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