  • What do we need to keep from the changes we have undergone during the pandemic?
  • What are the critical success factors for the short-, medium-, and long-term?
  • What actions are important to deliver against these critical success factors?

The AUA Conference

At the AUA Conference on the 7th and 8th of July, I am looking forward to sharing our findings from research that SUMS has conducted within and outside the sector.

Join me at the session “Ways of Working Post-Covid-19: A Sector Perspective”. In the session, you can share your views on how your institution is prioritising people change in the post-pandemic world.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Find out more information about the AUA Annual Conference here.


Originally written for the Association of University Administrators (AUA), this article is also on the AUA website. The piece was also published as part of their Professional Development Monthly eDigest, which you can see here – https://aua.ac.uk/development-monthly/

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