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Leading Change: Creating the Future for Education Technology

In response to the incremental pace of technological change in higher education, Dale Lick lays out a proposal for future leadership of change creation and education transformation.

Many of us fail to appreciate the difference between the intensity of change (i.e., speed, magnitude, and momentum) of earlier times and today, as change expert Daryl Conner (1993) says so well: “Never before has so much changed so fast and with such dramatic implications for the entire world.”

Change is a silent juggernaut—a persistent, irresistible force marching on. It silently permeates everything and is no respecter of people, professions, or organizations, including faculty, programs, and higher education.

How do we in higher education respond to this dynamic, ubiquitous change? We typically have chosen, consciously or by default, to resist, ignore, or sidestep the realities and impact of change—all potentially losing and self-defeating responses. Instead, especially as we try to employ technology, we must “join” change, embrace it as a partner, and use it creatively for the advancement of our goals, institutions, and society.

Creating Change

As we look to the future, we need to recognize that if higher education is to succeed and thrive, it must re-create itself appropriately, using new technologies. This leads to the number one issue facing higher education today. The most urgent need is for effectively initiating, implementing, and managing intentional, meaningful, planned change—change creation. Change creation is the process whereby an institution and its people:

  • Accept and welcome change as a vital component for achieving future success
  • Define the future they want to design and deliver
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive transition

As our institutions face dynamic change, they must become more proactive and accepting of it, and transform accordingly, if they are to serve effectively in the future. We need plans that will generate continuous improvements and move us ever closer to the desired future. Therefore, technology leaders must become more effective practitioners of change creation. Such leaders will:

  • Take genuine responsibility for leading change
  • Effectively define and plan for the desired change
  • Comprehensively prepare the organization for the planned change
  • Develop and implement a change approach that transforms people, processes, and circumstances

When Efforts Fail

According to a report by Bolman and Deal in The Journal of Quality and Participation (1999), at least two-thirds of our significant change efforts fail. Why? Typically, serious problems arise when leaders:

  • Do not fundamentally reframe their own thinking and that of their institutions relative to major change
  • Implement a strategic plan that is incomplete
  • Do not implement a detailed, structured, and disciplined transformation

Leaders who failed hadn’t communicated effectively with those they guided; better leadership would have enabled constituents to see that transformational changes are imperative and achievable. The failed efforts didn’t have plans for first identifying then implementing major changes. What can prevent these kinds of failures is a plan that will move people, processes, and, most importantly, culture from old paradigms to new.

Leadership or Management?

As individuals in roles that require leadership, do we lead or manage? The key is to have the proper balance between effective management and effective leadership. In higher education, we often do not understand the difference between the two and place too much emphasis on management and too little on transforming leadership.

In simple terms, management is “doing things right”—that is, working within a given paradigm to make things better and better. On the other hand, leadership is “doing the right thing”—that is, shifting a paradigm from “what is” to “what should be.” As Stephen Covey relates in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1990): “The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the situation, and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’ But how do the busy, efficient faculty, administrators, and staff often respond? ‘Shut up! We’re making progress!’”

Consequently, as technology leaders, we must first accept change as a vital partner and resource, and intentionally spend a significant amount of time and effort on understanding and coping with transformational change and the future. As change leaders, we must then keep “questioning the answers,” especially those of our culture and subcultures, in search of fundamental changes that will alter the nature, productivity, and effectiveness of important aspects of our institution. And finally, we must create a shared vision that provides direction, inspires motivation, and earns the commitment of others to our institution’s desired future. In change efforts, especially those involving technology, vision is the essential direction-setter, people-aligner, and emotion-grabber.

Learning as a Transformative Vehicle

Learning is fundamental to effective change leadership in education technology. The learning we should focus on is what might be called “capacity” or “action” learning. Learning, as a verb, means to gain capacity (willingness and ability) for effective action. As a noun, it is the capacity (willingness and ability) for effective action.

“Effective action” should be interpreted in relation to the totality of the change being considered, and “ability” would include information, knowledge, skills, experience, and understanding—as well as such characteristics as the nuances and qualities that would enhance effective action. Notice that “capacity” in this discussion requires both willingness and ability; if either is missing, then we don’t have capacity.

The above action or capacity learning involves a “fundamental shift or movement of the mind,” as learning organization expert Peter Senge relates in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990): “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.”

The Universal Change Principle

How do we successfully bring about change involving education technology? The learning described above helps people understand the change, reduces their fear and anxiety about it, and gives them a sense of control over the change or an ability to anticipate its course, contributing to their sense of comfort and security and lessening their resistance to the change (Conner, 1993). These ideas lead naturally to the simple but powerful overarching principle for successfully dealing with change—the universal change principle.

In the universal change principle, learning must precede change. For example, instead of simply providing computers to faculty members participating in a change project, a university might respond to their technology concerns by offering a summer training program on how, when, and why to use computers, as well as ongoing computer support. The additional learning pays off; in the fall semester, faculty members become positively involved and learner performance improves.

Major technology change initiatives often require significant “learning preceding change,” such as several well-planned, multidimensional iterations (like stair steps) of appropriate learning across many sectors and over a substantial time period. Suppose the chairman of the mathematics department wants his faculty to implement a new technology-driven approach to mathematics instruction. If the chairman simply announces that the faculty will adopt this new approach next semester, probably most of the faculty members will feel uncomfortable with the proposed change and resist rather than help facilitate the chairman’s decision. If, on the other hand, the chairman employs the universal change principle, he would first ask the question, “What learning must take place before this change effort can be successfully implemented?”

Learning opportunities for and dialogues with faculty about the new instructional approach might include why the new approach is critical to improving student learning; what the implications are for students, faculty, and the department; when and how this new approach will be implemented; and the support and rewards for effective implementation.

The universal change principle has the potential to be our most effective change tool. It is applicable, directly or indirectly, to essentially all change-related initiatives, especially those involving education technology. The application of this principle d'es not guarantee that resistance to a change effort will be eliminated or that a desired change will be accomplished, but its proper application d'es significantly improve the chances for success…for a change.

Leadership vs. Management

The Harvard Business Review on Leadership (1998) provides us with an insightful overview of leadership and management qualities.

Management deals with “coping with complexity”

  • Planning and budgeting
  • Organizing and staffing
  • Controlling and problem-solving

Leadership deals with “coping with change”

  • Setting a direction
  • Aligning people
  • Motivating and inspiring


Bolman, L., and Deal, T. “Four Steps to Keeping Change Efforts Headed in the Right Direction.” The Journal of Quality and Participation, May-June, 1999.

Conner, D. Managing at the Speed of Change. New York: Villard, 1993.

Covey, S. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Harvard Business Review on Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1998.

Lick, D., and Kaufman, R. “Change Creation: The Rest of the Planning Story.” In Technology-Driven Planning: Principles to Practice, Chapter 2. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning, 2000.

Senge, P. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency, 1990.

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