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Five characteristics of successful cultural change at universities

Rimante Rusaite

What role does culture play in universities’ ability to become more open and innovative actors, connected to their regions? Organisational culture affects everything from performance to the way people work together, therefore promoting and implementing cultural change amongst academics is no less important than in any other sector.

However, the efforts of most higher education institutions (HEIs) are targeted at creating strategies focused on either external engagement or entrepreneurship. While these support structures are valuable, addressing cultural change is important for organisations to take full advantage of them.

Jochen Barth

To learn more about change management concepts, tools and frameworks suitable for driving cultural change in the HEI environment, we spoke to Jochen Barth, Group Lead Networks and Transfer (smart3) at the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology. Before joining Fraunhofer, Jochen led the Service Science Factory at Maastricht University and has years of experience in organisational development and change management in the private and HEI sector.

Below are five characteristics Jochen believes HEI leaders should employ for successful cultural change towards external engagement and entrepreneurialism.

Five factors of cultural change in higher education institutions

1. Align culture with strategy

The strategic value of culture is often misunderstood. Culture should be developed based on the strategy of the organisation. Often these are seen separately, with culture something that ‘just somehow develops’ instead of being explicitly steered to best serve the strategy.

2. Ensure transparency and commitment from top management

Presenting a clear vision and integrating ideas coming from the bottom up is critical. Imagine a ‘circular waterfall’ (stream coming from the top, going down, and up again); this wave is something organisations have to manage. Ideas coming from the bottom up can be difficult to harvest in large universities, therefore it’s important to find and involve people that are interested in being part of the change from the beginning and allow an open feedback process.

Read our insights about Cultural Change Underpinning UBC Development in Southern Mediterranean Neighbourhood.

3. Identify cultural ambassadors

Cultural ambassadors, with a mandate and resources, can help organisations build communities of change.

These are people in the organisation who are already showing the right attitude and behaviour. Use them and give them a key role in the change program”.

4. Define the cultural change success measures

It is important to connect change to results and make people aware of relevant achievements. Some may be quick wins, and some long-term goals. For a leader, it is important to connect things that are happening to the key messages of the desired change. For example, “We do this because we agreed that it is important to… This is a good example of where we are already improving…”.

5. Clearly define what does not need to change

Identify and communicate about what is valuable and works well – not everything needs changing. In that way, people are not overwhelmed by the process.

There are always things that go well, and it should be made explicit”.

Cultural change is a lengthy process, and more work is needed to understand its application in HEIs moving towards more external engagement and entrepreneurship. To address this challenge, UIIN is implementing the international research project ‘Cultural Change Towards Engaged and Entrepreneurial Universities’. The project aims to equip HEIs, particularly HEI leadership and professional staff, with the necessary tools and guidelines for promoting and implementing cultural change amongst academics to create a supportive environment for external engagement and entrepreneurial activities.

Rimante Rusaite (author) is a Senior Project Officer at UIIN and holds an MSc in Environmental Policy and BSc in Psychology. Dedicated to sustainability and innovations, she’s also a design thinking coach and systems thinking enthusiast.

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