Managing Change for Learning in Digital Environments (Activity 2.1)

A thorough review of the history of change management research, as well as an exploration of many change-focused theories and models, shows a distinct shift in response to a transformed (and still transforming) macro environment. Let’s explore this shift and its impact on leadership using a few question prompts:

1. How have the theories/models for change adapted to take into consideration our current technological, economic and societal contexts?

The change management arena is littered with change processes intended to suit all organizations, regardless of change scope, organizational readiness for change, or any other factor.  These “one fit” processes were the norm up until the early 1990s – and were, understandably, high-level and often comparable.  For example, Lippet et al.’s Planning Method included seven, rather generic, steps: Scout, Enter, Diagnose, Plan, Act, Stabilize & Evaluate, and Terminate (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015).  Alas, the dismal change success rate of under 30% (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015) suggest that “one fit” processes such as these were ill-advised – and researchers took notice.

As early as the 1990s, researchers in the change management arena proposed that no single change process could produce success in all cases; change strategies must suit the context of the change (Dunphy & Stace, 1993, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015).  However, it was not until the late 2000s that it became more widely accepted that many methods would be required to suit the wide variety of change contexts (Burnes & Jackson, 2011, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015).  This attitudinal shift prompted many researchers to consider factors like organizational context, readiness, and change type as important inputs to process design.

As we operate in an increasingly complex, competitive, and ever-shifting macro environment, it is no wonder that a multitude of factors determine change success, and that those factors are not constant across applications.  Although there are many promising multi-factor theories and models emerging (e.g. Weiner, 2009, Weller & Anderson, 2013, Al-Haddad & Koutner, 2015), the field is too new yet to offer any well-supported guidance on change strategies that factor in multiple variables.

2.  Which theories/models do you think best align with your own approach to leadership? Do these approaches align with your organizational context?

Weiner’s theory of organizational readiness for change, which “treats organizational readiness as a shared psychological state in which organizational members feel committed to implementing an organizational change and confident in their collective abilities to do so” (Weiner, “Summary,” 2009, para. 1), resonates with me because it places emphasis on the importance of employee beliefs and motivation to the success of organizational change.  The ‘hearts and minds’ of employees as individuals and as a collective is particularly critical to change success in my organization because it is high-change environment and changes almost invariably require an alteration in collective behavior in order to be successful.

3. What role does leadership play in managing change?

Leadership plays a key role in managing change – both organizational leaders and change leaders. It is critical that our organizational leaders – from the Executive tier down – visibly support the change, and that we have strong change leaders who ensure a smooth, inclusive change process is outlined and followed.  As Elaine Biech (2007) says, we “must plan the work and work the plan” in order to realize change success (“Models of Change,” 2007, para. 2).

4. What are the unique challenges in managing change for learning in digital environments?

There are many unique challenges in managing change in a digital learning context, with the dominant one arguably being ensuring that function and identity are retained through any change as these are “particularly relevant to scholarship” (Weller & Anderson, 2013).  As I work in the Research department of a Research firm, this is also a dominant consideration for me as I design online experiences for our members: to deliver an exceptional online experience based on the same core functions as our in-person offerings where nothing is lost because of the change in form.

 

References

Al-Haddad, S., & Kotnour, T. (2015). Integrating the organizational change literature: a model for successful change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 28(2), 234-262.

Biech, E. (2007). Models for Change. In Thriving Through Change: A Leader’s Practical Guide to Change Mastery. Available from https://library-books24x7-com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/toc.aspx?bookid=22651

Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(67).

Weller, M., & Anderson, T., (2013). Digital Resilience in Higher Education. European Journal of Open Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53-66.

 

Personal Leadership – A Reflection

My team has spent the better part of three years trying to figure out the most important leadership competencies (i.e. knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes) in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (A.K.A. “VUCA”) environment. After conducting extensive primary and secondary research, we were able to isolate the five “elements” of effective leadership: Be Planful, Learn to Learn, Distribute Leadership, Activate Networks, and Incorporate Influence. In combination, we refer to these elements as Integrated Leadership.

The elements of Integrated Leadership seemed a good place to start when deciding on the most important attributes of a leader operating in a digital environment. Before I get into my selections, I should give a quick explanation of each element of Integrated Leadership (McLean & Company, 2016):

  • Be Planful – adequately plan for interactions (e.g. one-on-ones, meetings) and projects and always take time to reflect on your decisions (successes and failures)
  • Learn to Learn – always question your assumptions and seek feedback
  • Distribute Leadership –  assign work based on competence and/or development opportunities (be willing to delegate high-value work)
  • Activate Networks – use your networks to create value for yourself and others (e.g. connect people in your network who could benefit from knowing one another)
  • Incorporate Influence – use influence to affect actions and outcomes beyond your direct control

In considering the most important attributes of a leader in a digital learning environment, it occurred to me that although all the elements of Integrated Leadership are important – some even show up in different language in academic literature (e.g. Khan, 2017, says “Adaptive leaders recognize the best solution to address problems based on current realities rather than actions based on the past” (p.180), which is the heart of Learn to Learn) – there is a gap related to digital leadership: communication and interpersonal effectiveness. In order to achieve success, digital leaders must embrace bi-directional, real-time communication with all stakeholders (Sheninger, 2014), as well as be transparent, engage in active listening, and have an “open door policy” (Castelli, 2016, p.222). Further, they should engage in emotionally supportive communication as this drives credibility among followers (Cameron, 2012, as cited in Castelli, 2016).

My personal approach to leadership has been primarily based on the Integrated Leadership model for several years now, though I also value and focus on clear, consistent communication. As my team members are geographically dispersed, digital technologies are the foundation of our communication; they enable us to keep our projects on track and generally help us to feel connected to one another personally. One change to my leadership approach when communicating primarily through technology is to schedule check-ins regularly as we don’t have the benefit of impromptu interactions that occur naturally in a shared office environment.

In considering the leadership theories that work best in leading change within digital learning environments, two came to mind: Reflective leadership and Adaptive leadership. Reflective leadership is ”the consistent practice of reflection, which involves conscious awareness of behaviours, situations and consequences with the goal of improving organizational performance” (Castelli, 2016). The practice of reflection helps leaders to “make sense of uncertain, unique, or conflicted situations” (De Dea Roglio and Light, 2009, p.217, as cited in Castelli, 2016) – in other words, to lead through change. The act of reflection itself can reveal an organization’s optimal course of action (Castelli, 2016). Adaptive leadership, by contrast, is focused on identifying potential changes in the external environment and considering the best path for the organization in each scenario (Khan, 2017). As such, “Adaptive leadership allows institutions to properly plan for change and consider many factors affecting the complex nature of the leadership relationship. … Adaptive leaders recognize the best solution to address problems based on current realities rather than actions based on the past..” (Khan, 2017, p.179-180). In combination, these two approaches can serve leaders well when leading through change.

In addition to these theories, leaders can consider digital leadership: “establishing direction, influencing others, and initiating sustainable change through the access of information, and establishing relationships in order to anticipate changes pivotal to school success in the future” (Sheninger, p.2). By addressing each of the seven pillars of digital leadership identified by Sheninger, including Communication and Re-envisioning Learning Spaces and Environments, leaders can create “sustainable change in programs, instruction, behaviours, and leadership practices, with technology as a pivotal element” (p.2).

In summary, there are many competencies (e.g. attributes) that make a leader successful in a digital environment and many theories to help them lead through change. To my mind, a focus on communication and empathy, as well as a commitment to planning and reflection, are key.

 

References

Castelli, P. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performanceJournal of Management Development35(2), 217-236.

Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(3).

McLean & Company (2016). Integrated Leadership. Retrieved from: https://hr.mcleanco.com/research/ss/integrated-leadership

Sheninger, E. (2014). Pillars of digital leadership. International Centre for Leadership in Education.