American writer Randy Pausch has a saying: if there is an elephant in the room – then introduce it!
Many, if not all, universities in Australia are currently hosting an “elephant in the room”. And in most cases that elephant is being ignored, its existence denied or downplayed; anything other than it being introduced, and dealt with.
The “elephant” is the carry-over from the massive and disruptive change which has swept through the higher education sector. Universities, primarily as a result of successive changes in Government policy, have had to confront and embrace the reality that they are big businesses, and must be run that way. And they are educational institutions, and they must be run that way. Big businesses, whose business is education.
Major change is hard in any big organisation. In universities it can be even harder.
Traditions of collegiality and academic freedom can clash head-on with the imperative and intent of the senior leadership to lead and manage in a business-like way, and to implement major change.
It is said that culture eats strategy for breakfast – and lunch and dinner too. In a company like GE, Microsoft, News Limited, or choose any other big corporate example, if the CEO says that things are going to change then things generally do change. In a university, just because the Vice Chancellor directs that there is to be change, does it not mean that the change will happen? Maybe not, or not right away anyway… Universities have very strong, and very particular, cultures. Achieving change in that environment is generally a whole lot harder than it might be in other organisations. There can be a considerable amount of organisational breakage during big organisational change in higher education. And that is arguably necessary – in order to achieve real change. However, there can be a lot of unhappy elephants left in the room after the change is over!
After the turmoil of the initial transformational change, the key task is to rebuild the organisation – with a renovated culture and with changes that will stick. Achieving change of this magnitude, change that is deep and lasting, requires hard and focused work. Deep cultural change is made a whole lot harder if the elephants in the room are left un-introduced. Much, much harder if the elephants are ignored, if there is a pretence that they are not there at all. Because they will still be there.
So, what to do? Introduce the elephants!
Work to understand them. Then, when enough – but not too much – attention has been paid to understanding the elephants, and learning from them, ask and require them to leave. Then the work of organisational rebuilding can fully progress.
We will be working with this, and other perspectives on the complex dynamics of change in higher education, in a Workshop – ‘Achieving successful change & making it stick in your university’ – at the Business Improvement in Universities conference in Melbourne this June. I hope that you might like to join the workshop – to grapple with these complex dynamics.