Organizational change for HE


I am fascinated by change and change theory ever since I started teaching on a Master’s in Training & Development. I have been reading Val Roche’s (2003) chapter on ‘Being and Agent of Change’ and Linda Holbeche’s (2006) chapter on ‘Change Theory’. Roche proposes a systems thinking approach to educational development a la Senge (1990). This is a massive and complex approach which Roche simplifies into a practical application based on a reflective framework. This framework has a number of different inquiries using a whole range of the ‘tools of the trade’ such as ecological mapping, stakeholder analysis, repertory grid analysis, rich pictures, force-field analysis etc. So lots of practical advice and a comprehensive tool to get you started. So what does it mean for me beyond being able to use the tool in my practice?

Links to my practice

One idea I particularly like from systems thinking is ‘reciprocity’. That effects of change spread out. I think this is a cornerstone of educational development work that is often misunderstood outside of our units. As an example, our PGCert course provides us with ample evidence of this. We get referrals from colleagues of those who have been on the course and want to learn more from seeing the positive changes participants make. We get offers to run workshops based on the delivery of the course. These are just a few examples of how working with small numbers of staff directly (usually about 50 – 60 at any one time) can lead to wider indirect benefits to the system as a whole. The challenge we have is in explaining that trickle effect to the bean counters who just see the headline figure of staff on the course.

What else stands out is a recommendation for educational developers to move away from being learning experts to being agents of change. I think this is a big shift for some. Especially so when you think of the nature of academia being one where it is your subject expertise which is what you are paid for. We were asked on the induction day for the PGCert this year whether we were experts in learning theory. We said no, which is actually quite a difficult and exposing thing to say to a room full of academics. A response which our boss was not overly happy with but which reflects for us this role change to being agents of change. Our role on the PGCert is not to espouse our expert knowledge but rather to facilitate change in the knowledge, skills and attitude of our staff.

Change Theory

Moving on to the nature of change and trying to understand what it all means. Roche’s approach is one of planned change. It also fits into what Beer & Nohria (2000) describe as a Theory O approach to change rather than theory E, (change being about organisational capacity rather than economic factors). Which is of course entirely consistent with our own conceptions of our role in educational development. However, Beer & Nohria (2000) recommend that you need to merge both approaches to be successful and therefore this raises in my mind the need for greater links to the economic factors of our work and closer ties with both HRD & HRM.

There is one more thought that appeals to me from Holbeche’s chapter and that is the limitations of the planned approach. A lot of modern literature on change is looking at ’emergent’ models of change. These models talk of ‘purposive drift’ – the idea that you can have a broad purpose to the direction you want to travel in but need to be responsive to opportunities that arise that allow you to travel in that direction. As a scientific minded person, I like the analogy to physics; planned change is like Newtonian mechanics, whereas Emergent change theory is like quantum mechanics. This emergent approach requires creativity, learning, experimenting and empowerment (Holbeche 2006:160) in us and our staff. I think this is a direction I can take. Plans don’t always work and I think I would fall on the emergent side rather than the planned side of change but I don’t think our universities are ready for that! [For example our role-based structures (as in Handy 1999) don’t support this emergent approach.]


Beer, M. & Nohria, N. (2000). “Cracking the Code of Change.” Harvard Business Review, 133-141

Handy C (1999) Understanding Organizations, London:Penguin Business Management

Holbeche, L. (2006) Understanding Change, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann

Roche, V. (2003) Being and Agent of Change in Kahn, P. & Baume, D. (2003) Staff & Educational Development, Abingdon: Routledge

Effective Change Management in HE – some thoughts

I have been reading Scott’s (2003) article on Effective Change Management in HE from Educause Review. Although now 8 years old  it still seems fresh and perhaps more worryingly we still have far to go to reach the outcomes in the paper.


For me the link to my own practice from Scott’s ‘What’ & ‘How’ is that we can’t do it all. The idea that really resonated with me is the “profound difference between ‘change’ and ‘progress'” (Scott 2003:73).  Progress is change in the right direction and for me that means using professional judgement to decide which ideas are the most likely to succeed. Change for change sake is pointless. We have a finite resource and can not do it all. Inevitably, as someone with a strong Monitor / Evaluator tendencies (from Belbin’s team roles) or Controller / Inspector (in Margerison & McCann terms) I am bound to say that! However, I think that this role is vital in the current climate. I have worked with many innovative people and I always end up made to feel like the bad guy for suggesting such things as “How can we change this idea so it can work in practice?” “Maybe this idea would be better than this other one?” Innovation is needed and so innovators working with evaluators must surely produce a more effective outcome than just one or the other! Of course that evaluative process is underpinned by evidence based approaches and by evaluation I mean of the idea and plans and not just the after evaluation once it has been put into practice.


On a related idea to do with limited resource.  Scott(2003:74) mentions that collaborative cultures, which he sees as vital, usually require coaching and do not spontaneously emerge. A role of educational development? Coupled with the unique situation of our roles in that we can advise on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but very rarely get involved in the actual ‘how’. Scott tells us that the motivation is important as is the role of the individuals who implement (the ‘how’ of) these changes. This seems again to come down to coaching so that academic staff are able to implement innovation and change in an effective way. Although this was not the thrust of the article it has made me wonder about coaching as the way forward in educational development. Scott evens mentions coaching in the student context around developing students as self-managed learners. It is in the area of coaching where I think we can provide leadership. We need to build capacity in our academic managers to coach their staff and for academic staff to be able to coach their students to facilitate their learning. However, coaching is often a one to one approach which looks difficult to justify at the moment. This leads nicely into the next section…

Paradoxes & Conclusion

Scott picks up the intrinsic paradoxes inherent in change. These were first fully expressed by the Change Integration team at Price Waterhouse in the 1990’s:

Change requires stability
You can’t separate the institutional from the individual
You must tackle cultural change without being seen to.
Empowerment of individuals requires strong leadership
To innovate you must destroy (see for example Tomkinson 1999)

Which makes me wonder; is educational development itself a paradox? For example, we aim to improve the student experience without ever working with students. We often instigate change that others implement. Is this why our value, the return on investment of our function is hard to express? Is this why we struggle to define our role and our place in higher education? The ultimate paradox of our role is that we shall know we have achieved our goals when we are no longer needed and out of a job!


Scott, G. (2003) ‘Effective Change Management in Higher Education’ in EDUCAUSE Review Magazine, Volume 38, Number 6

Tomkinson, B. (1999) Organizational change in Wilson, J.P. (ed.) Human Resource Development, London: Kogan Page