May 17, 2017

Effective Change Management in Higher Education

We interview change management in higher education specialist Aya Ferguson about effective ways to improve the success of change initiatives.

It’s no secret that there is a bit of a Copernican revolution taking place within Higher Education. We’ve all been busy re-drawing our maps of the world to place the student firmly at the centre of the new universe. The changes, however, are still coming thick and fast, such as TEF, and the competition is intensifying for students both domestic and international.

To remain competitive, universities need to implement changes faster, better and more cost-effectively. And doing that requires good change management. Not just how we invest in transformation and project manage those changes but how we get everyone on board and drive through new thinking and behaviours to make improvements a reality. So how can universities deliver change more effectively?

Aya Ferguson is passionate about delivering change in Higher Education. She is an expert who has led transformational work across a number of different universities, she also played a significant role in the 2012 Olympics. Quite simply, her view is that unless you bring people with you on the change journey – unless they are engaged, excited and understand what and why they need to change – then change simply won’t be sustainable.

Here is what she had to say when we asked her about effective ways that change management in Higher Education can be better delivered:

1. Don’t communicate the answer before you’ve communicated the challenge

 “Too often I meet frustrated sponsors who don’t understand why their message has fallen flat or been outright rejected. You’ve likely spent 18 months wrestling with the problem, coming up with different options to tackle it, settling on the solution and committing to it. Don’t think for a moment that your staff can go through that entire process in the space of one email or presentation. You have to be communicating throughout the process, right from the beginning at the identification of a need for change, reminding everyone why you’re doing this, what the vision is, what the benefits are and what will happen if you don’t make this change. For example, start by laying out the challenge in the first communication, set the scene: This is what we’re facing and we will be engaging you all on it soon.”

2. Managers must communicate, the change managers help them do it 

“Change managers communicate well, it’s part of their core skillset but that doesn’t mean you should hand the comms over to them. Research shows that communication should come from senior management and line managers, they need to be seen as serious about the changes and to be following up on their word. I’ll say, I can write this, I can advise you on the best format, wording, timing and channel but it needs to come from you.”

3. Train heads of department in change leadership and management 

“Remember that Heads of Department typically manage upwards but not downwards. It’s a role they take on for a limited tenure before returning to their normal role. They’re very sensitive to what peers in their department think of them as a result. They often see the role as representing colleagues, not managing them and challenging them on resistance to change. But they’ll be in that role for four to five years so invest in their soft skills. Research shows that the most important factor for change management in Higher Education – to successfully get staff to accept and adopt change – is the line manager. Leading a team through change requires a different skill set to leading in steady state. The correct support from heads of department is critical.”

4. Don’t tell people what to think, let them work it through 

“Academics are hired for their individual critical thinking and they take great professional pride in this. If you tell them what to think, they’re not going to react well. Don’t say, ‘we’re going to buy this amazing building and you’re going to love it!’ More subtle persuasion is needed to deliver change and the benefits. Share the challenge and potential options with them. Openness and transparency is key. Allow academics to arrive at the conclusion themselves and you’ll have powerful allies.”

5. A portfolio management mind-set is key

“As change is compounded upon change, it’s easy for your staff and organisation to become fatigued. Stick to the vision, cut out the pet projects. Ask yourself, ‘It needs to be done but does it need to be done now?’ The more change initiatives that are going on at the same time, the less effective each will be, that’s why portfolio management is important. A few key changes delivered well are better than lots of changes delivered poorly.”

If you have any questions about change management in higher education or comments for Aya, please get in touch on this page Higher Education.

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