November 30, 2018

Five Ways Colleges and Universities Can Better Manage the Change Process

Managing Change

Higher education is doing a poor job of adapting to and managing organizational change. Only 34 percent of university faculty and staff are engaged (Gallup). Less than 40 percent of college freshman are engaged (NSSE). Only about 50 percent of undergraduate students are satisfied (RNL). Across industries, 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail (Harvard Business Review).

Colleges and universities are facing big cultural, demographic, technological, and financial shifts. In 2014, U.S. grade schools became majority minority (NCES) and universities will soon have their most diverse classes to-date; 38 percent of today’s undergraduate are over 25 years old (Lumina Foundation), 74 percent of undergraduates prefer a course that combines face-to-face and online instruction (EDUCAUSE), and recently, state funding for higher educations has decreased by 21 percent while enrollment increased by eight percent (Pew).

In the face this shifting landscape, the status quo isn’t a viable option. So institutions are striving for greater accessibility, diversity, sustainability, and accountability. Learning, research, student services, and operations are all changing both on-campus and online.

What’s Changing Colleges and Universities?

Colleges and universities don’t handle organizational change well. While we see some that institutions get it, we see a lot of common missteps like:

  • Moving to courses that blend face-to-face and online interaction without helping faculty develop the new skills required or without changing their classrooms.
  • Consolidating student service desks without reorganizing the departments that staff them.
  • Offering more and more research support services without defining how the services relate, providing guidance as to how to navigate, or orienting faculty on where to start.
  • Changing a space and then assuming students, faculty, and staff will miraculously work differently in them without any instruction or even communication.

These are just some of the change management problems we see every day.

What’s Broken with How Most Institutions Handle Change?

Most institutions have no awareness of or strategic approach to change management at all; they either talk about a change too much (or not at all), make the change, and hope for the best — treating a change as an event instead of a process. Changes are not thought about systemically or holistically; for instance, a new curriculum is unveiled to emphasize active learning in the classroom, yet the campus is mostly lecture halls with fixed seating and outdated technology. Changes are often discussed in committees for too long, which undermines the input and feedback because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere; and this is a shame because a sense of progress is something that Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile has shown is one of the best motivators.

Five Things You Can Do to Manage Change at Your Institution

So what should you do differently? Understand how change works, think of change as an experience, run a diagnostic and design a change program, make the process participatory, and use a lean process to prototype and pilot your way to success through failure.

  1. Understand how change works. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers identified how ideas spread over time from innovators, to early adopters that want to try new things, to an early majority that look to early adopters as an example, to a late majority who’ll adopt an idea after a tipping point, to laggards who’ll only change when they have to. He also identified key decision criteria: make a new idea easy to observe, understand, and try out, while making its compatibility and relative advantages clear.
  2. Think of change as an experience. Change is a process, not an event. So, you need to understand people’s current experiences and design future experiences by thinking through all the touchpoints — the moments they interact with information, technology, spaces, and each other — over time. This will enable you to be concrete about what a change will mean for people in the future, how it will be different, and how it will be better. The process itself should also be an experience. Newsletters, workshops, field trips, and town halls are a good start.
  3. Run a diagnostic and design a change program. Rogers’ lessons are important design principles for any organizational change program. To design the program, map out the different stakeholders and perform a diagnostic that gives you a sense of change readiness and a baseline you’ll measure future progress against. Then design a program to address the gaps so people are informed, excited, and prepared. Think not just in terms of one-way communication, but rather, in terms of interaction and what tangible assistance you’ll provide, such as welcome guides, help-desks, and on-call advice.
  4. Make the process participatory. There is a sweet spot between committee meetings that don’t seem to go anywhere and change by fiat with no consultation. Find yours based on the change readiness diagnostic you’ll do early on as well as thinking through who your stakeholders are in Rogers’ categories so that you have a mix and early adopters who can be your champions that convince the early and late majorities. By involving people in the change, they are more likely to be on board and advocate for it rather than see it as something that was done to them.
  5. Put it all together in a lean process. Rather than big, slow, and risky, at brightspot we prefer small, fast, and aiming for “safe to try” instead of perfect. So, start by prototyping the change with something as simple as a mock-up sketch or video so that you can get feedback. Then, move into pilot mode as quickly as you can. Consolidating service points? Create a pop-up for a week. Moving to blended learning? Launch a few pilot courses. Creating active learning spaces? Find a room with a flat floor, rearrange it, and start there. Then, measure your progress against the baseline you created, tweak it (or start over), and scale up.

If institutions want student success, increased research productivity, and effective operations, then change management needs to become a core competency. It will take a better understanding of people’s behaviors, motivations, and decision-making processes. It will mean understanding that change is something people experience over time, not as an isolated event. It will take a process that people have genuinely participated in and felt heard. It will have to scale up successful prototypes and pilot initiatives rather than making change big, slow, risky and ineffective.

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