Change by design? The challenge of institutional reform

Universities around the world need to adapt to changing external and internal circumstances, but achieving intentional change in these complex institutions is often more challenging than theories of organisational change might suggest.

According to Åse Gornitzka of the ARENA Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo in Norway, not all change in universities is the result of deliberate reform strategies, and not all deliberate reforms produce the intended results.

A political scientist by training, Gornitzka has conducted extensive research in organisational change in higher education, particularly in a European context. In her presentation to the recent third meeting of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, held in Franschhoek outside Cape Town, she concluded that while deliberate reform in universities was possible under certain conditions, it was important to be aware of limitations.

Taking as her point of departure the third of Stanford Professor James G March’s "Footnotes to Organisational Change" (2007), Gornitzka said most organisational changes reflected simple responses to demographic, economic, social and political forces. Such changes could include structural overhauls, increases in the numbers of women or minority staff or students, revision of processes such as those affecting personnel or planning, or deciding on the site of a new university.

According to Gornitzka, while some of these changes were likely to cause conflict – for example, if people were expected to move or change offices – her research had also shown that deep transformative change could also result in very little conflict. Citing the example of Norwegian universities, she said incremental changes which saw secretaries replaced over time with professional administrators had produced – without overt resistance – a class of university staff that did not exist 40 years ago.

According to Gornitzka, the bureaucratisation of the university had never been presented as a deliberate reform and, as such, provided a good example of March’s contention that most changes in organisations result from “relatively stable routine processes that relate organisations to their environment”.

Models of change

Outlining the main theories behind organisational change, Gornitzka said while the “default” theory of analytical problem-solving represented a “strong and appealing mental framework” for reformers who believed that change by design was entirely possible, the theory had been challenged by other models, one of which is the conflict and bargaining theory.

The latter theory argues that instead of rational actors focused on solving a problem, organisations are in fact coalitions of actors with divergent interests. Any attempt to change organisations, therefore, would involve conflict and bargaining among actors holding various and asymmetrical degrees of power.

“The theory embodies the notion that organisations are structured to favour the most powerful actors and organisations are conceived as mirrors of power relations,” said Gornitzka.

“This is also a powerful idea – that once you have a position of strength, you can orchestrate change in a certain direction. From what I’ve seen in South Africa this political model of organisational change does not seem to be an unrealistic one,” she said.

Gornitzka said it was impossible not to include in the overview Cohen, March and Olsen’s ‘garbage can’ theory of decision-making in which an organisation is a “collection of choices looking for problems; issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired; solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer; and decision makers looking for work".

In terms of this model, in which issues flow in and out of the garbage can, all decision-making is an opportunity for pet problems, issues and old conflicts to be aired.

“A meeting in a university to decide on parking regulations becomes an opportunity to discuss the mission of the university or vice-versa. Strategic processes become opportunities for the airing of problems around [more mundane] issues,” said Gornitzka.

“What we know from our studies is that it is to be expected that once you try to change universities you stir up old conflicts within the university. Structures – a new faculty board, a new department – then take the form of a kind of temporary peace settlement.”

Loosely-coupled organisations

The garbage can theory is fed by the idea of ‘loosely coupled’ organisations where sections are disconnected from others. In such a context, reorganisation can be prone to temporal ‘accidents’ such as death, resignations, outside events, or even subject to participants with ‘attention problems’, that is, staff members who come and go from decision-making processes or who essentially would rather not participate in university policy-making processes, she said.

In contrast to the problem-solving approach is the idea that organisational change can be perceived as a reflection of what are widely accepted as appropriate organisational forms.

“This includes what it means to be a modern university or the idea of global excellence; the idea that there are certain organisational forms, structures and procedures that are pre-legitimated and it is taken for granted they are needed for universities to be modern. This is more of solutions-driven process,” she said.

Notwithstanding the competing theories, Gornitzka said her experience had shown that any university change process needed to take into account issues of identity, legitimacy and meaning as well as the organic nature of university change.

“It never ceases to fascinate me that even if you establish a small organisational unit or committee within a university it is not long before issues of legitimacy, meaning and identity arise,” she said.

Furthermore, few universities were organised or reorganised on a clean slate.

“The role of the past puts limits on what is possible. Each institution carries birthmarks which reformers need to consider when they embark on change,” she said.

Plumbing and poetry

“As March has said, leaders need to pay attention to the plumbing and poetry; in other words, they need to pay attention to the mundane aspects, but also bigger issues such as identity and meaning.”

In conclusion Gornitzka said there were possibilities for deliberate reform, but with certain conditions. In Europe many transformative processes in universities, for example, around the search for funding, were stable processes of change and adaptation, she said.

"Universities have learnt how to cope with their environment, introducing incremental change. Rather than replacing one structure by another, new layers are added on top of each other so that new elements are grafted onto otherwise stable institutional frameworks.”

Such incremental change does not rule out the opportunity for radical change, however. “External shocks or performance crises can become windows of opportunity for introducing radical change; for example, financial troubles faced by Finnish universities encouraged people to pursue a different approach,” she said, “where the unthinkable became thinkable.”

She said by institutionalising organisational change and improving the capacity of universities to make adaptations as part of the ordinary process of learning and adaptation, it was possible to reduce the need for grand-scale comprehensive reforms.

“Institutions can then engage in smaller reforms that are more manageable and digestible and be more sensitive to what is perceived as reasonable and appropriate; in other words, give attention to the legitimacy of the reforms. Otherwise you will come up against resistance from people who feel their identity is threatened.”