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The Keys to Success for Maintaining Change in U.S. Higher Education

Martin Lemelle, DBA

Executive Vice-President and CFO – Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

Doctor DBA - Business Science Institute

DBA thesis supervised by Professor L. Martin Cloutier, Ph.D.


Business Science Institute



Maintainable organizational change is defined as the capability of an organization to consistently sustain itself and preserve its existence from decline or failure. Due to current forces compelling higher education to adopt measures to counter tremendous financial pressures, as well as maintain its existence, many challenges have hampered the implementation of an effective change. Thus, the aim of this research was to identify key success factors and provide perspectives for strategic planning and change as demonstrated through the interpretations of stakeholders at three U.S. higher education institutions.

The research focused on the question: What are the relevant dimensions in the relationship between the university’s culture and its ability to implement change? Colleges and universities are dynamic organizations with a wealth of change management needs. Given the complexity and diversity of stakeholders, the cultural implications for successfully implementing change are key to its success. To bridge the connection between culture and change, the dimensions of diversity, professional experience, and educational training were examined.

Impacts and key research findings

The results across the three research sites indicate that there are seven clusters of key success factors. These clusters of factors are: Maintainable Organizational Change; Collaboration; Organizational Performance Management and Employees’ Success; Strategic Planning; Continuous Improvement; Processes, Procedures, and Assessment; Financial Management Strategy; and Leadership’s Relationship with Stakeholders. The findings suggest that these success factors will support higher educational institutions with maintainable change management.

The following guidelines are presented as managerial recommendations:

  • Recognize and understand the polyphonic nature of the organization. The power of a polyphonic organization resides in its ability to actively listen to the many voices and then work towards achieving strategic harmony to the greatest extent possible. While harmony is an ideal state, the accompanying discourse is both expected and productive. The function of the college or university as a polyphonic organization is a strength and should be internally and externally embraced as such. The role of the leader in managing the environment is paramount to the organization’s maintainable change agenda.

  • Hire leaders with a commitment to stakeholder engagement, collaboration, and support of the student experience. The primary responsibility for the governing board of college or university is to select a leader for the role of chancellor or president. The leader of the institution’s chief responsibility is to foster a collaborative environment with all stakeholder communities. While all stakeholders are important, the key stakeholder in the higher education ecosystem is the student. Student success is highly dependent on the quality of the student experience. There is no maintainable organizational change without a commitment to delivering excellence in student service.

  • Invest in a collaborative organizational environment that supports organizational performance management and employees’ success. Leadership relationship with Stakeholders was a highly discussed dimension among participants that yielded varying degrees of importance, feasibility, and relevancy. Supporters base most of their trust in a leader based on social communications. Rapid evaluations are made on the pleasant or unpleasant evaluation of the nature of their relationship with the leader. If the assessment is positive, the leader is trusted, if the assessment is negative, the trust is comprised.

  • Ensure that change management initiatives have a clearly defined process for implementation and assessment. To ensure its vitality, there must be a clearly defined process for change management initiative implementation and assessment. Leaders in higher-education institutions comprehend that utilizing business intelligence and predictive analytics can significantly improve the way in which team members work. Improvements including enhanced enrollment forecasts, improved student retention and graduate rates, and increased efficiencies for employee responsibilities. Notwithstanding, numerous leaders of colleges and universities have yet to incorporate predictive analytics into their activities and accomplish proposed results. Change through cutting edge predictive analytics can be difficult for any organization - in higher education, the difficulties are intensified. The imperative going forward it to articulate a predictive analytics command that goes past consistence: Senior leaders in higher education must communicate that assessment is a vital need. The predictive analytics agenda and team must be viewed as a vital component of the decisions-making process and a strong contributor to the financial model of the institution.

  • Leaders should enhance the assessment and expand the communication of financial management with all stakeholders. First, it is an imperative that colleges and universities take proactive measures to strengthen its fiscal position. An immediate and impactful measure is to take the opportunity to carefully review the organization’s cash position and overall fiscal health. Second, institutions must determine the key financial ratios to measure and monitor success. These ratios and metrics including but not limited to reserve funds, endowment returns, net assets, and viability ratio can provide the organization with a constant measurement of organizational health. Institutions that can quickly pivot their financial strategy will be better positioned for maintainable change. In addition to assessment and development of a financial strategy, communication and transparency of this information is even more important to the stakeholder community.

Research foundations

Polyphonic organizations are institutions with many voices (Andersen, 2003). The polyphonic nature of the university ecosystem is one that is fundamentally grounded in both logic and emotion. The key dimensions in maintainable organizational change include proper assessment, institutional culture, financial management, strategic planning, leadership, and sustainability. The conceptualization afforded the research, on the one hand, to connect this notion of the polyphonic organization with research participants directly to learn about the context of their experiences, and on the other hand, and triangulate the richness of that expression with insights gleamed from the data they provided.

Research methods

The group concept mapping (GCM) approach was used to conduct the research at three universities in the U.S. to investigate factors affecting maintainable organizational change in higher learning institutions. GCM was chosen because of its innovative integration of mixed methods all useful to capture the experience of participants (qualitative methods) and to estimate conceptualizations and perceptions (multivariate statistical methods). The research design included six main steps: (1) Preparation; (2) Idea generation; (3) Item structuring; (4) Concept map analysis; (5) Results interpretation; and (6) Results utilization and mobilization. A focus prompt was defined as the study’s thread line: “A critical success factor, either tangible (i.e., resources) or intangible (i.e., leadership), currently impacting maintainable organizational change (e.g., system utilization, organizational structure, financial commitments) would be…”. Ideas were generated by n=53 participants actively engaged and eager to offer their thoughts. Three brainstorming sessions of about 90 minutes were held at each research site.

After transcribing the brainstorming sessions and integrating their contents, 80 items were structured to reflect the collective contents offered by participants. In total, n=71 participants from the three research sites completed item sorting and rating at the structuring step. Three perceptual scales were estimated to measure each items’ relative importance, feasibility, and relevance as a key success factor. Results external validity were established during a debriefing session attended by n=11 participants from the three research sites. The success factors identified can assist institutions with maintainable organizational change management.

The Professors' opinion

One of the biggest challenges in U.S. education and in U.S. context now are the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. They go in line with the concept of the polyphonic organization that is discussed in this thesis, and they are also key in the success of any change initiative. I’m glad to see this critical connection being discussed (Professor Khadija Al Arkoubi, Examiner).

The thesis is presented in a manner that is logical and appropriate. The writing style and bibliography are very good. The use of Group Concept Mapping as a research method was particularly impressive and interesting (Professor Denise Potosky, Examiner).

Further Readings

  • Andersen, N. A. (2003). Polyphonic organisations. In T. Bakken & T. Hernes (Eds.), Autopeietic organization theory. Drawing on Niklas Luhmanss’s Social Systems Perspective (pp. 151–182). Copenhagen Business School Press.

  • Cloutier, L.M., Larivière, D., & Tremblay, G. (2019). Field-oriented contextualization of the Group Concept Mapping method: illustrations in the health sector in France; and Canada, The United States and The United Kingdom. In F. Chevalier, L.M. Cloutier, & N. Mitev (Eds.). Research Methods for the DBA (pp. 527–553). Editions EMS.

  • Kane, M., & Rosas, S. (2018). Conversations About Group Concept Mapping. Applications, Examples, and Enhancements. SAGE.

  • Menon, S., & Suresh, M. (2020). Factors influencing organizational agility in higher education. Benchmarking: An International Journal, 28(1), 307-322.

  • Shriberg, M. (2002). Institutional assessment tools for sustainability in higher education: strengths, weaknesses, and implications for practice and theory. Higher Education Policy, 15(2), 153-167.

  • Trochim, W. M. (2017). Hindsight is 20/20: reflections on the evolution of concept mapping. Evaluation and Program Planning, 60, 176–185.


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