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University leaders must rethink how they design institutional change

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The higher education sector in the UK is facing a need to deliver change on multiple fronts as it grapples with how to deliver more from less, the demands of government and regulators, the needs of students and the opportunities offered by new technologies.

This has led to large portfolios of change initiatives across institutions – covering institutional strategies, organisational structures, ways of working, processes and systems.

But there is a widespread view that universities are not good at change. There have been some high-profile change programmes that have failed and many others that, while not outright disasters, have delivered much less than was intended. Often change is seen as unnecessarily time consuming, costly and disruptive to research and teaching.

A new HEPI Report, Change by Design:How universities should design change initiatives for success, by Paul Woodgates, a strategic adviser and non-executive in the sector, explores why this is the case.

The report suggests that the key to improved outcomes from change projects is to focus on the design of the change process itself.

Before beginning work on any change project, the report argues, universities should answer five questions:

  1. Why is the change necessary? – a clear articulation of the case for moving away from what exists now;
  2. What will replace the status quo? – a description of what will exist as a result of the change, and why that option is preferred to any other;
  3. How will the move from the status quo to the future state be achieved? – a definition of the logical steps that need to be gone through to achieve a successful outcome;
  4. What change delivery model will be employed? – covering decisions about how change will be managed in terms of speed, degree of central direction and approach; and
  5. What would success look like? – clearly setting out what specific outcomes would constitute a success from the change.

The report argues that only with this clarity about the design of the change project can success be achieved and the many pitfalls be avoided.

Paul Woodgates, the author of the new HEPI report, said:

‘My experience of working with over 40 universities of different types in my career has shown that while the higher education sector has successfully implemented huge changes in response to external circumstances – from the marketisation of higher education to the demands of operating under lockdown – the experience within individual institutions is often that change projects do not deliver as intended. Many university leaders have told me that change is much too hard.

‘My proposal is that far more effort and focus needs to be applied to the design of change projects. This requires a more thoughtful analysis of what the change is for and how it will achieve its intended outcomes. Critically, this design must be agreed by the leadership and those charged with delivering the change. Only then can success be achieved.’

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

‘As a Board member of two very different universities, I have seen how challenging it can be to deliver real change in our sector. It takes preparedness, dedication and a willingness to listen and learn. This report explains what to do to increase the chances of success – and, even more importantly, what to avoid.

‘There is a constrained funding environment and more regulation than ever before, meaning it has become harder and harder to run universities smoothly. But the features that make life so challenging can also make reforms essential. Yet the stakes are very high, so this new guide should be of huge value to those in positions of power and influence.’

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