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Conclusions

Common features of adaptability in case study HEIs

Leadership – including planning and realising change

All the case studies revealed the influence of determined and committed senior leaders, both vice-chancellors and other members of senior management teams. A unifying factor was that transformation required very clear purpose and energy to follow things through and individual VCs displayed substantial commitment of their own time. This included visiting departments, holding staff “town hall meetings”, leading large group planning events and in general being available and visible to staff and students. Throughout these appearances the VCs in question were clear about the overall direction of transformation and visibly supportive of actions to achieve change, whether or not this risked damaging their individual popularity. Successful leaders of adaptation were seen to be those who were credible – transmitted a sense that they knew what they were doing - and able to communicate to all levels of staff that things would be all right after the change.

Most of the cases involved a change of individuals at the highest levels of governance and management. Several cases report the importance of refreshing and expanding the skills and experience available to the senior leaders of HEIs who needed to grasp and communicate the need for change. In some cases, this included removing individuals whose skills did not meet the challenges or did not allow them to understand or commit to the drivers for change. In one case, the drastic and dramatic changes required temporary appointments of highly skilled individuals.

In some cases there was a noticeable role for senior professional staff who were not perhaps identifiable as the senior leaders of the organisation. They were often involved in drawing together ideas into coherent form and making detailed implementation plans, or in close advisory and collaborative relationships with senior leaders. Although most interviewees would assert that clear and visible leadership was essential, the role of these professional staff should not be underestimated and they often had the most impact when they were close to the senior team.

Despite the importance of key high-level individuals, all case institutions report approaches that sought to engage and involve staff from across all areas of the university. The way senior leadership teams worked together was also cited as instrumental to success in most cases. The process of developing a change strategy was itself a team-building process and new chief executives and a refreshing of leadership teams led to different, more collaborative working practices in some cases.

Strategic sensitivity

In all cases, the decision to undertake significant adaptation and transformation was prompted by a crisis. In the case of Cumbria and UWL, the financial situation was clearly and evidently unsustainable. In the other cases, the universities were not in imminent danger of collapse but something prompted the senior management to reconnect with the purpose of the institution and possibilities for the future. In all cases questions were raised about why the governors and senior managers of the universities had not made such a connection before.

Senior managers in two cases did not have access to key management information or did not understand what it was telling them (especially financial implications of different programme models, staffing, funding scenarios etc). One vice-chancellor reported that on appointment he was unable to find the management information that would have enabled him or his team to make strategic decisions.

In one case the need for change was evidently felt throughout the university, but it took the arrival of a new VC with a different vision to push for change. In another, the incoming VC is credited with having sufficient understanding of the HE environment to recognise that the university’s business model would need to change, although some in the university questioned whether the change of direction was the correct one for that institution at that time.

All of which begs the question, in the absence of an individual catalyst or crisis, how can HEIs be sure they are connecting sufficiently with the reality of their situation and the possibilities that are open to them?

Resource fluidity

The change of people and skills in senior management teams and governors has already been described as key to successful adaptive change, and the ability of organisations to repopulate their most senior layers of leadership may be a key to adaptability. This points towards organisations needing to keep a keen eye on executive development and succession management.

Other issues of resource fluidity can be broadly divided into those concerning people, and “hard” systems, although the two are clearly inter-related.

Some of the cases involved reduction in staff numbers and this was handled in different ways, with differing outcomes in terms of staff morale and mood. For example, simple removal of headcount by senior managers detached from the business risked the loss of key expertise and organisational knowledge as well as depressing staff morale and motivation. This was contrasted with a more collaborative approach where staff and trade unions worked together to achieve the desired savings while optimising the outcome for the organisation, for example by agreeing to reduced hours and different organisational structures designed by those closer to the front line.

The culture of the institutions was often talked about, particularly about its attitude to change and management in general, and the diversity of cultures even within a single university. There was a feeling in some cases that the senior leaders had not accounted systematically for the cultural barriers and opportunities that existed throughout their organisations.

Some cases reported the benefits of simplifying either organisational structure or processes. For example, reducing the number of professional service departments allowed streamlining of bureaucratic processes and forcibly broke down silo walls. More cross-university understanding and working was cited as an enabler of adaptability because people in one area understood the implications of change for people in other areas.

Having, or moving towards, consistent administrative processes and information systems was seen as a key enabler of adaptability and certainly played a significant role in cases where mergers had been involved.

Throughout the cases there were narratives of innovation being stifled by risk-averse management cultures and long processes of approval, which militated against effective change. The challenge is to balance consistent and robust systems of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis with a framework that makes it clear to staff what freedom and limitations they have.

Interviewees’ experience of the change

All interviewees were asked to tell the story from their perspective. These perspectives vary from senior leaders to front-line staff, but it is useful to note a few general conclusions.

Senior managers and professional staff close to the planning core were free and frank with their views of the successes and challenges of the changes described but tended to be much more secure about the case for change and the need for action. Staff throughout the universities often had a clear view that change had been necessary but were more likely to focus on the experience of people around them than on the institutional journey. Their narratives were more closely identified with what people had been talking about in the coffee bars, which were often the more negative aspects of change.

In the three “stressful” cases, staff report a sense of change fatigue, with the organisation perceived to be at once more ready and skilled for change but also psychologically weary and needing time to consolidate.

It was only possible to interview student representatives in one of the cases (because those present through the major changes have graduated). However, there was widespread acknowledgement that the impact on students was in some cases substantial and had not been thoroughly thought through. The involvement of students in the planning and visioning processes seems to have been minimal, or at least not well-documented, in most cases. As well as the immediate impact on students during their studies, the reputational effect of media reports often produced dips in recruitment that required some work to redress.

< Read the In Practice case studies    > Read the recommendations

Commentary

All the case institutions visited are post-1992 universities. Pre-1992 institutions may have experienced similar transformation – for example, the merger of the Manchester universities may have made an equivalent case but is rather distant now.

What would be different in a pre-1992 university faced with the need or opportunity for transformational change? A key factor would be the nature of the academic contract; academic posts in the “old” universities are protected by statute, making it very difficult to move academic staff out of the organisation without very generous voluntary severance schemes.
Hard-edged performance management is countercultural and research-intensive universities have found it problematic to introduce.

Anecdotally, vice-chancellors and governing bodies in pre-1992 universities are assumed to be more conservative than their post-92 counterparts, but there is little evidence for this, and would it be the case if genuine crisis struck? In the case examples, something prompted senior leaders to connect with the core purpose of their institution, and the space of possibility – “what are we really all about, what can we really achieve in this environment”. Without a burning platform
it is harder to put energy into this but, arguably, many successful universities are already adapting at a pace appropriate for their context.

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