The Future Is Change

Supporting change with a project

What challenges are today's higher education institutions facing?

In times marked by globalisation and digitalisation, the topic of change management is being introduced more often into higher education. The education system has been undergoing changes for many years, and each year presents it with new challenges: The Bologna Process and the resulting introduction of bachelor's and master's degree programmes, the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), the cooperation and merger of educational institutions, and their transformation into independent organisations, not to mention the use and increasing popularity of e-learning methods and the increasing trend to digitalise internal university processes (Greiner, 2014).

These are just a few examples of the changes that higher education institutions have had to deal with in recent years. However, the efforts to ensure that the degree programme goals, content, and methods offered at higher education institutions (HEIs) are up to date and to introduce systems that support quality management and evaluation, as well as professional human resources management and development, have also made long-term changes in HEIs (Wehrlin, 2011).


What specific characteristics do change processes at higher education institutions have that make them so special?

As a result of the changes we have just described, HEIs have gained more formal independence and are now characterised by a decentralized structure with faculties and institutes that function independently. Although they are no longer subject to tight control by the state, the HEIs still must compete with each other to get their share of state funds. Faculties and institutes are being increasingly forced to deal with (business) economic issues, meaning that their leaders must face challenges that require organisational skills and management knowledge (Sonntag et al., 2008).

If we view the HEI as an independent organisation, we quickly see that recognising staff contributions is even more relevant for its 'success' than it would be if it were a business. Why? Well, one of the reasons is that career paths in science still predominantly lead outside of the organisation, wending through the scientific community. In principle, HEIs still have a strongly hierarchical and traditionally organised structures, i.e. rather rigid. However, researchers must constantly question the existing structures and their view of the world and adapt their actions to fit the answers (Graf-Schlattmann et al., 2020).

Tried-and-true change management methods, even if they have proved successful in private companies, cannot simply be applied to HEIs (Sonntag et al., 2008). Moreover, due to the decentralised nature of universities, communication often takes place in many different ways. In times such as these, when everything is changing, it is important to always have all the facts and to be involved in decisions. This requires information, transparent communication, and participation.

So, if we fall back on our example from the scientific field of action, one clear message that can be conveyed to the scientific staff is that a specific change management process does not try to interfere with scientific freedom; instead, it tries to improve processes.

Information, participation, designs that evoke responses, and staff support so that they can adapt their skills to meet the new requirements…all of these can cancel out factors of uncertainty and help to ensure that change management processes are perceived as being as fair as possible (Sonntag et al., 2008). To anchor change sustainably, social acceptance of the change has to happen – in the sense of a shared understanding among staff regarding the need for and benefits of the change – for it to have a lasting impact in the HEI environment (Graf-Schlattmann et al., 2020).


Which concept is used as a basis for successfully carrying out a change management plan at HEIs?

If change management is understood as the conscious design (initiation, planning, coordination and monitoring, finalisation and anchoring) of fundamental change processes, the special features of HEIs described above must be considered (Greiner, 2014). Figure 1 illustrates a further modification of Kotter's 8-step model and serves as a conceptual guide for four concept papers that build on each other.


The change process at HEIs

The four concept papers are divided into the four phases of change. They guide the reader through the requirements and duties associated with a successful change management process at HEIs. The basis for these four phases is the 8-step model for organisational change created by Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus John P. Kotter and published in his book Leading Change in 1996 (Kotter, 1996).

This model presents a holistic approach to carrying out change projects successfully and provides a clear sequence of stages that one needs to go through to make organisational change happen. Kotter's 8 phases are structured in a step-by-step fashion, just like a staircase, with each step "bringing you closer" to change.

Kotter's model is still used today in the field of organisational development, although several modified versions are available. This model is helpful in the start-up and planning phase, but not all 8 steps are clearly visible or present in the implementation phase (Kotter, 2015). The four concept papers that build on each other should be understood as a simplification or combination of John P. Kotter's 8 stages, enabling their practical application in digitalisation projects. A similar approach to successful (digitalisation) processes at HEIs was also taken by Graf-Schlattmann et al., who argues that people needed to accept the change and its legitimacy and express a collective willingness to sustain the change for the change to be truly effective. He names six variables that can promote action and shape the change process: recognisable benefits, professionalism and freedom, transparency and visibility, support structures and quality condition management, and coordination and networking (Graf-Schlattmann et al., 2020).

In this way, the concept papers provide a guide for change management in projects in higher education.


What specific goals does change management serve at HEIs?

Change management at HEIs essentially serves three goals:

  1. Change & development of staff and managers
  2. Change & development of the organisation
  3. Change & development of the broader system (labour market and education policy)