Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, education technology has been at the forefront of even the most resistant college and University instructors’ minds since learning has predominantly shifted to the virtual classroom. I can think of countless instances of instructors refusing to use a new learning management system (LMS) or not understanding how to transfer campus-based instructional competencies to the virtual classroom. Introducing new technology into an educational organization will involve resistance, whether from staff, students, or operational staff. Large-scale change, such as implementing an LMS into a traditionally campus-based learning institution, imposes significant change on all stakeholders involved and likely requires a well-developed implementation plan to introduce technology successfully.
I recently interviewed Katherine Carpenter, a former consultant for one of the large oil and gas (O&G) companies in Alberta, Canada, to investigate how large-scale companies outside of higher education implement new technology within an organization. My goal is to gain insight from a broader industry to generate clues on implementing new technology into higher education institutions. From the project management (PM) perspective, this article chronicles Katherine’s experience merging two O&G companies (one upstream and one downstream) into one organization and implementing a new enterprise resource planning software within the merged entity. Also, I will discuss the various barriers the project management team faced throughout the merger process and analyze whether or not PM strategies proved to be effective. Further, I suggest that a detailed, well-developed, and realistic project management plan is fundamental to successful technology adoption within a medium-to-large-sized organization, including those in higher education.
Katherine’s team was responsible for the IT merger that involved combining two company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems: “There were several different modules within an ERP system that needed to be integrated with two very different companies … there were individuals who were very resistant to the change and many who were supportive” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021). The overarching objective of the merger was to combine company strengths and “reduce operational inefficiencies like having one HR staff instead of two and removing the need to outsource third-party contractors for in-house services” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021). Simply put, the objective of merging the two companies was to increase profit. Shareholders, consultants, and some employees were ultimately the beneficiaries of the merger. Katherine explains, “Mergers and acquisitions are very much financially driven; meaning, the ultimate goal is to give the shareholders and remaining employees money” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021). The merger involves a variety of stakeholders which include employees, leadership, shareholders, third-party contractors, landowners, first nations groups, competitors, and O&G regulators.
The Project Plan
The project plan features a complex architecture, encompassing multiple project phases and sub-plans to design, develop and implement the organizational change and new ERP system. At the core of the merger are systematic stages that are fundamental to many project management processes: analysis, design, development, test, sustain. As an iteration of various fundamental management processes (e.g., see Watts (2014) and Bates (2015)), the contextualized project phases guide the project from conception to completion, helping to establish a clear vision, technology design, and implementation strategies that align with organizational needs and competencies. Further, the project plan includes several sub-plans that provide the knowledge, structure, and detail needed to close the merger. Watt (2014) explains that effective PM addresses ten fundamental knowledge areas to complete a project: Integration, scope, timeline, cost, quality, human resources, communication, risk, procurement, and stakeholders. Watt explains, “if you want to be effective in managing projects, then you need to be effective in managing each of the ten knowledge areas” (2014, Ch.4). Katherine’s PM team created the following plans for the IT merger:
Resource Management: Details on which consultant staff and employees should work together through the project phase and PM team expertise requirements.
Stage Gates: Taking a project to a certain point until upper-level approval is needed to get to the next stage.
Change Management: Communication strategies between upper-level and lower-level stakeholders (e.g., the rationale for the change and implications for the organizational members), training plans (e.g., work instructions and instructional seminars on how to use the new ERP system), and business process change documentation.
Reporting: Weekly updates to the project sponsor, a member of the executive team responsible for the project’s progress and success. Reported topics include roadblocks, wins, and objective completion. The report incorporated information from all project teams involved in building the new system and supporting the change, risk, and PM. Monthly updates and meetings are reported to the larger executive team, while quarterly updates are reported to the Board of Directors to inform them of the PM’s progress.
Risk Mitigation: Involved weekly meetings to identify, assess, and mitigate project risks (e.g., project scope expanding during the build phase, which impacts the design, resources, timeline, and budget).
Budget: The amount of pay for external parties and software costs to design, build, test, deploy, and sustain the new ERP system. In addition, costs associated with the PM and change support factor into the plan.
As previously stated, the project plan is detailed and complex, but as Katherine states, “more could have been down to account for the human aspect of the merger” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021).
The IT merger faced two primary challenges: organizational resistance and strict timelines. “There was a strong sense of change resistance within the organization due to having two different organizational cultures unexpectedly joined with differing perspectives, values, technical languages, and terms” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021). Weiner’s (2009) idea of “organizational readiness for change” (p.2, para 5) offers some insight into why this change resistance may have occurred. For organizational members to support the IT merger, they must value the impending change and possess the required resources, skills, and time to use the new ERP system. The change management plan covered technical competencies, but not much of the PM plan supports the change’s value, suggesting a lack of communication and leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Further, Katherine identifies specific toxicity among workers after the merger had completed:
Post-merger tends to be toxic and cause emotional responses as those impacted by the change are in a constant state of stress … employees may be resentful of friends losing their jobs, and the merged company ends up being different than what they originally signed up for. (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021)
This residual toxicity Katherine is referring to reflects a lack of leadership and commitment to supporting the cultural change from upper-management. Considering the final project stage is to sustain the new ERP system, I speculate further change management strategies are needed to generate sustained success. Lastly, unrealistic timelines imposed by upper-executives constrained each phase of the PM process. Watt (2014) discusses the need to plan a project’s timeline from start to finish, indicating the overarching timeline to impact each incremental timeline objective. Katherine explains, “unrealistic timeline objectives limit the quality of each phase of the project” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021). Accordingly, the quality of the entire merger is thus negatively impacted by inappropriate time allocations.
Although the IT merger proved successful, the PM approach resulted in considerable resistance among employees from beginning to end; this resistance resulted in a fair amount of distress and distrust among remaining employees, which begs the question: Did the ends justify the means? The answer is “no” (K. Carpenter, personal communication, March 5, 2021), as there were crucial things that the PM team could have done differently to make the change equally effective without being as painful for stakeholders.
The ERP implementation demonstrates that projects involving technology implementation in a learning environment will include employees who resist the change. Consequently, project sponsors and PM teams must use robust project plans to set realistic timelines for major implementation projects and allow for engagement, leadership, and communication to bring constituents along on the change journey. Additional time to adapt to the change is critical as this gives employees the time they need to process the change before performing at a high level.
Taking Conway et al.’s (2017) systems thinking into consideration, “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots” (p.11), the ERP integration is but a tiny aspect of a much more significant, more complex organizational change. Utilizing a robust and realistic PM approach that incorporates extensive leadership involvement and consistent communication with stakeholders is needed to support those going through the transition. In context with higher education, it is clear that technology adoption is best served collectively, rather than being imposed by upper-level management. Constituents need to value the new technology, or at least understand the benefits of using it before being ready to make the transition.
Bates, T. (2015). Chapter 4.3 The ADDIE Model. In Teaching in the digital age. BCcampus. http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage
Conway, R., Masters, J., & Thorold, Jake. (2017). From design thinking to systems change: How to invest in innovation for social impact. In RSA Action and Research Centre. https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_from-design-thinking-to-system-change-report.pdf
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it (2nd ed.). Wiley. https://www.doi.org/10.1002/9781118983867
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Watt, A. (2014). Project Management. BCcampus. https://opentextbc.ca/projectmanagement/
Weiner, B. J. (2009). A theory of organizational readiness for change. Implementation Science, 4(67), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-4-67