12 октября 2018

A catalyst for institutional transformation

The strategic transformation of universities is among the most daunting leadership challenges for presidents, rectors or deans. Short of existential threats, far-reaching transformations are rarely even attempted.
A catalyst for institutional transformation
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In Russia, the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO has developed an innovative method for instigating and accelerating university-wide change processes, which it has now used in more than 20 universities – mostly those taking part in one of Russia’s excellence initiatives – with significant success.

Change is necessary – but hard

Around the world, higher education systems and universities find themselves hard-pressed to adapt to a changing environment. At one end of the spectrum, rising participation and the spiralling cost of higher education force university leaders to come up with new ways to become both more effective and efficient in teaching and learning.

At the other end, the growing worldwide competition for students, researchers and national excellence initiatives put pressure on higher education institutions to reimagine and sometimes reinvent themselves.

In both scenarios, higher education institution leaders need to find ways to develop a joint vision, build support for it and then lead and organise the necessary changes to make it a reality.

Yet changing universities is hard for a host of reasons: higher education institutions are usually highly fragmented organisations, with different academic disciplines and cultures and different disciplinary languages.

The core staff is made up of professionals with pronounced (but differing) ideas about ‘how things ought to be done’. Yet in order to be effective, any meaningful change must be co-owned by academics and administrators ‘on the ground’ who de facto enjoy a large degree of latitude to stall or even outright veto changes.

As a result, decision-making is often bottom-heavy, even where deans and presidents are imbued with a high degree of formal authority. How to reconcile top-down decision-making with regard to funding, structures and (sometimes) hiring with the bottom-up development of a joint vision and strong commitment to its implementation is the eternal question of change management.

The ‘Skolkovo Method’

How can university leaders create a shared, actionable vision for their institution? The Education Development Centre of the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO seems to have found an innovative approach of organising ‘strategy sessions’ which I believe can benefit other universities and higher education systems around the world.

In June 2018, I had the pleasure of being invited to participate in one session that took place at a large Siberian university.

The Skolkovo strategy sessions bring together around 70-100 key internal stakeholders (self-selected and chosen from among higher education institution leadership, faculty, administration and students) as well as potential change agents for six days of intense work of 10-12 hours each day.

Each session opens with an expository presentation on the position of the university in its wider regional, national and international context by an eminent expert or high-placed political representative. Then, after the format for the session has been explained, the participants are divided into working groups on specific topics (for instance, ‘student engagement’, ‘agro-biological research cluster’ or ‘the new polytechnical school’).

Each group is moderated by a facilitator from the Skolkovo team. For each topic, the respective group is supported in analysing and problematising the status quo to develop a concept of an ideal future state, identify barriers to reaching it and strategies to overcome them.

The groups then come together to present their results in plenary sessions in which their ideas get challenged by the other participants and the Skolkovo team. Afterwards, all teams return to their groups with new insights and perspectives and refine or adapt their vision and strategies.

Aside from supporting groups in problem setting, problematising and new model development, the work in groups and plenaries is further enriched by the presentation of the transformation and strategies other (international) universities have pursued as well as input from external stakeholders.

Throughout the session, the models developed in the various groups begin to form a coherent whole and a plan of administrative decisions needed for their implementation is developed.

Why the Skolkovo Method is so powerful

As of September 2018, the Skolkovo Method had been used in more than 70 instances with more than 20 universities taking part in the Russian excellence initiative 5-100.

The results are impressive indeed: The Higher IT School at Tomsk State University has launched an innovative ‘IT and liberal arts’ curriculum. Tyumen Industrial University designed and launched wholly new project- and problem-based learning programmes in collaboration with industry partners.

The School of Advanced Studies at the University of Tyumen is a unique-for-Russia honours liberal college with a vision and leadership that has managed to attract international faculty with PhDs from some of the world’s leading universities to its vision (including Trinity College, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles). Many other universities are pursuing their own specific visions.

In almost all higher education institutions, university governance is changing as well. Outdated organisational structures and policies with regard to teaching, research, hiring, campus design and so forth are being overhauled.

Maybe one of the most important results is a new spirit of change and a common vision embraced by the participants by the end of the strategic sessions – the realisation that transformation is inevitable if their institutions want to develop a stronger position nationally and globally alongside the will and vision of how to make this a reality.

Lessons for university leaders worldwide

One of the most-cited adages on change in higher education, ascribed to former Harvard president Derek C Bok, has it that “changing a university is like trying to move a graveyard”.

University leaders around the world are looking for the best ways to create a common vision and build momentum for change. The Skolkovo Method seems like a powerful approach to do this through the simultaneous involvement of a large number of key stakeholders and other individuals likely to drive change. This makes the method very suitable for high-speed transformation.

The clear rules of engagement within the session, which enable and demand direct challenge and encourage well thought-through proposals, seem very productive. Coupled with the week-long and intense nature of the sessions, they may indeed encourage a change in preconceptions and mental models.

The active involvement of a large number of actors has the potential to create a deep understanding of why change is necessary and a strong sense of individual commitment to the proposed solutions.

The plenaries and mutual critique have the potential to promote an understanding of interconnectedness within the university and to promote a culture of open exchange of ideas and outcome-oriented communication, which is aimed to outlast the session.

Finally, the Skolkovo Method has the added benefit that it promotes bottom-up initiatives. In conditions of high uncertainty in the political, economic and scientific environment, where some strategic initiatives may work, but others may fail, the model offers a pragmatic approach to driving change without the need for strong central planning and coordination (at which universities fail more often than they succeed).

While the specificities of the Russian context in which the 5-100 excellence initiative provides additional funding and exerts high pressure to succeed are distinct, higher education leaders might learn a thing or two here about driving transformation in their own universities.

Lukas Bischof is a trainer and consultant working with universities on university strategy, organisational transformation and leadership in implementing change projects. He lives in Freiburg, Germany. Aside from his consulting work, he is a senior expert with the Institute of Education at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia, and an associated consultant with CHE Consult, Germany, where he worked full-time between 2011 and 2016. For more information, see www.lukasbischof.eu.


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