Higher education: a revolutionary transformation journey

Higher education: a revolutionary transformation journey

For our featured blog this week, Sarah spoke to Sravan Banerjee, Organisation Design and Change Management professional, who shared his insightful experience of a recent large scale change and transformation project that he led in the Higher Education sector, with a leading UK University.

Transformation – a word often used, maybe overused, that has numerous connotations on its own. It means different things to different organisations and even within the same organisation, there are multiple versions floating around.

However, the meaning of the word has never rung truer than during this unprecedented crisis we find ourselves in globally. Organisations today are battling challenges on multiple fronts not the least of which is how to stay operationally viable in the short term, but also take a long hard look at their longer-term operating model.

This challenge is sector agnostic and be it private or public most business leaders face similar challenges. The Higher Education sector interestingly has perhaps remained the last bastion – largely unchallenged in its ways of working and perhaps not feeling the need to challenge the status quo as much as other sectors.  

But with Brexit looming, the unrelenting onslaught of the pandemic and mounting operational pressures, the Higher Education (HE) sector faces venturing into the unchartered territory of transformation not only at the operational level but at a more fundamental level around its model and ways of working.

I was fortunate enough to have worked for a world-renowned client in the HE Sector who, while remaining one of the crown jewels of the Higher Education, realised early on the need to change. They embarked on a transformation journey that would fundamentally change their operating model to set up a revolutionary Shared Service Centre which would allow them to drive scale and be operationally efficient through extensive use of technology. This would ensure the enabling functions were true Centres of Excellence offering specialist advice and were true partners to the schools and colleges. Equally, this allowed the schools and colleges to focus their energy on academic pursuits and excellence and avoid duplication of accountabilities and capabilities – thus making them more outward focused.

The engagement was a learning experience like few others, as this was a ‘first off the blocks’ journey, both in terms of the scale of operation, as well as the mindset change.

The key takeaways for me are as follows:

  • Acknowledge the problem

The first step to fixing a problem is recognising there is one. My client was cognisant enough to recognise the challenges they faced in the coming years if they did not transform – hence felt the urgency to change. The critical takeaway for me here was how the senior figures within the University (including the Provost and Vice Provost) were starting to get behind the need to change. For me, that is one of the critical indicators of a successful change journey – the leadership recognising the problem and talking about it openly. Through that simple step, we had already started to make vital inroads into the change journey.

  • Treat everyone as a customer

An interesting lesson I learnt was how the client shifted its focus to a more customer-centric model. What I mean by that is:

-The academic fraternity looking at their corporate partners driving research grants, as customers and slowly moving to a more commercially focused and outcome-driven partnership with them.
-The University treating its existing and incoming students as customers and changing the ‘Customer/Student Experience Journey’ by identifying the various touchpoints for a student, reducing the number of interactions, and making each interaction meaningful.
-The enabling functions treating the schools and colleges as their customers and getting into ‘providing a superlative advisory service’ mindset.

  • Engage the right people

Change is not a dark room exercise where we go into a tunnel and magically emerge with a solution that works for everyone. It is painful, it is hard, and it takes courage. Most importantly it takes engagement with the right set of people to take them along on the journey. My client realised this early on in the process and set up numerous avenues to engage and interact with people (surveys, learning cafes, Communities of Practice) to ensure colleagues felt ‘they were doing it’ instead of ‘it being done to them’. It was not always easy. It did feel at times that we were regressing but carrying on the engagement process in the spirit it was started was ultimately the difference between success and failure.

  • A shift in ways of working and mindset

Perhaps the single largest piece of the puzzle was the internal shift – not only in ways of working but what that meant for the operational mindset within the University. Of course, Op Model and Org Design helped translate strategy into ways of working and provided clear roles and accountabilities. But implementing that design required a broad change narrative around ‘the why’ and more importantly required the schools and colleges to be comfortable with the fact that some capabilities would not be dedicated/siloed into their structures. The critical message to get across was ‘they were not losing a capability’ but rather ‘gaining a multitude of specialist services’ that would free up their time to focus on what they love doing most. This was the key message we iterated again and again (and again) with our academic stakeholders. This open channel of communication was critical for success with my client and went a long way to support the implementation of the change journey.

  • Eye of the prize

Lastly, one of the key things that my client did consistently well, was to keep their focus on the desired outcomes for the change. When kicking off a major transformation piece, it is very easy for it to snowball into something else entirely and before you know it, it has grown arms and legs and is an industry on its own. To prevent this from happening, my client had a set of 4/5 desired outcomes which were agreed at the very onset of the programme and from which they never wavered. This helped contain the scope of the Transformation piece effectively and just as importantly allowed us to iterate and re-iterate a set of key messages which ultimately became the engine for the change journey.

Sravan offers Organisation Design and Change Management services. You can find more about what Sravan on LinkedIn here.

Workplace transformation – how to setup for success

I recently caught up with Change and Transformation consultant, Janey Thomas.

We discussed how businesses might adapt as people return to work and Janey’s experience of managing the change workstream for Deloitte’s Workplace transformation programme. Here are her thoughts on how to setup for success.


Workplace transformation – setting up for success


If I’d been asked to share my ‘change top tips’ for a successful workplace transformation three months ago, how different would they have been?


Three months ago, a ‘normal’ workplace was very different. While many organisations embraced home working and some more aspirational organisations had transformed the way they worked through their physical environments, this wasn’t by any means the norm.


But since the end of March 2020, most people across the UK have shifted to working from home and the reality is that there isn’t any urgency to return to a physical space as health and safety challenges remain. And nor should there be.


Entire industries now question quite rightly whether their old ways of working serve them post-Covid-19 and into the future. But against what ‘new normal’? The fact is ‘normal’ no longer exists. COVID-19 has provided the ultimate lesson in the constant unpredictability of our world.


Rather than trying to achieve the impossible task of predicting the future, organisations should instead focus on building adaptability and flexibility into their workplace (behavioural, physical and technological) environments. Return-to-workplace strategies and basic decisions about how many spaces to open and how to open them should be planned very carefully. Workplace transformation is no longer only for aspirational organisations – it is essential for every organisation.


So, what workplace transformation ‘change top tips’ would I promote today?


  1. Lead from the top. More so than ever, leaders must fully and authentically support and coach their people through any workplace transformation. They shouldn’t underestimate the current volume and impact of change on their teams, and it will keep rising, necessitating them to focus on building resilience in their teams. Successful transformation not only requires an inspiring and honest change story (the why) and vision (the what) of the unclear future from leaders but a certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.
  2. Provide a sense of safety and security – a human need and the foundation of adaptability. Many people have recently experienced a sudden drop in job security, increasing stress, workloads and the inability to ‘carry on’. Losing the security of physically working with colleagues adds another layer of stress for many. To stop people relying on ownership of their environment, actively create and sustain their connection to the organisation through other inherent activities which maintain a foundation of trust and belonging.
  3. Give flexibility and choice in where and how people work. This is more important than ever. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices and involve them in planning, giving them ownership. They’ll not only be equipped to be higher performing; crucially they’re more adaptive to future disruption.


What next?

Is there anything new here? No, but the priorities are highlighted against the backdrop of the unchartered volume and flexibility of change that people are already experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 disruption. There is however a huge opportunity for positive change ahead of us. I have often found that organisations struggle with defining a clear and compelling change story and vision that engages people to want to embark on change and be part of it – the ‘burning platform’ ie. Why jump now? If ever there was a more compelling reason for workplace change it has to be now. ‘Let’s embrace this opportunity.


Janey Thomas is a highly experienced people change and transformation consultant with a strong track record of supporting global blue-chip organisations, including Deloitte, Heathrow airport, Eurostar and SABMiller on a variety of culture, workplace and business strategy change programmes. Some of her most recent experience includes nearly 3 years managing the change workstream for Deloitte’s North West European HQ transformation programme in London, 1 New Street Square.



James Cumming is our Interim and Transformation Search specialist. Please get in contact with him directly to discuss any of these topics further.


The business change journey

the business change journey
The business change journey

Over the past few years, I have had a lot of people ask me what is meant by the term ‘business change’ and why do they need it? Not being a subject matter expert myself, I thought who better to ask than my wife who a) is always right about stuff and b) just happens to be a business change expert. (Go on, have a nosy at her experience). This was written over 2 years ago, but is still relevant, because, guess what – she’s still always right!

She told me about travelling for one assignment – as she was going through security at JFK airport – she was asked to provide her job title and I’m sure many of us have had the same confused look she got from security when trying to explain her profession. (I’m a headhunter?!).

She defined her role as “managing the journey we might go through when moving from one way of working to another”. The security guard clarified it for her “like ice melting to water, moving from one state to a different one?” and actually this made a lot of sense (more sense than going into any further detail at that moment, for anyone who has ever been through US passport control!).

So, simply put, business change is moving from one way of working to another and it could be focusing on either a strategic, technological, process or organisational change (or a combination of the four).

Businesses spend millions of pounds on new technology, developing highly skilled programme teams to implement it and setting up new processes and ways of working to create supportive infrastructures. But in many cases adoption rates are low, new ways of working don’t work and businesses don’t get the return on investment they were hoping for. This can leave businesses wondering ‘what happened?’.

From experience, where businesses tend to fail, is thinking that the new way of working is the final destination for the project (this view is compounded by the fact that many businesses tend to remove project teams as soon as a change has been implemented with a view that things should just work as expected).

Any change, whether it is technological, organisational or even a minor process change, has to be embedded in those who are impacted, ensuring that they truly understand how their day to day working practices have/will change going forward. This is why business change is so important. It ensures the company – and not just the decision makers – moves to the new way of working.

“The role of a change expert will help stakeholders determine what the final destination actually looks like and then plot the journey to get there.”

A change expert will support stakeholders and sponsors in gaining answers to the following questions:

  • What does the proposed culture look like?
  • Will individuals be bought into the change?
  • What reluctance is expected and how can we manage that?
  • How do we expect employees to behave and what knowledge do we want them to have?
  • Do they see the benefits and are they on board with making it a success?
  • “What does good actually look like?”

A change expert will help plot the journey and how that journey will take place, make sure everyone’s informed of the destination, get everyone a passport and ensure the employees get there, whilst participating in the experience and supporting to achieve overall success.

To discuss further, you can email me on James@refind.co.uk.

You can view more about James Cumming our change and business transformation specialist here.