Change in Digital Learning Environments

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  – Niccolo Machiavelli (1531)


Machiavelli, a 1530s Italian diplomat, politician, and philosopher who has become known for his ruthless approach to leadership, is undoubtedly an odd choice to kick-off a blog post exploring contemporary change leadership in learning, but he captures the reality of change we still face today: change is arduous to plan, precarious to navigate, and unlikely to succeed.  Proof of the ongoing struggle to successfully navigate change is easy to find in change management research, with several studies making plain the high failure rate (~70%) that plagues change initiatives (Balogun and Hope Hailey, 2004 as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015; Beer and Nohria, 2000 as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015; Grover, 1999 as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015).

To explore how leaders currently manage change in Digital Learning Environments (DLE), two senior leaders at a management research firm were interviewed.  The participants were asked to explain their process for managing and leading through change, and to offer insight into change leadership in DLEs.  The interviewees use an almost identical high-level process for navigating change, likely due to the fact that the management research firm in which they are both employed has a published change management model, which is used for both internal and commercial purposes (i.e. change management research, advisory calls, workshops, and consulting). The change model includes three steps: “1. Prepare for change; 2. Create the change action and communication plan; and 3. Implement and sustain the change” (Figure 1).  The model is similar to the Planning approach put forth by Lippet et al. (1958): 1: ”Scout; 2. Enter; 3. Diagnose; 4. Plan; 5. Act; 6. Stabilize and Evaluate; and 7. Terminate” (as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015, p.246); as well as the TQM approach put forth by Deming (1986): “1. Plan; 2. Do; 3. Check/Study; and 4. Act” (as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015, p.246).

Although the McLean change model is an intuitive high-level approach, it became clear through the interview process that the interviewees were breaking two of the high-level steps into smaller ones, effectively creating a five-step model (Figure 2).  This approach helped them to create more distinct task categories and appeared to help both change leaders (in this case, the interviewees themselves) and change stakeholders maintain a sense of consistent progress.

Leading Change in Digital Learning Environments

When considering Digital Learning Environments (DLE), the interviewees emphasized the additional complexity introduced into the change process with the introduction of digital aspects, particularly when none existed before or when the change was a significant deviation from current practice. One interviewee offered the following examples: a change leader who wants to add a synchronous webinar session to a primarily face-to-face program may only require small tweaks to the standard approach to learner communication.  By contrast, a change leader who wants to create a fully online version of that face-to-face program will require a much more involved change management process that reconsiders requirements at all change stages.  The high-level process in both cases remains the same, however the way in which a leader prepares for and executes the change will vary considerably.  One interviewee suggested that leaders in a DLE environment should embrace a more detailed, task-explicit change management process to ensure the impact of DLE on all change factors was adequately considered.

In an effort to display the idea of a more detailed process, one interviewee worked with me to modify McLean & Company’s standard process (Figure 3) and create a more detailed process for application to a DLE (Figure 4).  This adapted model captures additional task items like the setting of success measures (Figure 4, 1.4) and communication with all stakeholders early in the change process (Figure 4, 2.4), which are arguably more critical in a DLE than in a standard roll-out.  In addition, these items are likely to look very different in a DLE, making attention to them critical to change success.

In addition to supplementary tasks in the model, there are certain tasks in the original process that could represent a common failure point in a DLE context, such as organizational readiness (Figure 4, 1.2).  Let us consider Weiner’s definition of organizational readiness for change: “organization members’ shared resolve to implement a change (change commitment) and shared belief in their collective capability to do so (change efficacy)” (2009).  In cases where the organization is not adept at navigating DLEs, it is easy to imagine that readiness is less common, and therefore a more important factor to accurately assess during change planning.  One means for exploring organizational readiness could be assessing the organization’s resiliency  (Weller & Anderson, 2013).


Change leaders in a DLE can benefit from taking a structured approach to change management, just like their non-DLE counterparts.  In addition, DLE change leaders may particularly benefit from a detailed, task-heavy process that ensures the impact of DLE on each process step is considered.  Given the current interest in context-driven processes as a means to drive greater change management success (Burnes & Jackson, 2011, as cited in Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015), it is likely research on change process tailored to DLE  is forthcoming.





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.

Machiavelli, Nicolo (1531). The Prince. Retrieved from

McLean & Company (2018).  Navigate Change Storyboard. Available from

Weiner, Bryan 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.

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