“Transformation” in Higher Education – six questions | AUA Blog

Andrew WestDr Andrew West, FAUA

Dr Andrew West, FAUA has worked in HE administration/management for thirty years. Formerly University Secretary at the University of Sheffield he is Strategic Adviser to the AUA and Managing Consultant for AUA Consulting. Andrew is a member of the Board of Governors of Leeds Beckett University, an Associate of Advance HE and a Fellow of the Halpin Partnership.

Many HE institutions have embarked on major change (or “transformation”) projects of various kinds, often involving significant organisational review and/or enterprise IT systems development. Multi-million £ investments can be involved. Some universities struggle with large scale change; the challenges are significant and exploring all the associated issues would fill many column inches. In this short blog I simply want to reflect on six questions which universities seem to be grappling with at present. My reflections are based on recent engagement, as a consultant, with ten such change programmes at different institutions across the UK HE sector. I would be interested in whether these themes feel relevant in your context and/or how you might be experiencing the issues in your university.

1. Defining Scope
Several HEIs have chosen to set out a path towards major change with a very broad scope, for example focusing on student-related activity (“the student journey”) while also incorporating change in areas like IT, teaching & assessment practice, the structure of the academic year, staff roles and responsibilities, and a range of other matters. By contrast other universities have preferred to draw together a series of smaller change initiatives with a view to effecting incremental development across related areas. When determining project definition and scope, arguably institutions avoid some of the business risks associated with huge ‘transformation’ programmes by taking an incremental/portfolio approach. On the other hand I have seen how it can prove very difficult to achieve a step-change across multiple separate projects, and the university community may develop a negative perception of initiative overload. ‘Portfolio’ project management is a specific skillset.

2. Leading Transformation
When engaging with transformation programmes, I have been struck by the different ways in which universities choose to secure governance oversight and executive leadership for major change. It can be challenging to get the balance right when involving governors (or not), particularly if change projects have significant financial implications and/or raise questions about institutional level risk. Clarity of executive leadership/sponsorship seems equally important in providing the vision and drive required in major change programmes with whole-institution implications. A key question is whether effective leadership advocacy and championing is genuinely available from the university executive in a timely fashion – particularly at project milestone points and when the more difficult decisions need to be taken.

3. Coordinating Change
An increasing number of universities have established professional services teams with a specific change/transformation remit, likely incorporating colleagues with professional project management training. And for more than ten years AUA has supported change practitioners

through its ‘Managing Change in HE’ network, and the associated annual open forum. It is clear to me that the contribution of professional services teams will continue to be critical in facilitating HE change effectively. On that basis a key question for institutions is how these colleagues are supported in their professional learning and development, including opportunities to learn from practice inside and outside the sector, notwithstanding the competitive pressures which might have encouraged a change initiative in the first place.

4. Getting Help
It is probably self-evident that universities will not (arguably should not) possess in-house all the capability required to deliver largescale change effectively and there will almost certainly be a need to secure external help in some form, making use of temporary appointments, secondments, consultancy contractors, and the like. As I look at it, a key question concerns an institution’s readiness to harness external perspectives and/or embrace external direction. This is probably more a cultural than an organisational challenge – considering how the depth of in-sector experience within a university should be balanced with expert out-of-HE contributions, and how the various roles and responsibilities are defined and managed to avoid unproductive overlap/duplication/collision. Points made above about leadership and coordination are relevant in grappling with these risks, and formal project management methodologies are also likely to assist.

5. Ensuring Delivery
As a consultant I typically encounter major change projects at a particular point in their evolution – and many such projects have an extended timescale over a period of years. In this context succession planning – to ensure continuity in project delivery – clearly needs to be an ongoing focus for universities. Some of the difficult questions include how best to navigate the departure of a key executive sponsor, if that happens mid-project (potentially reinforcing the importance of governance oversight as mentioned above), how to react to changes in the external environment (new regulator, anyone?) and how to transition away from external direction towards business-as-usual coordination in-house at the appropriate point. Project management ‘burn out’ can be another delivery risk, emphasising the points I have already made about encouraging professional development in the change team.

6. Communicating Clearly
Finally a brief reflection about language and nomenclature, including the inevitable acronyms which can pepper change initiatives with a curiously impenetrable ‘project-speak’. Transformation – a word implying dramatic or radical change – has arguably been over-utilised in the relatively constrained context of higher education; its use can certainly prove a hostage to fortune. Thinking of the likely need to secure widespread (whole community) engagement across an institution in support of major change there are challenging questions around how best to communicate for maximum positive impact. Sensible communication principles might include preferring plain English, using straightforward terminology and avoiding jargon. Scenarios can also help in setting a vision and making change real.


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