Why change management often goes wrong in higher education

“Many institutions need to streamline how they run, redefine roles and processes and adapt the technology they use to deliver meaningful transformation”

There are some significant challenges ahead for the UK’s higher education sector in 2024.

Not least, attracting and retaining quality staff, supporting students through a cost-of-living crisis, falling international student numbers and the rising cost of keeping the lights on.

To address these challenges and remain competitive, many institutions need to streamline how they run, redefine roles and processes and adapt the technology they use to deliver meaningful transformation. Without effective change management, this can be a huge mountain to climb.

There are some pitfalls universities regularly fall into when planning and implementing change at scale.

Below are four common change management mistakes, along with strategies to help institutions
avoid the stumbling blocks.

1. Don’t underestimate the impact of change

Discussions often take place with a handful of key people closely involved in planning and implementing change, such as an IT lead and department heads. This is where things can go wrong very quickly.

Universities need a clear understanding of what impact changes will have on every part of the institution. The only way to get this is to speak to the people who know.

“Conversations need to happen at every level. Everyone from admissions, faculty, student services and stakeholders can provide unique insight into how a new IT system or purchasing process will affect their ability to do their jobs,” says Krissi Sanft, managing director at change management consultancy, Portare Solutions.

Capture students’ views too – knowing what student priorities are will help you improve their overall experience. And don’t overlook the potential impact on external service providers. Suddenly receiving invoices differently might cause delays and have a knock-on effect on the institution’s finances.

A well thought out plan for change which takes into account the impact on all stakeholders is more likely to get buy-in and encourage people to embrace change or new ways of working.

2. Don’t let fear get in the way

Few project managers enjoy hearing complaints about current working practice or how staff think an institution is run, warts and all. But this is the only way to ensure change makes a positive difference to people’s experiences.

Don’t fear listening to the concerns of staff about what change means for them, their role and how they do their jobs. Make people feel they can be honest with no repercussions, even if it’s hard to hear.

Knowing what people feel negative or nervous about – whether concerns are real or perceived – will make transformation much easier, helping you tackle the right issues and better support staff through change.

3. Avoid leadership from a distance

Senior leaders of large organisations frequently keep their distance when it comes to institutional change. A university’s vice-chancellor may regard digital transformation as something that happens in the operational areas of the institution, but the involvement of leadership is critical to successful change management.

“Senior leaders of universities who play a full and active role in driving the journey towards change, automatically create a sense that everyone is in it together working towards a shared goal. This collective commitment is a powerful way to drive a project forward,” adds Tilden Lamb, managing director at Portare Solutions.

4. Bring in the experts

Far too often, institutions attempt to manage complex digital transformation projects internally. This almost inevitably leads to disappointing outcomes, staff resistance to change and new IT solutions specifically designed to drive improvement not being used to their full potential.

Bringing in a team of change management experts who understand the higher education sector, and can oversee the project from start to finish, means the university can focus on its key priority of delivering education excellence. The right team will have the skill set and experience to ensure change meets an institution’s overall business objectives, navigate cultural shifts, engage all stakeholders and craft effective communications programmes to manage opposition to change.

They can design effective training programmes to embed new systems and processes smoothly and ensure feedback mechanisms are in place to address any unexpected issues.

Co-ordinated project management is the bedrock of any successful change or digital transformation and universities that take this approach are much more likely to see projects delivered on time, within budget.

The higher education sector can’t afford to stand still. With a more strategic approach to change management, universities can evolve to meet the challenges ahead and continue to ensure the best possible outcomes for students.

About the author: Pete Moss is former manager at Staffordshire University and now director at Ellucian, who work with Portare Solutions to support meaningful transformation across the higher education sector.